Robert Cremins: The new editions give a new appeal to Calvino | Culture & Leisure
In recent years, Mariner Books has promoted the legacy of the great Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985) by publishing a series of pocket editions as crisp as the author’s style. You don’t have to be a fan of postmodernism to recognize Calvino as a Guardian. “Last Comes the Raven” is a very welcome addition to the series, as this first collection of stories (1949) was never published in English in its entirety. The big story here is that Calvino becomes Calvino; and the sight of his mature work reminded me of how I was introduced to his fiction.
When Calvino died, much too young, his friend Gore Vidal said: “In [now], except England, Calvino [is] read wherever books are read. The English exception was not entirely correct. By then, Salman Rushdie had successfully defended his work in the London Review of Books. And Calvino had also established a beachhead of talented readers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), who engaged in contemporary literature. Five years later, these priorities led me to cross the Irish Sea for higher education.
At the UEA, Calvino’s two main defenders were critics Malcolm Bradbury and Lorna Sage. In 1983, Bradbury appeared as the “castaway” on “Desert Island Discs”, a BBC radio show which is also a national institution. For his permanent reading on the beach, he chose Calvino’s “If by winter night a traveler”, a novel that frolic with all novels, reflecting the playful spirit that has existed in the genre for at least the eighteenth century.
Meanwhile, Sage made us read Calvino’s other major achievement, “The Invisible Cities”. Even in translation, Marco Polo’s reports to Kublai Khan about his invisible imperial possessions had a shimmering experiential quality.
Known as a fabulist, Calvino also discovered new provinces of reality for literature. He alludes to this project in the introduction to his famous 1956 collection on Italian folklore: “These… stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women.
“Last Comes the Raven” is another catalog of current and potential. The book dates from the period following the publication of his first novel, “The Path to the Spider’s Nest,” written in the dominant neorealist style, at a time when he failed to write a sequel in the same fashion. Here, this conventional approach has become a constraint; As his imagination wanders through the first stories, we feel he is wearing a suit that is several sizes too small and bursts at the seams.
The collection really takes off in a hundred pages, when Calvino, who fought against fascism, turns to his war experiences and the hungry atmosphere of post-war Italy. It is this most sinister material that galvanizes fiction. (American readers may recall Kurt Vonnegut’s migration to science fiction after his WWII trauma.) The writing is now at its peak: “The war has twisted tightly in these valleys. like a dog trying to bite its tail. “
Time and time again, gritty episodes turn into narrative pearls. What started out as scenes that could be snippets from the 1948 film “Bicycle Thieves” become evocative stories of Dante, Kafka, fable. Indeed, the best (and funniest) story is that of theft: “Theft in a pastry shop”. A chef’s kiss for his comic construction. Elsewhere, legends emerge from the landscape; in the title story, an almost infallible sniper is “a mountain youth with an apple look on his face.”
For my title of Deserted Island, I would be more likely to choose Calvino’s latest comedy of acquaintance “Mr. Palomar”. But “Raven” is a good start for anyone who wants to take the wonderful trick that is Maestro’s fiction.
Robert Cremins teaches at Honors College, University of Houston.
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