At the beginning of Italo Calvino’s first book for six years, an entirely fictional personage named You, the Reader, buys and settles down with a novel which he firmly believes to be the new Calvino.
You prepare to recognise the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognise it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary, he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next.
One of the difficulties with writing about Italo Calvino is that he has already said about himself just about everything there is to be said.
If on a winter’s night a traveller distils into a single volume what is perhaps the dominant characteristic of Calvino’s entire output: his protean, metamorphic genius for never doing the same thing twice. In the space of 260 pages, we are given the beginnings of no fewer than ten novels, each of which is a transmogrified avatar of the previous one; we also have a more or less fully-developed love story between the above-mentioned You and Ludmilla, the Other Reader; plus, for good measure, a conspiracy-theory fiction about a secret society known as the Organisation of Apocryphal Power, run by a fiendish translator named Ermes Marana, whose purpose may or may not be the subversion of fiction itself. The OAP is vaguely reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s underground postal service, the Tristero System, and almost certainly has covert links with Buñuel’s Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, the only comic terrorist organisation in the history of the cinema. In fact, I should like to postulate the existence of a secret relationship between Calvino and Buñuel, both expatriates living in Paris and scheming the overthrow of All Anyone Holds Sacred – after all, Buñuel’s film The Phantom of Liberty, with its almost infinite sequence of plots which take over the movie, one after the other, with astonishing casualness, is the work of art which most closely resembles If on a winter’s night a traveller.
It is entirely possible that Calvino is not a human being at all, but a planet, something like the planet Solaris of Stanislaw Lem’s great novel. Solaris, like Calvino, possesses the power of seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams to life. Reading Calvino, you’re constantly assailed by the notion that he is writing down what you have always known, except that you’ve never thought of it before. This is highly unnerving: fortunately, you’re usually too busy laughing to go mad.
The first message from the planet Calvino was received on Earth as long ago as 1947. This was The Path to the Nest of Spiders, a war story sired by Ernest Hemingway out of Italian neo-realist cinema about a cobbler’s apprentice who joins the Partisans and finds the friend he has always longed to have. Although this book has one of the great titles of 20th-century literature, it’s really no better than worthy, and the last sentence appears to have dipped its feet in slush. It reads: ‘And they walk on, the big man and the child, into the night, amid the fireflies, holding each other by the hand.’
I have quoted this line in full because it is the last example on record of a bad sentence by Italo Calvino. After Spiders, he tells us, ‘instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the (“neo-realistic”) novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.’
Shazam! Instant metamorphosis, caterpillar into butterfly, Samsa into giant bug, Clark Kent into Superman, politically-committed Calvino into Captain Italo Marvel. In 1952, he published The Cloven Viscount, which, along with its successors The Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight, he has now collected in the volume entitled Our Ancestors.
These three novels possess a clarity, a simplicity which I’m going to have to compare with One Hundred Years of Solitude, because Calvino shares with Marquez the effortless ability of seeing the miraculous in the quotidian. The Cloven Viscount is about a cloven viscount, vertically bisected by a cannon-ball in medieval Bohemia. The two halves continue to live, the one fiendishly evil, the other impossibly good. Both halves are unbearable. In the end they fight a duel. The Bad ’Un and the Good ’Un reopen the terrible wounds of their bisection, and are sewn back together by the story’s most appealing character, a refugee from the works of Calvino’s favourite writer, Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr Trelawney it is who performs the operation. This is a happy ending, but for the story’s youthful narrator it is also the moment of childhood’s end: Dr Trelawney, the tippling medic, leaves on a British ship, ‘hitched on board astride a barrel of cancarone (wine)’ – ‘and I was left behind, in this world of ours full of responsibilities and wills-o’-the-wisp.’ You will observe that Calvino is now a master of endings.
The Baron in the Trees is the story of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, who, at the age of 12, refuses to eat the repellent snail soup prepared by his sister Battista (who also cooks ‘some pâté toast, really exquisite, of rats’ livers ... and some grasshoppers’ claws ... laid on an open tart in a mosaic; and pigs’ tails roasted as if they were little cakes’), is ordered from the table by his crusty father, climbs a tree and never sets foot on solid ground for the rest of his life. His affair with the capricious Viola, his adventures with the local bandits, his encounter with a group of exiled Spanish grandees and his meticulous strategies for making a successful life in the trees twine and interwine to form thick forests of marvellous ideas, and make The Baron in the Trees one of the most haunting images of rebellion, of determined nay-saying, that exists in the literature of this rebellious century.
In The Baron, and in the third novel in the trilogy, The Non-Existent Knight, Calvino is also getting interested in narration as a process. To continue with my presentation of last sentences, here is how The Baron ends: ‘Ombrosa no longer exists ... perhaps it was ... embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after page, swarming with cancellations, corrections, doodles, blots and gaps, bursting at times into clear big berries, coagulating at others into piles of tiny starry seeds, then twisting away, forking off, surrounding buds of phrases with frameworks of leaves or clouds, then interweaving again, and so running on and on and on until it splutters and bursts into a last senseless cluster of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.’
The Non-Existent Knight, which is the story of an empty suit of armour that thinks it’s a knight of the Emperor Charlemagne and keeps itself/himself going by sheer willpower, discipline and devotion to duty, is also a very ‘narrated’ tale, told by Sister Theodora, a nun locked up in a convent, who can have no possible experience, as she is very well aware, of the scenes of chivalry she is required to describe. As she says, ‘apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasions, sacking, rape and pestilence ... what can a poor nun know of the world?’ And yet, heroically, she writes on and on, inventing the unknown and making it seem truer than the truth, and providing Calvino with a marvellous metaphor for himself. This growing preoccupation with the Book as opposed to the World will come to its true fruition in If on a winter’s night ...
‘World conditions were still confused in the era when this took place,’ writes Theodora/Calvino. ‘It was not rare then to find names and thoughts and forms and institutions that corresponded to nothing in existence. But at the same time the world was pullulating with objects and capacities and persons who lacked any name or distinguishing mark. It was a period when the will and determination to exist, to leave a trace ... was not wholly used up.’ Six years later, Calvino published a collection of stories about an even more fluid time. The 12 Cosmicomics take, for their modest theme, nothing more nor less than the creation of the universe, as narrated by a polymorphous immortal being masquerading under the muffled, spluttering title of Qfwfq, whom we instantly perceive to be Calvino himself. In the Cosmicomics, we discover that the Moon was, in fact, made of cheese: ‘Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed ... through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, moulds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue.’ (Like all fabulists, Calvino loves lists.) We see the galaxies form, we see life crawl out of the waters of the Earth: the miracle of these stories is that somehow Calvino gives it all a richly comic and wholly human scale. In ‘The Aquatic Uncle’, for instance, Qfwfq and his family have just ‘abandoned aquatic life for terrestrial’, and Qfwfq is in love with a fellow land-creature. But: ‘Yes, we had a great-uncle who was a fish, on my paternal grandmother’s side, to be precise, of the Coelacanthus family of the Devonian period’; and this Uncle N’ba N’ga obstinately refuses to give up his watery life. What’s more, when an embarrassed Qfwfq is forced by his loved one to introduce her to his stubbornly primitive relative, the aquatic uncle seduces her back into the water ... I could go on, but what’s the point? Incredibly, scandalously, the Cosmicomics are not available to the English reader. In America, of course, they’re in paperback, but that isn’t a lot of use.
What do you do when you’ve just reinvented the world? What Calvino did was to turn himself into Marco Polo and go travelling in it. Invisible Cities is not really a novel at all, but a sort of fugue on the nature of the City. Polo and Kublai Khan are the only attempts at ‘characters’ in this book: its true star is Calvino’s descriptive prose. Others (well, Gore Vidal, anyway) have called this Calvino’s ‘most beautiful work’, and perhaps it is. But it’s an oppressive and finally cloying beauty, all those jewelled sentences and glittering notions and no story-telling worth a damn. You will notice I’m in two minds about this book: but it’s worth keeping it by your bedside and reading it a paragraph at a time, because even though I wasn’t convinced by the whole, I’m bound to admit that the separate parts are pretty dazzling. You will discover Octavia, a city hung like a spider’s web between two mountains: ‘The life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.’ And Argia, which ‘has earth instead of air’. And Thekla, the eternally unfinished city, for which the star-filled sky is the blueprint, and whose completion is eternally delayed ‘so that its destruction cannot begin’. Magnificent, resonant images. In small doses.
Next, Calvino turned himself into two packs of Tarot cards and used them as the basis of the stories in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the only one of his books which I actually find too clever to like. Travellers meet by chance, in the first part in a castle and in the second in a tavern, and fall miraculously dumb, so that they are obliged to tell their travellers’ tales by laying out the Tarot cards. Calvino uses these card-sequences as texts which he then interprets for us, telling us the stories which the cards may or may not be intending to tell: a form, I suppose, of mystical structuralism. Ho hum.
If ... is a book to praise without buts. This is Calvino rampant in the world of books, Calvino joyously playing with the possibilities of fiction, of story-telling, which is, after all, also a nursery euphemism for lying. You, the Reader, is (or are) a sort of dogged Lemmy Caution-figure trying to find Your way through the literary labyrinths of Calvino’s city of words, his Alphabetaville.
You buy the new Calvino. You begin reading a story called If on a winter’s night a traveler. I note that an ‘l’ has fallen out of this last word in its journey from the dust-jacket. The story is a thriller set at a train station. But suddenly You have to stop reading: there is a binding error in Your copy. You take it back to the bookshop and find that the story You began wasn’t the new Calvino at all. The wrong pages, the bookseller tells You, were bound between the wrong covers. What You started (and now want to finish) was Outside the town of Malbork by one Tazio Bazakbal. You, and Your new friend Ludmilla, who has had the same problem with her copy of the Calvino, go off to read this second book. But it turns out to be an entirely different story, some kind of rural novel, and then another binding mistake is discovered just when You’re getting interested: blank pages have been bound in by mistake. You ring Ludmilla, speak first to her sister Lotaria, eventually to this girl in whom You have become very interested indeed. You find that what you believed to be Outside the town of Malbork is in fact (another publisher’s cock-up) a part of an old book written in Cimmerian, the language of an extinct East European culture. You go off to Professor Uzzi-Tuzii at the University and he tells You the original was called Leaning from a steep slope. Painfully, he begins to translate for You. He gets more and more fluent as the story weaves its spell. It is, of course, a completely different story, nothing to do with Malbork, about a young man of excessive soulfulness who gets caught up in a prison escape plot. Suddently Uzzi-Tuzii stops reading. He tells You that the author, Ukko Ahti, committed suicide after reaching this point in the story. But now Lotaria appears with one Galligani, Professor of Erulo-Altaic languages. Galligani, an enemy of Uzzi-Tuzii’s, claims that Leaning from a steep slope is in fact derived from a Cimbrian original, Without fear of wind or vertigo, by Vorts Viljandi.
Without fear turns out to be yet another, and completely unrelated, work, about spies and counterspies in a city in the throes of a coup. But again, only a fragment remains, because Lotaria has given away most of the pages.
Two things need to be said right away: first, that all the fragments are wonderfully readable, and somehow don’t seem fragmentary at all; second, that You, the Reader, have been getting less and less peripheral, and Your involvement with Ludmilla and Lotaria more and more important. You (the real you) have begun to see that by naming his central character You, Calvino was playing a game with you (the real ...), so that he could discuss the nature of reading. You (the real ...) enjoyed that, you (and I) enjoyed the fantasy that there are still people around who, like You-the-Reader and Ludmilla, actually care passionately about reading ... but it’s time for the plot to thicken.
You (not the real you this time) now cease to be merely a passive reader. You act. You go to the publishers themselves, determined to find a copy of Without fear of wind or vertigo, which is what You now want to continue with. Here you meet Mr Cavedagna, who speaks, for the first time, the ominous name of Ermes Marana, translator, who has apparently been passing off as Polish, Cimmerian, Cimbrian what is actually a Belgian novel, Looks down in the gathering shadow, by Bertrand Vandervelde. You go off to read this new book, which inevitably bears no relationship to any of the other fragments You’ve seen, but is so exciting that it doesn’t matter. Looks down is a sort of film noir spoof, about a crook and his moll trying to get rid of a body in a plastic bag. You (the real you this time) will probably agree with You (not the real ...) and Ludmilla that this is the most gripping thing you’ve read yet. But this, too, breaks off ... Cavedagna hasn’t lent You the whole typescript. You return to see him. ‘Ah,’ he tells You. ‘Heaven only knows where it’s got to.’
Now, in despair, Cavedagna shows You the file on Ermes Marana, who has managed to throw the entire business of this publishing house into turmoil ... and, because I don’t want to give away the whole plot, I will content myself with telling you that there are five more extracts from stories, that the story of You, Ludmilla and Lotaria now becomes deeply embroiled in the fictions You are trying to read, through the medium of the writer Silas Flannery, who may well actually be writing about Ludmilla; You get involved in cloak and dagger activity; and you’ll have to read the book to find out how (or if) it ends, because I’m not going to tell you, although, of course, You know already.
If on a winter’s night a traveller is quite possibly the most complicated book you (and You, too) will ever read. But Calvino’s conjuring trick works because he makes the complications so funny, and makes you (though not You) share the joke. The ten transformations of the eternally-beginning story are carried off with an inventiveness so dazzling that it never becomes tiresome; the gradual weaving together of the texts and their readers is nothing less than – to use an archaically appropriate piece of slang – wizard. Calvino has left Stevenson far behind; he has avoided sounding like imitation Borges, which is what happens to him when he isn’t on peak form; and his great gift, the ability to give human scale to the most extravagant of his inventions, has never been more in evidence. In Cosmicomics, the explosion of the universe outwards from a single point is precipitated by the first generous impulse, the first-ever ‘true outburst of general love’, when a proto-being called, astonishingly, Mrs Ph(i)Nko, cries out: ‘Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!’ And in If ..., the most outrageous fiction about fiction ever conceived, we stumble in every paragraph over nuggets of hard, irreducible truth: ‘“Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do,” Arkadian Porphyrich says. “What statistic allows one to identify the nations where literature enjoys true consideration better than the sums appropriated for controlling it and suppressing it?” ’
Why, finally, should we bother with Calvino, a word-juggler, a fantasist, in an age in which our cities burn and our leaders blame our parents? What does it mean to write about non-existent knights, or the formation of the Moon, or how a reader reads, while the neutron bomb gets the go-ahead in Washington, and plans are made to station germ-warfare weaponry in Europe? Not escapism, because although the reader of Italo Calvino will be taken further out of himself than most readers, he will also discover that the experience is not a flight from, but an enrichment of himself. No, the reason Calvino is such an indispensable writer is precisely that he tells us, joyfully, wickedly, that there are things in the world worth loving as well as hating; and that such things exist in people, too. I can think of no finer writer to have beside me while Italy explodes, while Britain burns, while the world ends.