Calvino, Italo 1923–1985

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Calvino, Italo 1923–1985

PERSONAL: Born October 15, 1923, in Santiago de Las Vagas, Cuba; died following a cerebral hemorrhage September 19, 1985, in Siena, Italy; son of Mario (a botanist) and Eva (a botanist; maiden name, Mameli) Calvino; married Chichita Singer (a translator), February 19, 1964; children: Giovanna. Education: University of Turin, graduated, 1947.

CAREER: Writer. Member of editorial staff of Giulio Einaudi Editore, Turin, Italy, 1947–83; lecturer. Military service: Italian Resistance, 1943–45.

AWARDS, HONORS: Viareggio prize (Italy), 1957; Bagutta prize (Italy), 1959, for I racconti; Veillon prize, 1963; Premio Feltrinelli per la Narrative, 1972; honorary member of American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1975; German State Prize for European Literature, 1976; Italian Folktales named an American Library Association Notable Book, 1980; Grande Aigle d'Or, Festival du Livre de Nice (France), 1982; honorary degree from Mt. Holyoke College, 1984; Premio Riccione (Italy), for Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno.



Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1947, translation by Archibald Colquhoun published as The Path to the Nest of Spiders, Collins (London, England), 1956, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1957, revised edition, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Ultimo viene il corvo (short stories; title means "Last Comes the Crow"; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1949.

Il visconte dimezzato (novel; title means "The Cloven Viscount"; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1952.

L'entrata in guerra (short stories; title means "Entering the War"), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1954.

Il barone rampante (novel; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1957, translation by Archibald Colquhoun published as The Baron in the Trees, Random House (New York, NY), 1959, original Italian text published under original title with introduction, notes and vocabulary by J.R. Woodhouse, Manchester University Press (Manchester, England), 1970.

Il cavaliere inesistente (novel; title means "The Nonexistent Knight"; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1959.

La giornata d'uno scutatore (novella; title means "The Watcher"; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1963.

La speculazione edilizia (novella; title means "A Plunge into Real Estate"; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1963.

Ti con zero (stories), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1967, translation by William Weaver published as T Zero, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1969, published as Time and the Hunter, J. Cape (London, England), 1970.

Le cosmicomiche (stories), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), translation by William Weaver published as Cosmicomics, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1968.

La memoria del mondo (stories; title means "Memory of the World"), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1968.

La citta invisibili (novel), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1972, translation by William Weaver published as Invisible Cities, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1974.

Il castello dei destini incrociati, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1973, translation by William Weaver published as The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1976.

Marcovaldo ovvero le stagioni in citta, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1973, translation by William Weaver published as Marcovaldo: or, The Seasons in the City, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1983.

Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (novel), 1979, translation by William Weaver published as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1981.

Palomar (novel), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1983, translation by William Weaver published as Mr. Palomar, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1985.

Cosmicomiche vecchie e nuove (title means "Cosmicomics Old and New"), Garzanti, 1984.

Sotto il sole giaguaro (stories), Garzanti, 1986, translation by William Weaver published as Under the Jaguar Sun, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1988.

Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.

(Editor and author of introduction) Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1997.

Lettere 1940–1985, edited by Luca Baranelli, introduction by Claudio Milanini, A. Mondadori (Milan, Italy), 2000.

Contributor to books, including Tarocchi, F.M. Ricci (Parma, Italy), 1969.


Adam, One Afternoon and Other Stories (contains translation by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy White of stories in Ultimo viene il corvo and "La formica argentina"; also see below), Collins (London, England), 1957.

I racconti (title means "Stories"; includes "La nuvola de smog" and "La formica argentina"; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1958.

I nostri antenati (contains Il cavaliere inesistente, Il vis-conte dimezzato, and Il barone rampante; also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1960, translation by Archibald Colquhoun with new introduction by the author published as Our Ancestors, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1980.

The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount: Two Short Novels (contains translation by Archibald Colquhoun of Il visconte dimezzato and Il cavaliere inesistente), Random House (New York, NY), 1962.

La nuvola de smog e La formica argentina (also see below), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1965.

Gli amore dificile (contains stories originally published in Ultimo viene il corvo and I racconti), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1970, translation by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright published as Difficult Loves, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1984, expanded edition, translation by Weaver and D.C. Carne-Ross (also see below), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1984.

The Watcher and Other Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1971.


Cesare Pavese, La letteratura americana e altri saggi, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1951.

(And reteller) Fiabe italiane: Raccolte della tradizione popolare durante gli ultimi cento anni e transcritte in lingua dai vari dialetti, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1956, selections translated by Louis Brigante published as Italian Fables, Orion Press, 1959, translation by George Martin published as Italian Folktales, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1980.

Cesare Pavese, Poesie edite e inedite, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1962.

Cesare Pavese, Lettere, Volume I (with Lorenzo Mondo and Davide Lajolo): 1924–1944, Volume II: 1945–1950, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1966.

Vittorini: Progettazione e letteratura, All'Insegno del Pesce d'Oro (Italy), 1968.

(And reteller) Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando furioso, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1970.

Jakob Ludwig Karl Grimm and Wilhelm Karl Grimm, Fiabe, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1970.

L'uccel belverde e altre fiabe italiane, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1972, selections translated by Sylvia Mulcahy as Italian Folk Tales, Dent (London, England), 1975.

Il principe granchio e altre fiabe italiane, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1974.

Racconti fantastici dell'Ottocento, Mondadori (Milan, Italy), 1983, translation published as Fantastical Tales, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1994.

Also editor of fiction series "Cento Pagi" for Einaudi. Coeditor with Elio Vittorini of literary magazine, Il Menabo, 1959–66.


Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e societa, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1980, translation by Patrick Creagh published as The Uses of Literature: Essays, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1986.

Collezione di sabbia: Emblemi bizzarri e inquietanti del nostro passato e del nostro futuro gli og getti raccontano il mondo (articles), Garzanti, 1984.

Six Memos for the Next Millenium (lectures; originally published as Sulla fiaba), translation by Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, 1988.

The Road to San Giovanni (autobiographical essays; originally published as ITA), translation by Tim Parks, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.

Album Calvino, edited by Luca Baranelli Ernesto Fer-rero, A. Mondadori (Milan, Italy), 1995.

(With Valerio Adami) Adami: Itinerari dello sguardo (title means Adami: Itineraries of the Look), edited by Julian Zugazagoitia, Electa (Milan, Italy), 1997.

Ali Baba: Progetto di una rivista, 1968–1972 (title means Ali Baba: Project of a Magazine, 1968–1972), edited by Mario Barenghi and Marco Belpoliti, Marcos y Marcos (Milan, Italy), 1998.

Why Read the Classics?, translation by Martin McLaughlin, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1999.

Mondo Scritto e Mondo non Scritto (literary essays), Oscar Mondadori (Milano, Italy), 2002.

The Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to books, including Finibusterre, edited by Antonio Lucio Giannone Nardo, Besa (Lecce, Italy), 1999, and Il cinema di Folco Quilici, introduction by Tullio Kezich Venezia, Scuola Nazionale di Cinema, 2000.

SIDELIGHTS: Italian novelist and short story writer Italo Calvino was famous for the fables he wrote and for the monumental collection of Italian fables he edited. Commenting in the New York Times Book Review, John Gardner called Calvino "one of the world's best fabulists." Although he wrote in what Patchy Wheatley referred to in the Listener as a "dazzling variety of fictional styles," Calvino's stories and novels are fables for adults. Gore Vidal noted in a New York Review of Books essay that because Calvino both edited and wrote fables he was "someone who reached not only primary school children … but, at one time or another, everyone who reads."

Calvino's theory of literature, established very early in his career, dictated his use of the fable. For Calvino, to write any narrative is to write a fable. In A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature: From Futurism to Neorealism, Sergio Pacifici quoted a portion of Calvino's 1955 essay "Il midollo del leone" ("The Lion's Marrow") in which the novelist wrote: "The mold of the most ancient fables: the child abandoned in the woods or the knight who must survive encounters with beasts and enchantments remains the irreplaceable scheme of all human stories."

To understand Calvino, therefore, one must first understand the fable. Calvino "portrayed the world around him," Sara Maria Adler noted in Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker, "in the same way it is portrayed in the traditional fable. In all his works, the nature of his narrative coincides with those ingredients which constitute the underlying structure of the genre." A traditional fable, Adler explained, is told from a child's point of view and usually has a young protagonist. Although not all of Calvino's protagonists or narrators are young, John Gatt-Rutter maintained in the Journal of European Studies, "The childlike psychology is characteristic of all [these characters], whatever their supposed age." The presence of such youthful narrators/protagonists in Calvino's works lends a fanciful touch to his fiction because, according to Pacifici, "only a youngster possesses a real sense of enchantment with nature, a sense of tranquility and discovery of the mysteries of life."

Another aspect of the fable is what Adler called "the basic theme of tension between character and environment." A typical tale might have a child lost in the woods, for example. Such tension is also a constant in Calvino's fiction. As Adler noted, "No matter what the nature of the author's fantasy may be, in every case his characters are faced with a hostile, challenging environment [over] which they are expected to triumph." In "The Argentine Ant," for instance, a family moves to a house in the country only to find it inhabited by thousands of ants. In a more comic example from Mr. Palomar, the title character must decide how to walk by a sunbather who has removed her bathing suit top—without appearing either too interested or too indifferent.

Calvino began his career as a fabulist in the late 1940s while still under the influence of the leading writers of postwar Italy. These authors, who had been kept from writing about the world around them by government censorship, now turned wholeheartedly to their everyday life for themes and action for their narratives. Together they formed the neorealist literary movement and, according to Nicholas A. DeMara in the Italian Quarterly, dedicated themselves to drawing "material directly from life and … reproduce faithfully real situations through traditional methods."

Conceived in this milieu, Calvino's first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, and his short-story collections, Adam, One Afternoon and L'entrata in guerra ("Entering the War"), are all realistic. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer noted, for example, that Calvino's narratives are "sometimes based on autobiography, and mainly set against the background of recent Italian history and politics." Even while the three works portray the realities of war, Calvino's imagination was the dominant element.

Following the standard form of a fable, The Path to the Nest of Spiders has a young protagonist, an adolescent boy named Pin. According to DeMara and Adler, Calvi-no's choice of Pin as his protagonist allowed the novelist to add fanciful elements to an otherwise realistic story. In The Path to the Nest of Spiders, DeMara stated, "Calvino portrays an essentially realistic world, but through the use of the adolescent figure he is frequently able to inject into the work a sense of fantasy." Pin is nearly a child, and he describes his world as many children do, using a combination of real and imaginary elements. A fable-like quality is added to the novel, Adler observed, because "seen through the boy's own eyes" everything is "infused with a fanciful and spirited attitude toward life…. The countryside may be as lyrical as an animated cartoon, while at other times it may assume the proportions of a nightmare."

Calvino's childlike imagination and sense of playfulness fills his work with fantasy but also serves another purpose. According to J.R. Woodhouse in Italo Calvino: A Reappraisal and an Appreciation of the Trilogy, "Calvino's description of child-like candour is often a very telling way of pointing to an anomaly, a stupidity in society, as well as providing a new and refreshing outlook on often well-worn themes." In this way Calvino added another fable-like dimension to his work: that of moral instruction.

Young people play prominent roles in all three of the novels in Calvino's Our Ancestors trilogy: The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, and The Nonexistent Knight. The tension between the protagonist and his or her environment and the moral intent are also clear in these three works, demonstrating for JoAnn Cannon in Modern Fiction Studies that "the fantastic in Calvino is not a form of escapism, but is grounded in a persistent sociopolitical concern."

The narrator of The Baron in the Trees is the younger brother of the twelve-year-old baron of the title who ascends into the trees to avoid eating snail soup. In his introduction to Our Ancestors Calvino explained the meaning of The Cloven Viscount, a narrative about a soldier split in half by a cannonball during a crusade: "Mutilated, incomplete, an enemy to himself is modern man; Marx called him 'alienated,' Freud 'repressed'; a state of ancient harmony is lost, [and] a new state of completeness aspired to."

Calvino's ability to fuse reality and fantasy captured the imagination of critics on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, in the New York Times Book Review Alan Cheuse wrote about Calvino's "talent for transforming the mundane into the marvelous," and in the London Review of Books Salman Rushdie referred to Calvino's "effortless ability of seeing the miraculous in the quotidian." According to New York Times reviewer Anatole Broyard, the books in which Calvino perfects this tendency are three of his more mature works: Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. With their juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, these books led critics such as John Updike and John Gardner to compare Calvino with two other master storytellers noted for using the same technique in their fiction: Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez.

The stories in Cosmicomics—as well as most of the stories in T Zero and La memoria del mondo (Memory of the World)—chronicle the adventures of Qfwfq, a strange, chameleon-like creature who was present at the beginning of the universe, the formation of the stars, and the disappearance of the dinosaurs. In a playful scene typical of Calvino—and reminiscent of the comic episodes of García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude—Qfwfq describes how time began. According to his story, all the universe was contained in a single point until the day one of the inhabitants of the point, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko, decided to make pasta for everyone. Rushdie explained, "The explosion of the universe outwards … is precipitated by the first generous impulse, the first-ever 'true outburst of general love,' when … Mrs. Ph(i)Nko cries out: 'Oh, if I only had some room, how I'd love to make some noodles for you boys.'"

Even as his fiction became more and more fantastic in the "Qfwfq" stories, Calvino continued to maintain the moral and social overtones present in his earlier work. In Science-Fiction Studies Teresa de Lauretis observed that while Calvino's fiction acquired a science-fiction quality during the 1960s and 1970s due to its emphasis on scientific and technological themes, it was still based on specific human concerns. "The works," she commented, "were all highly imaginative, scientifically informed, funny and inspired meditations on one insistent question: What does it mean to be human, to live and die, to reproduce and to create, to desire and to be?"

In a New Yorker review Updike made a similar observation about the seriousness underlying Calvino's fantasies: "Calvino is … curious about the human truth as it becomes embedded in its animal, vegetable, historical, and comic contexts; all his investigations spiral in upon the central question of How shall we live?"

Invisible Cities is the book Calvino called his "most finished and perfect" in a Saturday Review interview with Alexander Stille. It also brought him large-scale international attention. Invisible Cities relates an imaginary conversation between thirteenth-century explorer Marco Polo and Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in which Polo describes fifty-five different cities within the emperor's kingdom. Critics applauded the book for the beauty of Calvino's descriptions. In the New Republic Albert H. Carter, III, called it "a sensuous delight, a sophisticated literary puzzle," while in the Chicago Tribune Constance Markey judged it "a fragile tapestry of mood pieces." Perhaps the most generous praise came from Times Literary Supplement contributor Paul Bailey, who observed of Invisible Cities: "This most beautiful of books throws up ideas, allusions, and breathtaking imaginative insights on almost every page."

Invisible Cities is another fable with a youthful Marco Polo and a moral to be pondered. Adler explained: "Polo's task is that of teaching the aging Kublai Khan to give a new meaning to his life by challenging the evil forces in his domain and by insuring the safety of whatever is just…. [Polo's] observations … are a general explanation of the world—a panoramic view where rich and poor, the living and the dead, young and old, are challenged by the complex battles of existence."

In the Hudson Review, Dean Flower compared Invisible Cities with one of Calvino's subsequent novels, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, calling them both "less novels than meditations on the mysteries of fictive structures." This statement could also be applied to Calvino's most experimental novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. The Castle of Crossed Destinies, like The Nonexistent Knight, is a chivalric tale filled with knights and adventure. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, however, is not only different from Calvino's previous work, it is also marked by a complexity that makes it his least fable-like book.

In If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Calvino parodies modern fictional styles in a complicated novel-within-a-novel format. But even this novel includes at least one element of the fable. In Newsweek Jim Miller noted that in Calvino's introduction to Italian Folktales the novelist wrote, "There must be present" in each tale "the infinite possibilities of mutation, the unifying element in everything: men, beasts, plants, things." While the fable explores mutation in nature, in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Calvino explores the "infinite possibilities of mutation" within the novel.

After her husband's death, Calvino's widow oversaw the issue of new volumes of his work in English. The Road to San Giovanni is a compilation of several essays or "memory exercises" that are the closest Calvino ever came to writing an autobiography. These works span his development as a writer, from his boyhood in San Remo during the 1930s through his work in the Italian Resistance during World War II to his experience as an expatriate in Paris during the 1960s. "The Calvino that emerges here is extremely self-conscious, offering finely observed evocations of the Italian landscape or a Parisian suburb, but also a running metacommentary on the act of writing a biography," wrote Lawrence Venuti in the New York Times Book Review. "A Cinema-Goers Autobiography" details Calvino's adolescent obsession with the movies, particularly American movies with their popular movie stars. Movies, for the young Calvino, helped the author satisfy his craving for fantasy, a craving that would show up later in his work. "Memories of Battle" chronicles Calvino's resistance activities during the war, and also the vagaries of memory as he tries to recall this period from his past. The title essay tells of Calvino's rift with his father, who wanted him to continue in the family business of farming. John Updike commented in the New Yorker that "through this small, scattered, posthumous book, we draw closer to the innermost Calvino than we have before."

Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, also published after Calvino's death, gave English-speaking audiences a chance to read some of the author's early short stories, as well as others that had never before been translated into English. These tales span his development from a 1943 story on a communist brigade to a later work about a man who goes to get ice for his whiskey and finds his apartment, upon his return, turned into an icy world. "The earliest stories present a Calvino still preoccupied with the war and the impact of fascism," wrote Aamer Hussein in the New Statesman. "He demonstrates his belief—still prevalent among writers resisting dictatorships—in the fable as the best vehicle for veiled protest." Calvino moved from his early interest in communism to later esoteric works in which he conducts imaginary interviews with historical figures such as Montezuma, Henry Ford, and a Neanderthal. "This collection brings American readers a somewhat different Calvino, more the product of his cultural and political origins in Italy, but as ever a writer of fantasies that possess extraordinary precision and beauty," concluded Lawrence Venuti in the New York Times Book Review.

Calvino's childlike imagination allowed him to leave the tenets of neorealism behind and opened up infinite possibilities for his fiction. He imaginatively used the traditional fable form to write non-traditional fiction. Although he was a fabulist, according to Pacifici in A Guide to Modern Italian Literature, Calvino's works were "not … flights from reality but from the bitter reality of our twentieth century. They are the means—perhaps the only means left to a writer tired of a photographic obsession with modern life—to re-create a world where people can still be people—that is, where people can still dream and yet understand."

Books containing Calvino's nonfiction works have also been published posthumously. In 1999 a collection of Calvino's essays was published as Why Read the Classics? Writing in Contemporary Review, Stephen Wade commented "that within this large collection of literary essays, Italo Calvino mixes critical judgment with literary history, and reflections on the writer's art with sheer readerly enthusiasm." After opening with an essay discussing what defines a classic work of literature, the book examines well-known classics and their authors, from Ernest Hemingway to lesser-known writers like Giammaria Ortes, whom Calvino greatly admired. While calling the opening essay "outstanding," a Publishers Weekly contributor found the book to be "an uneven hodgepodge" and "lackluster." Wade, however, enjoyed the text and noted: "The style is always interesting: allusive, entreatingly digressive and always displaying knowledge easily and without mere show." Rachel Hadas, writing in the American Scholar, called Why Read the Classics? "charming and stimulating."

Calvino's widow edited a collection of Calvino's ruminations on his own life that was published in English as Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings. In addition to essays, the volume includes newspaper and magazine interviews and articles presented in the order Calvino had once filed them. The essays, interviews, and articles deal with a wide range of occurrences in the author's life, from his memories of fascist Italy to his long trip to the United States in 1959—during which he was struck by the country's attempts to deal with issues of civil rights—to his life in Paris in the 1970s. Ali Houissa, writing in the Library Journal, called the collection "excellent" but noted that because Calvino does not find himself interesting the volume lacks a thorough account of the writer's own life. A contributor to Contemporary Review commented, "These pieces give us a unique insight in the Italian novelist and, in addition, to Italian history of the twentieth century." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, called Hermit in Paris "urbane and observant in even the most casual of pieces" and went on to note that it serves as "a delectable addition to a great writer's shelf."



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Calvino, Italo 1923–1985

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