Magazine article The Spectator

Reaching for the Moon

Magazine article The Spectator

Reaching for the Moon

Article excerpt

the complete coSmicomicS

by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks and William

Weaver Penguin, £20, pp. 401, ISBN 9781846141652

? £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Some writers spend their careers happily producing variations on the same book. Others seem to rethink the sort of book they would like to write with each new work.

Only a very few, however, have a career which looks like a planned trajectory into something completely new; you would not predict Tolstoy's late fables from his first autobiographical sketches, or the opaque fantasy of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake from the dogged realism of Dubliners. And yet all the steps in between are carefully considered, and the career makes perfect sense.

Italo Calvino was very much one of those writers. Born in Cuba of Italian parents in 1923, by the time of his early death in 1985 he was feted not just in Italy but all over the world, and would surely have won the Nobel Prize. He was one of an immensely gifted generation of Italian writers to emerge after the second world war; like the great film-makers of the time, they seemed to possess both a richness of human experience and a refined technical skill in treating it. Calvino's first books - The Path to the Spider's Nest and the wonderful short stories collected in Adam, One Afternoon - are beautiful pieces of realism, touched with fantasy and symbolism, but always solidly rooted in the world. With these books, he got his personal history as a fighting member of the Italian resistance down on paper, and moved quickly on.

By the end of his career, he had turned himself into an international figure, writing highly theoretical fantasies. Late books like The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Invisible Cities and If On a Winter's Night a Traveller turn the novel inside out. One reveals a ruthlessly mathematical structure of permutations underneath the storytelling; another is a series of structured evocations of impossible towns; the third an exercise in frustrated novel openings in which the real subject is the reader's aching desire to continue.

The late works are wonderful, fascinating objects, refined and glittering.

I guess, though, that almost all of Calvino's readers have sometimes wished that he had continued in his first style a little longer. The fantasy Calvino developed through his straight-faced realism in the 1950s really seems inexhaustible; though the texture remains realist, elements of folktale enter in. These were the years Calvino spent collecting Italian oral tales for a major collection, and the task entered into his own invention. In one of a group of novellas, a boy climbs a tree and, in thickly wooded country, never comes down for the rest of his life - the coup de theatre, when, even in death, his body doesn't return to earth, is one of the most thrilling endings in literature. In another, The Cloven Viscount, a warrior is so neatly blown apart by a cannonball in battle that he becomes two separate people. It's blasphemy to say so, but I would personally sacrifice a piece of refined narrative speculation from late in Calvino's career such as Palomar for another novella in the1950s folk-tale vein.

The Cosmicomics, now published complete for the first time in English, straddle the divide in Calvino's career. Composed over a longish period, like five-finger exercises, they move from absurdist fantasy to seriously abstruse investigations of narrative possibility. The first volume is one of Calvino's most enchanting performances.

We are taken back to the earliest days of the planet, of the universe, and even before the Big Bang by a narrator called Qfwfq. The moon, at the beginning of time, swung so low over the earth that Qfwfq and his friends could paddle out into the sea and climb a ladder up to it. He remembers a time when a short-tempered great-uncle, N'ba N'ga, refused to evolve like the rest of the family, and remained a fish when they had all moved onto dry land. …

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