Italo Calvino

By Tinkler, Alan | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Italo Calvino


Tinkler, Alan, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


When Italo Calvino died in 1985 at the age of sixty-two, he was working on a series of six essays to be delivered at Harvard University under the auspices of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Calvino completed only five of the essays, which have been collected under the title Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In his introduction to the lectures, Calvino writes: "My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it" (1). Calvino realized that in order for literature to probe epistemological as well as ontological concerns, literary experimentation was necessary; thus he continuously refashioned himself as he explored ways of examining the human condition.

In 1956, when Calvino published Italian Folktales: Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino, he included an introduction in which he establishes the value and ability of each storyteller: "Therein lies, for us, [the art of storytelling's] real moral: the storyteller, with a kind of instinctive skillfulness, shies away from the constraint of popular tradition, from the unwritten law that the common people are capable only of repeating trite themes without ever actually `creating'; perhaps the narrator thinks that he is producing only variations on a theme, whereas actually he ends up telling us what is in his heart" (xxxi). The individual storyteller, by taking control, by making it her own tale, manages to convey the knowledge of what is in the heart. Even as Calvino theorizes about the importance of the storyteller and the associative importance of structure, he is first and foremost an artist; therefore, he engages theoretical concerns in order to achieve aesthetic works. Martin McLaughlin argues that the "critic's first job, in Calvino's own words, is to discern the different layers of writing beneath the uniform surface of art" (xi). Calvino vigorously criticized his own work, and the virtuosity of his experimentation is inextricably linked to this self-criticism.

Like many prolific writers, Calvino often worked on more than one piece at a time. While he was writing his influential work If on a winter's night a traveler, he was also crafting Mr. Palomar, a work that would not be published for another eight years. McLaughlin, after examining early drafts of Mr. Palomar, attributes the delay to Calvino's search for the appropriate structure. He notes: "For Calvino structure was an integral part of the meaning of a literary text" (x). Without structural integrity, a work simply was not complete. Calvino offers the following on structure: "I do not consider any literary operation concluded until I have given it a sense and a structure that I can consider definitive" (qtd. in McLaughlin x). Part of the creative process is linking the purpose with the design, and different structures are needed for different purposes. The resulting variety of Calvino's creative works is astonishing, from the neorealistic The Path to the Spiders' Nests to the experimental If on a winter's night a traveler.

Throughout his career, Calvino argued for the dismantling of interdisciplinary barriers: "We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question" (Uses of Literature 45-46). The resulting scope of Calvino's aesthetic inquiry was broad. In his early novel The Baron in the Trees, Calvino tackles Enlightenment philosophy. Regarding the eighteenth century, Calvino finds: "the eighteenth century remains one of the historical periods that fascinate me most, but this is because I find it increasingly rich and many-faceted and full of contradictory ferments that are still going on today" (Uses of Literature 35). The multiplicity of modes of examination during the Enlightenment as well as the fundamental interest in epistemology during the period explains Calvino's compulsive interest. …

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