Calvino, Italo (1923–1985)

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CALVINO, ITALO (1923–1985)


Italian writer.

Italo Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb near L'Avana in Cuba, where his father Mario (1875–1951), an agronomist, directed an agrarian experimental station and a school of agriculture. His mother, Evelina Mameli, had a degree in natural sciences. His family moved to Sanremo in 1925.

After graduating from the University of Turin with a thesis on Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), Calvino took an active part in the Resistance. He served in the PCI (Italian Communist Party) until 1956. In the postwar period, he contributed to Politecnico, a magazine run by Elio Vittorini (1908–1966), with whom he then founded Il menabò di letteratura (1959–1967; The literary dummy), a journal of militant culture in which he published his study Il mare dell'oggettività (1960; The sea of objectivity). In 1964 Calvino married the Argentine Esther Judit Singer and moved to Rome, returning to Paris in 1967. He was a consultant for the Einaudi publishing house, where from 1971 he directed the series Centopagine. He contributed to numerous newspapers and reviews: in 1951 he wrote I giovani del Po [written in 1950–1951, serialized in 1957–1958; The young of the Po]), Il caffè, Il giorno, Le monde, L'espresso, Il corriere della sera, and La repubblica. He moved from Paris to Rome in 1980.

With an introduction from Cesare Pavese (1908–1950), he published his first book, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1957), a lengthy account of partisan conflict in Italy. His successive collections of stories ranged from allegorical fables to documentaries—Ultimo viene il corvo (1949), L'entrata in Guerra (1954), I racconti (1958; Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories, 1983)—to which Calvino counterposed his "difficult life" works—La formica argentina (1952), La speculazione edilizia (1957), and La nuvola di smog (1958), translated in one volume as Difficult Loves; Smog; A Plunge into Real Estate, 1983—where a recurring topic is the flaws of consumer society, a theme that reappeared in his stories for children, Marcovaldo; ovvero, Le stagioni in città (1963; Marcovaldo; or, The Seasons in the City, 1983). Marcovaldo is a refined attempt to tackle in a fairy-tale idiom the theme, long broached but never definitively treated, of urban alienation.

The brief neorealistic "season" in Calvino's work ended with Ultimo viene il corvo, where it becomes evident how Calvino's inclinations to realism and to the fantastic are complementary. Il visconte dimezzato (1952; The Non-Existent Knight & The Cloven Viscount, 1962) marked an important turning point in Calvino's oeuvre. The "realistic charge" in this novella (the genre that best suited him) is almost completely absent: the work's interest lies in the reinvention of the eighteenth-century conte philosophique (philosophical tale), the reinsertion into modern poetics of the artificial Enlightenment narrative, and the potential of the allegorical fable to denounce contemporary reality in a satirical-ironic mien. Il visconte dimezzato, Il barone rampante (1957), and Il cavaliere inesistente (1959) comprise the trilogy I nostri antenati (1960; Our Ancestors: Three Novels, 1980). After the novella La giornata di uno scrutatore (1963; The Watcher), Calvino chose sciencefiction themes and episodes for Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968) and Ti con zero (1967; T zero, 1969). He attempted an experimental foray into metanarrative with Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974), Il castello dei destini incrociati (1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1977), and Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, 1981).

In this phase of his literary studies, the works of the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) constituted an important point of reference, though not a model. The French novelist, poet, and painter Raymond Queneau (1903–1976) and Paris, a "city-laboratory," were for Calvino a methodological foundation more than a model. In Paris he pursued a line of work all his own, which brought him to a rereading of Honoréde Balzac (1799–1850) and Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet; 1694–1778). What struck him most in Balzac was the sense he first had of the city as language, and as ideology, and his resulting capacity to "make the city become a novel." In his 1974 introduction to Voltaire's Candide, Calvino emphasized those themes that recurred in Le città invisibili: the ideal of delicacy as a poetic principle but also as a form of thought with something in common with the voice of reason. The allusion that Calvino makes to the idea of a readaptation of the Milione of Marco Polo (1254–1324) in the introductory chapter of Le città harkens back to a cinematic script about Polo's voyage, written by Calvino in 1960 but never realized on film. In the description of invented cities there is continual allusion to real cities past and present. On the subject of the structure of the novel, the reader encounters a history where the void is juxtaposed with fullness, as Calvino declared. The fullness of invisible cities is represented by the dense dialogue between the founder of the Mongol dynasty in China, Kublai Khan (1215–1294), and the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, while the void is the series of invisible cities that the ambassador Polo describes to the great Khan. These cities do not exist; they are born from Polo's imagination, from his desire to please the hearer and his taste for combining disparate elements in an attempt to construct the ideal city. The friction between the gelid beauty of invisible cities and the chaotic concreteness of the cities humans inhabit forms the theme of the novel, itself defined by three elements: lapidary, crystalline, and delicate prose; the use of the technique of ambiguity; and surrealism.

Calvino did not invent anything merely to invent, he simply concentrated on an actual impression and analyzed it in bits then re-projected on the cosmic void in which fantasy re-creates dreams. His analytical output is also noteworthy (Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e società, 1980; The Uses of Literature: Essays, 1986; Collezione di sabbia [1984; Collection of sand]). Pieces written for Il corriere della sera are collected in Palomar, a volume comprising approximately thirty stories on Mt. Palomar. Posthumous publications include the three stories entitled Sotto il sole giaguaro (1986; Under the Jaguar Sun, 1988), and Lezioni americane (1988; Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988), which contains five of the six lectures that Calvino was supposed to have delivered at Harvard. He edited an anthology of fairytales, Fiabe italiane (1956; Italian Folktales, 1980), which he translated from their various dialects. He translated Queneau's I fiori blu (1967; The blue flowers, original title Les fleurs bleues, 1965).

See alsoItaly; Resistance; Surrealism.


Calvino, Italo. Romanzi e racconti. Vol. 1: Romanzi e racconti; Vol. 2: Romanzi e racconti; Vol. 3: Racconti sparsi ed altri scritti di invenzione. Milan, 1994. See especially Luca Baranelli, ed., "Bibliografia degli scritti di Calvino," Vol. 3, 1351–1516; and Mario Barenghi et al., eds., "Bibliografia della critica," Vol. 3, 1517–1544.

Cannon, JoAnn. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic. Ravenna, Longo, 1981.

Hume, Kathryn. Calvino's Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

McLaughlin, Martin L. Italo Calvino. Edinburgh, 1998.

Re, Lucia. Calvino and the Age of Neorealism: Fables of Estrangement. Stanford, Calif., 1990.

Maria Teresa Guisti

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Calvino, Italo (1923–1985)

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