Magazine article The World and I

Ingenuous and Not at All Austere - A Profile of Italo Calvino

Magazine article The World and I

Ingenuous and Not at All Austere - A Profile of Italo Calvino

Article excerpt

Linda Simon is associate professor of English at Skidmore College.

Beginning his career in the political and social volatility of postwar Italy, Italo Calvino, like many of his European contemporaries, questioned the meaning of literature and the role of the writer in a world that seemed increasingly to deny the significance of literary works. With science, social science, and assorted flavors of critical theory competing for the reader's attention, fiction writers were compelled to ask, as Calvino did: "Who do we write a novel for?" His reply echoed the sentiments of many modernist and postmodernist writers: "We will write novels," he said, "for a reader who has finally understood that he no longer has to read novels." For such readers, the writer needs to be more than a storyteller, more than an educator, more than a creator of pretty or entertaining diversions, more, even, than a moral gadfly.

Literature, Calvino believed, should not take on "the task of confirming what is already known, or maybe of provoking in a naive and rudimentary way, by means of the youthful pleasure of freshness and spontaneity." These tasks, however beneficial they may be, necessarily relegate literature "to a function of consolation, preservation, and regression." A more vital role for a literary writer, he argued, is to "guarantee the survival of what we call human in a world where everything appears inhuman. ... And what do we mean by human? Usually, whatever is temperamental, emotional, ingenuous, and not at all austere." To that somewhat wistful job description, Calvino added that a writer could profitably address himself to finding coherence among what he called the "discrete," isolated experiences of modern life; attending to the extraordinary; and not merely explaining what happens but exploring the consequences, "the order of things" produced by an event, "the pattern, the symmetry, the network of images deposited around it." A writer's vision, he decided, may craft an oasis of calm and clarity in a world of randomness, unpredictability, and spiritual chaos:

"The universe disintegrates into a cloud of heat, it falls inevitably into a vortex of entropy, but within this irreversible process there may be areas of order, portions of the existent that tend toward a form, privileged points in which we seem to discern a design or perspective. A work of literature is one of these minimal portions in which the existent crystallizes into a form, acquires a meaning not fixed, not definitive, not hardened into mineral immobility, but alive as an organism. Poetry is the great enemy of chance, in spite of also being a daughter of chance and knowing that, in the last resort, chance will win the battles."

Italo Calvino was born on October 15, 1923, near Havana, Cuba, where his parents were working at an experimental agricultural station. The time and place, he wrote later, were significant: since his astrological sign was Libra, the Balance, he believed that in his personality "equilibrium and unbalance mutually correct each other's excesses. I was born when my parents were about to come home after years spent in the Caribbean; hence the geographical instability that makes me forever long for somewhere else."

When he was two--too early, surely, to have inspired nostalgic memories of Cuba--his parents left the island for their native Italy, settling in the town of San Remo, on the Riviera, where they continued their work investigating what Calvino called the "marvels and virtues" of plants. His father, a taciturn if not austere man, was an agronomist who spent his days growing, collecting, investigating, and identifying specimens. "Into this naming of plants," Calvino remembered, "he would put all his passion for exploring a universe without end, for venturing time and again to the furthest frontiers of a vegetable genealogy, opening up from every branch or leaf or nervation as it were a waterway for himself, within the sap, within the network that covers the green earth. …

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