Authors: Italo Calvino

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Italian novelist, short-story writer, and critic


Italo Calvino (kahl-VEE-noh), Italian novelist, short-story writer, and critic, has been called one of the world’s best fabulists–for the fables he wrote as well as for those he edited. Calvino was born in Cuba, where his father, Mario Calvino, a botanist, was on an agronomy mission. His mother, Eva Mameli, was also a botanist. Although his parents were not able to interest him in a scientific career, Calvino’s intense feeling for nature and his passion for precise description are undoubtedly as much scientific as poetic; in his later years, he came to view the problems of science, literature, and philosophy as inextricably intertwined.{$I[AN]9810001280}{$I[A]Calvino, Italo}{$I[geo]ITALY;Calvino, Italo}{$I[tim]1923;Calvino, Italo}

Italo Calvino

(©Jerry Bauer)

In 1940, as a compulsory member of the Young Fascists, Calvino took part in the Italian occupation of the French Riviera. Three years later, at the age of nineteen, he joined the Italian Resistance and from 1943 to 1945 fought the Germans in the Ligurian Mountains. At the end of the war, he settled in Turin, becoming a student of literature at the University of Turin. He graduated from the university in 1947, having completed a thesis on Joseph Conrad.

Soon thereafter, Calvino became an editor for the Einaudi publishing company, and he befriended the writers Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese. Between 1959 and 1966, Calvino also coedited with Vittorini a journal that elicited debate on the role of the intellectual in modern society. He contributed to other leftist publications as well. Calvino married Chichita Singer, a translator, in 1964; they had one daughter, Giovanna.

The troubled yet intense years of the antifascist movement and the aftermath of World War II were the backdrop to Calvino’s beginnings as a writer. The leading writers of postwar Italy, who had been prevented from writing about the world around them by government censorship, later began to draw upon their oppressive environment for their fiction; together, they formed the neorealist literary movement (which reproduced real situations using traditional methods). Calvino, however, was soon to abandon its tenets and expand the possibilities of his fiction, using the traditional fable form to write nontraditional fiction.

Conceived in the height of neorealism was his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. This work immediately gained for its author critical praise from, among others, Pavese. Calvino chose to view the Resistance through the eyes of a streetwise boy from the Genoa slums who often uses obscene language. The boy manages to retain his innocence and sense of wonder throughout his adventures with a rough group of partisans. Using the boy as the narrator, Calvino is able to give an accurate and irreverent–yet simultaneously fantastic–portrayal of historical events he had witnessed. The boy is endowed with charm and freshness, qualities that remained characteristic of Calvino’s heroes, especially in his many short stories and novels, despite the serious or tragic subject matter of these works.

Calvino’s penchant for transforming reality into fable is perhaps best expressed in three “fantastic novels” he collected in a trilogy entitled Our Ancestors. The protagonists of these three novels are “our ancestors” because they precede the reader’s time metaphorically and chronologically; they are the fantastic projections of the good and evil halves of every person–the fictional representations of human idiosyncrasies, fears, and alienations. Yet they are also the source of enlightenment and courage. Chivalric epics, philosophical tales, adventure novels, and folktales are freely used by Calvino in these ingenious novels.

Calvino was fascinated with the act of narrating and the nature of writing itself. Cosmicomics and T Zero are short pieces narrated by a “character” called “Qfwfq”; these stories ostensibly treat such scientific topics as the distance of the Moon from Earth, the origin of birds, and the disappearance of the dinosaurs. In fact, however, each piece, though it explores distant times and places, is predominantly the author’s reflection on his written creation, a tale telling itself, a metafiction.

This reflection is continued by Calvino in Invisible Cities and is concluded in the novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, about a reader who can never finish the novels that he has begun reading. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler uses a frame device that includes ten different beginnings of unfinished novels-within-the-novel, each parodying in a different way the writing of a novel and each presenting different problems of contemporary life.

Calvino’s ability to fuse and juxtapose fantasy and reality led critics such as John Updike and John Gardner to laud Calvino and compare him with two other master storytellers noted for using the same technique in their fiction: Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. Calvino’s unique contribution as a writer is that he, perhaps better than anyone else of his generation, observed and captured the spirit of the times in which he lived and transformed his philosophical, sociological, and moral observations into unclassifiable but unique literary inventions. His writing exhibits an unshakable faith in the power of reason and fantasy to understand, and therefore to overcome, the caprice of history.

BibliographyAdler, Sara. Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker. Potomac, Md.: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1979. Provides a valuable introduction to the themes, techniques, and images of Calvino’s works. Presents the author as an explorer on fabulous, sometimes horrifying, journeys who provides rich, mythical perspectives on the world.Bloom, Harold, ed. Italo Calvino. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Collection gathers eight previously published essays about Calvino’s work written by Gore Vidal, Seamus Heaney, and other authors and arranged in chronological sequence. Includes an introduction by Bloom.Bolongaro, Eugenio. Italo Calvino and the Compass of Literature. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Examines five of Calvino’s early works, written between 1948 and 1963, demonstrating how they meditate on the role of the intellectual and on the ethical and political dimensions of literature.Cannon, JoAnn. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1981. A good introduction, with chapters on Calvino’s longer fiction and a bibliography.Carter, Albert Howard, III. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. Masterful analysis of Calvino the fantasist explores his contribution to what is possible in literature by analyzing his use of the contrafactual realms of imagination, speculation, and hypothesis. Includes an excellent bibliography.Fenwick, Julie. “Sex, Language, and Narrative Continuity and Discontinuity in Italo Calvino’s ‘Meiosis.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Spring, 1990): 203-209. Shows how Calvino’s story is post-structuralist in that the essential self disappears before the narrator’s speculations, just as the essential text disappears under poststructuralist criticism. Asserts Calvino’s characters are caught in a paradox of discontinuity because they are incapable of real contact, and continuity, in that they are chained to the past.Gabriele, Tommasina. Italo Calvino: Eros and Language. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. Explores Calvino’s language of love and his treatment of sex, language, and laughter. Includes notes and bibliography.Gracia, Jorge J. E., Carolyn Korsmeyer, and Rodolphe Gasché, eds. Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco. New York: Routledge, 2002. An analysis of the philosophical views of writers Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Umberto Eco.Hume, Kathryn. Calvino’s Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Explores Calvino’s treatment of the cosmos and of cosmogony, with separate chapters on The Path to the Nest of Spiders and Marcovaldo, The Castle of Crossed Destinies and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and Invisible Cities and Mr. Palomar. Includes notes and a bibliography.Hume, Kathryn. “Sensuality and the Senses in Calvino’s Fiction.” Modern Language Notes 107 (January, 1992): 160-177. Argues that sensual material is largely lacking in Calvino’s work because of his lack of interest in constructing simulations of everyday reality. Discusses Calvino’s treatment of the senses and his unusual handling of sensuous experiences; categorizes treatment of senses in Calvino’s fiction.Jeannet, Angela M. Under the Radiant Sun and the Crescent Moon: Italo Calvino’s Storytelling. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Discusses Calvino’s works that have been translated into English, examining Calvino as both a creative writer and a critical thinker. Traces events in Calvino’s life and his creative influences to understand their significance in his writing. Includes bibliographical references and an index.McLaughlin, Martin. Italo Calvino. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Very detailed study of Calvino’s fiction begins with his early stories and his development of a neorealistic style. Includes a chronology of Calvino’s works and a bibliography.Markey, Constance. Italo Calvino: A Journey Toward Postmodernism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. Examines postmodernist literature in Italy, tracing Calvino’s development as a postmodernist writer. Also analyzes Calvino’s ties to Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain. Includes bibliographical references and index.Olken, I. T. With Pleated Eye and Garnet Wing: Symmetries of Italo Calvino. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Presents a perceptive analysis of the various “symmetries” (structural, thematic, natural, configural) in Calvino’s work as well as his balancing of diverse elements: traditional and innovative, rational and absurd, roguish and grotesque. Includes notes and index.Re, Lucia. Calvino and the Age of Neorealism: Fables of Estrangement. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. Examines Calvino’s work from a neorealistic perspective, placing the author within the context of Italian neorealism and demonstrating the influence of this literary movement in the novel The Path to the Nest of Spiders.Review of Contemporary Fiction 6 (Summer, 1986). Special issue on Calvino, with essays on his framed narratives, his minimalist narratives, his aesthetics, and both his long and short fictions.Ricci, Franco. Painting with Words, Writing with Pictures: Word and Image in the Work of Italo Calvino. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Criticism and interpretation. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Wood, Michael. “Hidden in the Distance: Reading Calvino Reading.” The Kenyon Review, n.s. 20, no. 2 (Spring, 1998): 155-170. Discusses Calvino’s belief that language is more often failure than success. Argues that Calvino’s fiction is an example of one of literature’s most significant half-truths: When you write, you always write the wrong book.
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