Fantastic Metropolis

If on a Winter’s Night a Writer

The Work of Italo Calvino

Rhys Hughes

Cloven, leafy, impossible — the fiction of Italo Calvino looms over the European literary landscape like a non-existent viscount in the trees. For the past fifty years, the versatility and daring of the author has enriched and influenced the modus operandi of modern writing. Calvino was a restless and audacious experimenter, forever attempting to merge opposing fictive forms or to extend literature into other disciplines. More than his contemporaries, he managed to reconcile form and content, tradition and innovation, cerebration and emotion, in his search for a style which ‘breathes philosophy and science but keeps its distance.’ Now his heirs continue that search.

Born in Cuba in 1923, he grew up in San Remo on the Italian Riviera when his father obtained a post as curator in the botanical gardens. His mother was also a botanist and this early exposure to science instilled in him a lifelong passion for precision and symmetry. Like Ernst Jünger, who was already applying the rigorous descriptions of a scientist to the events in his novels (and comparing the eye of a botanist to the eye of a sniper), he became obsessed with detail and methodology. Unlike Jünger he restricted his ‘scientific’ detachment to the mechanics of literature rather than its subject matter.

His tendency to formality was partly tempered by his experiences as a partisan in the Italian Resistance during the war, where he was thrust into a tradition of story-telling as a way of providing social coherence and reassurance in uncertain times. While awaiting attack in the forest, his comrades would swap folk-tales and Calvino saw how fables functioned both as repositories of idealistic, ethical or practical wisdom and as a technique for expressing fears or hopes when more direct forms of verbal communication might prove traumatic. His first year as a partisan, 1943, marked a threshold in his attitudes.

Having already written dozens of juvenile plays, Calvino decided to begin a series of raccontini, little tales which could function both as light entertainment and anti-Fascist exhortation. His belief that at the end of the war he would abandon allegory and move to other concerns was precluded by his immersion in the form for other, non-moral reasons. He never really forsook the fable and even his most obdurate realistic work has fabular resonances. Absurd, sly, often nightmarish, these raccontini are like needles in the cushions of his later projects: sharp and slight and threaded with reels of black wit.

His first book, published in 1947, was conceived and executed in a neo-realist mode, though the critic and writer Cesare Pavese immediately termed Calvino a Romantic. The Path to the Nest of Spiders, a picaresque novel, was an urgent attempt to present the partisans neither as wholly committed politicos nor as opportunists, but as human beings adapting to a new environment. The main character, the adolescent Pin, who is a sort of pliable Pinocchio, is compelled to join a Resistance unit when one of his practical jokes — the theft of a pistol from a German soldier — goes wrong. The characters who move around Pin fluctuate in their loyalties, refusing to conform to standard patterns of hero or villain. A competent debut, this rite of passage tale won Calvino the Premio Riccione, adding his name to the list of instant literary champions who were being forged the length of post-war Italy.

The actual process of making his experiences public had a radical existential impact on Calvino. He later said: ‘It would always be better not to have written one’s first book… Your first book already defines you, while you are really far from being defined.’ He felt he might have betrayed his former comrades by reducing their genuinely heroic aspects to a conformity of humanism, the expected standards of realism. He came to accept that fiction is a lie and that realism, which claims veracity, is the most deceitful genre of all. The act of writing a realistic text is a negation of the form: writing is essentially a romantic pursuit and not one grounded in everyday shared existence. The more ‘truth’ a writer sets down on a page and the closer a realistic story comes to completion the higher that writer ascends into the ranks of the elite. Realists are supremacists by the nature of the medium: printed egos, the preservation of a transient subjectivity.

Continuing to publish in a highly intimate naturalistic vein, while clandestinely writing fantastical works, Calvino gradually developed his interest in meta-fiction, literature which is wholly aware of its status as an artform and relates to its own parts rather than external demands, comprising an analytic or deductive, rather than synthetic or inductive, fiction. It was a number of years before he was to try such experiments himself, but he keenly followed the progress of Raymond Queneau, who in 1960 founded the OuLiPo (Le Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) school. Numbering as many mathematicians as writers, the Oulipists rejected the idea of fiction as social document, preferring to subject literature to sundry rigorous and arbitrary mathematical rules as a method of forcing writers into the construction of elaborate word-games: form was the one honest function of writing.

Oddly enough, it was found that when form became ultra-rigorous, it created content as a side-effect. The Oulipists maintained that right at the beginning of a text the choice of possible words is too great for a writer and that constriction of choice will ensure originality, as the author reacts directly with the matrix of the work. One good example of the technique is Georges Perec’s novel A Void, written without using the letter ‘e’. The effects of this formalism on the emerging content are as coherent as they are startling: Perec’s world, determined solely by this hindrance, is one almost beyond unfettered imagination. More importantly A Void is more internally consistent than most realistic fiction: there are logical, rather than psychological, controls on dialogue, characters and situations. In many ways, the formulae of OuLiPo are more analogous to the rituals of the real world than the minute observations offered by realism, and more profoundly social.

Calvino embraced OuLiPo, but maintained his interest in other forms of writing. Ultimately, he was to blend such mechanical determinism with the subconscious expressionism of the raccontini. But first, in 1952, he ended his reputation as a neo-realist by publishing a fabulist novel, an amoral fable composed for the single purpose of reconstructing one of those imaginary stories which only lurk on the edge of childhood memory, a lost book ‘by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.’ The Cloven Viscount is not a simple allegory or purely symbolic text. Its meanings are uncertain and contradictory. This astonishing tale of a man blown into two pieces by a cannonball, both of which are tended by military physicians and survive independently before being reunited in a duel, triumphantly achieves its aim of blending cool whimsy with self-aware psychologism.

Two more volumes with similar objectives appeared in 1957 and 1959. Together they form a loose triptych of ‘forgotten’ chronicles. Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight also develop from a single image. In the former, an alienated character adopts an exclusive and liberated life in the trees; the latter relates the adventures of a suit of armour which thinks it is a man. Both are crammed with ideas, many more than is usual in the Anglo-American tradition. Anglophone readers prefer one or two ideas per book, feeling that excessive invention impedes suspension of disbelief and renders the frame of the story visible. In the European tradition, especially in France and Italy, the frame can be appreciated as an object of artistry in its own right. Calvino regularly wrote with an invisible as well as a visible frame, but also discovered how to fill a fiction with ideas while preserving a sense of belief: allow the ideas to mirror and reinforce each other.

Involved in leftist politics since the war, Calvino resigned from the Communist party in protest at its impotent dogmatism and attempted to develop an Italian form of apolitical realism. Like so many schemes he began during his career, this was soon abandoned for a new interest. He had discovered science-fiction and saw in its myriad contradictions suitable material for a series of tales which would relate contemporary experience to cosmic and ontological thaumaturgics. The result was the dazzling Cosmicomics, published in 1965 and one of the most innovative books in the SF canon. Mathematical fairy-tales featuring the ineffable character Qfwfq, the sequence translates human problems into a googolic setting and triumphantly combines retrospeculative fabulism with social commentary. More Qfwfq stories were to follow and he remains Calvino’s most successful and genuine creation.

Nothing if not prolific, writing every day in any location, it was inevitable that one of his manifold OuLiPo projects would eventually see print. The apotheosis of his work in this field is surely The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which endeavours to blur the distinction between the word and the image. Lost travellers who seek refuge in a castle in the middle of a wood discover they have been robbed of the power of speech. Seating themselves around a table on which lies a pack of Tarots, they realise they can use the cards to relate their personal adventures. What follows is a complex and mandala-like intertwining of a score of tales, each one overlapping with others to form a matrix of cards which can be deciphered in a multitude of ways.

It was Calvino’s absurd intention to conjure up every possible tale contained in the Tarot deck — a ‘diabolical idea’ which obsessed him for years. He spent weeks arranging cards into ever more elaborate patterns, some taking on a third dimension, growing into polyhedrons, to the point where (as he later confessed) he became completely lost in them. Within the random sequence of cards, he recognised various well-known tales and legends: Faust, Hamlet, Oedipus, Parsifal, de Sade’s Justine. The first part of the book takes two tales from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso as the central axes of the grid upon which all the other stories depend. When read backwards, each tale is transformed into something new. The tale of ‘Astolpho On The Moon’ becomes that of ‘Helen Of Troy’ and the ‘Ingrate’ becomes the ‘Man Who Slew Death.’

The new tales Calvino penned to complete the mosaic share insights with the ancient fables. Morbid elements abound, partly due to the fact that the key cards in the tales are often the violent ones of the Major Arcana — Death, The Devil, The Tower Of Destruction, The Hanged Man. It is the context of cards which makes each interpretation unique. When the Graverobber places The Ten Of Cups next to The Last Judgement it is to indicate he was viewing a cemetery (with its cup-like urns) from above, whereas in another story, placed next to a different Arcana, the former card might suggest a feast or an alchemist’s apparatus. Written in 1969 the first part of the book was followed within four years by the second, which is even more complex. The guests seated at the table with the pack of cards have grown impatient. Rather than waiting for each traveller to recount a tale one at a time, they try to tell them all simultaneously. The result is a disconcertingly abstract tangram, a jumble of images and ideas which defiantly attempts to impose form on chaos and ends with the homogenised form of chaos itself.

While grappling with the nuances of this arcane system, Calvino was also completing a further OuLiPo project. Invisible Cities, published in 1972, is his most famous, though not most popular, book. A slight volume made up of vignettes, it is partly based on the legend that Marco Polo, when describing his travels to Kublai Khan, was forbidden to mention one city — Venice. To violate the dictum, Polo began expounding on imaginary places composed of a single Venetian element which, when combined, added up to a description of his home-town. But with typical Calvinoesque wit, these vignettes also provide a catalogue of moods and philosophies. Like Borges, Lem and Pavić, Calvino shows it is feasible to construct valid fiction lacking most or all the trappings of standard literature — plot, character, dialogue and anthropicism.

Invisible Cities, which is a congealing and distillation of all his frames — realism, fabulism, OuLiPo, meta-fiction — belongs to a category of works which must be considered impossible, not in the sense that they cannot be written at all but because their genesis is so unlikely they are impossible to all intents and purposes. This quasi-impossibility is clearly expressed in the anthropic notion of infinity. We often mislead ourselves with technicalities: infinity may have a fixed and exact definition in algebra but in normal human terms any number higher than a centillion has all its properties. If it feels like infinity then it might as well be infinity. Calvino is an impossible writer in that many of his schemas seem to be beyond the conception of the archetypal ‘writer’. This is not simple uniqueness, which is a probable element of the archetype, but an exo-auctorial and Lobachevskian quality.

An even more severe meta-fiction appeared in 1979. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is totally self-referential, a tautologous anti-novel whose plot comprises the reading of itself. By making the reader a main character, and setting the action in real-time, Calvino softens the text from an arid intellectual experiment into a delightful, but never petty, piece of whimsy. The opening — ‘The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.’ — shows how a dose of meta-fiction can inject new life into the most traditional scenarios. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is classic Absurdism, undermining itself at every opportunity.

The really odd thing about this book is that the only way to finish it in complete accordance with the development of the first few chapters is to stop reading it; or even better, to not read it at all. Those who reach the end read themselves out of the experience. Indeed, readers who have never even heard of the novel are those who share most empathy with it. Calvino has thus press-ganged the general public, ensuring that his readership grows backwards. Anyone who has never read the book but still feels strangely unsatisfied by this action may prefer to consult one of the less paradoxical works: Marcovaldo, Time and the Hunter, Mr Palomar, Difficult Loves or Adam, One Afternoon. Or even better: Under the Jaguar Sun, a compendium of senses.

Among the numerous titles of his other books, some of which provide extremely digestible fare, others which are more avant-garde, Numbers in the Dark, a posthumous anthology of ‘uncollected’ texts stands out as a representative sample of Calvino’s entire oeuvre. Containing examples of his worst and best writing, the anthology spans his career from 1943 to his death in 1985. The early raccontini rub conceits with more realistic work, including an unfinished novel, as well as fiction which straddles the genres. One of the best OuLiPo fictions ever published, ‘The Burning Of The Abominable House’, a text designed by computer, is preceded by an eccentric, though fundamentally cogent, plea for a new political system, which relies on the periodic execution of the ruling classes. ‘Beheading The Heads’, originally a sketch for a novel, is one of Calvino’s wryest short-stories. The collection also contains two new Qfwfq tales, set at the birth and death of the cosmos.

We have reached (or are reaching) the end of literature. Our age is the last to have much use for fiction. The ranks of readers are becoming exclusively staffed with writers, who cannot read without some awareness of technique, an awareness which negates the transparency of fiction and subverts its whole ethos. Prose has lost its original meaning and though new meaning is to be found in meta-fiction, this can only last until the techniques of life outweigh those of possible literatures. Italo Calvino has hastened the inevitable apocalypse in the most stylish fashion, his jostling implausibilities melting the core of the imagined world. Before long, one of his heirs will write the last page and then it will be time to close the book for good.

Selected Bibliography (English Translation)

  • The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956
  • Adam, One Afternoon (stories), 1957
  • Baron in the Trees, 1959
  • Italian Fables (comp.), 1959
  • The Non-Existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount, 1962
  • Cosmicomics (stories), 1968
  • Time and the Hunter (stories), 1969
  • Invisible Cities, 1974
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1977
  • Our Ancestors (contains The Cloven Viscount, Baron in the Trees and The Non-Existent Knight), 1980
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, 1981
  • Marcovaldo (stories), 1983
  • Difficult Loves (stories), 1985
  • Mr Palomar (stories), 1985
  • The Literature Machine (essays), 1987
  • Under the Jaguar Sun (stories), 1992
  • The Road to San Giovanni (essays), 1993
  • Numbers in the Dark (stories), 1995

Copyright © 2001 by Rhys Hughes.