The infinite delight of Italo Calvino
- January 27, 2023
- Alexander Lee
Calvino’s restlessness filled him with an insatiable curiosity.
On 30 March 1983, Italo Calvino was giving a lecture at New York University when he unexpectedly let slip a secret. ‘Most of the books I’ve written and those that I have it in mind to write,’ he explained, almost conspiratorially, ‘originate in the idea that such a book seemed impossible to me. When I’m convinced that a certain type of book is completely beyond the capacities of my temperament and my technical skill, I sit down at my desk and start writing it.’
A polite laugh rippled around the room. It was a joke, of course — typical of Calvino’s wry, self-deprecating humour; but there was a grain of truth in it, too. By then, he was Italy’s best-known and most widely-translated author and owed much of his fame in the English-speaking world to novels like Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979) — strange, fantastical works, which played on the edges of reality and glistened with a fragile, dreamlike brilliance.
But as the audience soon learned — and as this marvellous collection of non-fiction reveals — the impossible hadn’t come naturally to him. In fact, he had arrived at it, like a traveller, only after a long and uncertain journey. When he was starting out as a writer, in the mid-1940s, the possible had been all that mattered – and understandably so. The son of two botanists, he had originally planned to pursue in agricultural science, and had only turned to literature after running away from home to join the Communist resistance in the final days of Mussolini’s Republic of Salò. Back then, he was a materialist at heart. He believed that books and experience were two sides of the same coin, and that his fiction should reflect the world he knew. For this reason, his first books (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno , Ultimo viene il corvo ) were all very ‘realistic’ — vivid, if occasionally rather gauche, attempts to depict the grim realities of life at the end of the Second World War. They were usually set on the Ligurian coast he knew so well. And despite the generally favourable reception they received, he occasionally worried that his youth — or rather, his lack of experience — would hold him back.
But in time, Calvino came to feel he’d been wrong. Perhaps it was age that changed his mind. Or maybe it was his disillusionment with Communism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary (in 1957, he wrote to the poet Franco Fortini that ‘[w]e are living in dark times, absolutely nothing is going right, and the only consolation is the idea that life is short’). Whichever the case, he became conscious of a gulf opening up between his writing and everyday experience — or, as he put it, between the ‘written world’ and the ’unwritten world’. He had always been at home in the realm of the book, where his horizons were bounded by the page, of course. But now he was surprised, disoriented, even terrified, by the wider world. Everything seemed to be in flux. Caught up in the Cold War, the sexual revolution, and the turbulence of Italy’s anni di piombo (‘years of lead’), he struggled to get a grip on anything — let alone predict what would happen next. His perceptions were suddenly unreliable. He could no longer be sure he was experiencing the same things as anyone else. Even language seemed to be ‘stricken by a kind of plague’. As a writer, he found this troubling. If his novels couldn’t embody what was happening around him — as he had always assumed they should — how could they ever speak to others’ experiences, let alone engage with wider human concerns?
Calvino wasn’t the only writer to feel worried about the future of fiction. Many Italian authors, faced with a similar realisation, were frankly despondent. Some, despairing of saying anything meaningful about the world beyond the page, had abandoned ‘universal’ themes altogether. Instead, their works retreated into the realm of the purely literary — or else took refuge in the narrow ambit of their own lives. Certain philosophers were even more downbeat. Either they thought language was the only reality; or they held that it was incapable of expressing any meaning whatsoever — least of all about the world of experience. Either way, they seemed to regard fiction as an empty house of mirrors.
Calvino wasn’t so easily put off. By the early 1950s, he came to feel that it was his duty to try bridging the gap, no matter how difficult or implausible it might be. The key, he realised, lay in the uncertainty — or rather, its ubiquity. If writers like him found the ‘unwritten’ world strange and unsettling, so did everyone else. In fact, he saw that the unreliability of our perceptions is what unites us — not the objects of our experiences. So, if his writing was to speak to his readers, he would have to take this uncertainty as his subject.
From then on, most of his novels arose out of his sense of lacking ‘something we would like to know or possess, something that escapes us’. He would often begin by taking something quite ‘banal and familiar’ — like a painting or a wave — and describing it ‘minutely, as if it were the newest and most interesting thing in the universe’, until eventually, an uneasiness would creep in. Sometimes he compounded the effect by speaking directly to the reader, an effect so disconcerting that, now and again, you have to look over your shoulder to make sure he’s not there. Yet his style was always simple, even spare — jumping effortlessly from one idea to the next (Cesare Pavese once compared him to a squirrel for just this reason). What he was trying to do was to impose as rational a structure as possible on the confusion he had created — so that anyone reading the book would be able to recognise something of their own uncertainty in the story, and perhaps even stumble across a framework for their doubts. In doing so, Calvino hoped to re-establish the bond between the written and unwritten worlds, albeit imperfectly.
Over the years, Calvino experimented with a great many genres. But it was in fantasy that he felt most at home. In fact, he came to believe that it was only in the fantastic that his doubts could be fully explored. These days, of course, ‘fantasy’ has a rather bad name. If you mention it in literary circles, you’re likely to see a few upturned noses. But Calvino had a point. As he remarked, fantasy exists in the chasm between perception and ideas. Although it often begins in the real, it takes seriously the possibility that what we see around us might be nothing more than an hallucination — and pursues this to its logical conclusion. Above all, it tries to compass the unknown within a rational structure, until the impossible becomes all too plausible. This is what makes stories like E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘Der Sandmann’ (1817) or Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) both wonderful and terrifying. And it is also why Calvino saw the fantastic as the perfect genre for exploring the uncertainty of contemporary life.
Beginning with Il visconte dimezzato (1952), Calvino threw himself into fantasy with growing abandon. Over the next three decades, he produced a stream of novels and short stories which used highly experimental, and often disorienting, narrative techniques to illustrate the unreliability of human perceptions. Yet he seemed never to have been completely happy with his approach. One of the most striking things about this collection of essays is how often he returned to the problem of the relationship between the written and unwritten worlds. He was always questioning himself, always looking for a new and better way of conceptualising his ‘literature of uncertainty’ — and always feeling unsatisfied. Even when he is talking about something quite different, you can see it bubbling away under the surface.
This search invariably led him to look for inspiration in other books. He is remarkably frank about his influences. He admired Stendhal for his ‘novelistic tension’; Stevenson ‘because he seems to fly’; Gogol ‘because he distorts with clarity, meanness and moderation’; and Kafka ‘because he’s a realist’ (that famous humour again). He loved Flaubert and Chesterton, Manzoni and Conrad, Ariosto, Tasso, and Borges — inevitably Borges. Most revealingly, he also had a deep, abiding affection for Kipling’s The Jungle Books, Pinocchio, and folk tales.
Calvino’s restlessness also filled him with an insatiable curiosity. Being certain of nothing, he wanted to know about everything. The range of the essays in this volume is breath-taking. He discusses cannibalism, nineteenth-century literature, the structure of the brain, anthropology, and countless other subjects — all with the same, wide-eyed fascination. Perhaps the most telling piece in this collection is about Amerindian history. Although notionally a review of C. A. Burland’s Montezuma Lord of the Aztecs, it offers an imaginative retelling of a meeting between the Aztec emperor and Hernán Cortés which reads as compellingly as fiction — and testifies to the genuine excitement Calvino felt on encountering new ideas. It is as exhilarating to read as it must have been to write. And given that it also anticipates some of the themes he later addressed in ‘Sotto il sole giaguaro’ (1982), it also shows just how easily curiosity fired his imagination.
Yet the image which Calvino returned to most often is that of the infinite book. This was, as he knew, a very old idea. Each of the Abrahamic traditions were founded on the authority of a book which is held to contain all the knowledge in the world. It’s there in Renaissance epics like Ariosto’s Orlando furioso and in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. And it received its most crystalline expression in Borges’ ‘The Book of Sand’. But for Calvino, it always embodied the union of the written and unwritten worlds — the ideal he always aspired to achieve. This volume is nothing like infinite, alas. No matter how much I tried to make it last, no matter how many times I re-read some essays, no matter how much I savoured Ann Goldsmith’s superb translation, it always seemed too short. But one thing is certain: it is an infinite delight.