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Oh boy Italo!


“I came to a station, caught the first train, and was lost in the crowd.”

So closes one of the best stories ever written, a story by Italo Calvino. One sentence that addresses the character of the story, the characters in all of the stories in the collection, the reader himself, and the frame of the entire book, its structure–which in this particular book, Cosmicomics, is really the greater story that the book is telling.

There is too much to say about Calvino, a gargantuan spirit, but as I’ve been reading some of him recently (“A King Listens” among other things) I’ll put down a few thoughts, maybe they’ll be in separate parts, maybe it’ll be a monthly thing, like a book club, but only for one person (me) and only one set of books…

Deftness, is one way to put it. The ‘nimble Italian’ he is often called. He looked nimble. Intellectually serious but also mischievous. Always playing a game, but (like Kafka) you’re never sure on what level it’s being played. Some people play chess to win; others play to pass the time; and then some play to figure things out about the world having nothing whatever to do with chess, or with one’s opponent, but with the whole brief swirl of players and parlor room and historical background, ancestry, weather patterns, art on the walls, idle chatter, smoke.

Then there is such depth as well, as in, the game is being played on the surface, you can see it there as you read, but underneath there’s a whole other thread to existence–of the ‘characters,’ which usually aren’t your typical, or even actual, characters; and of the story itself, which is alive and kicking oftentimes on a separate plane from both ‘characters’ and game. “Cosmicomics” and “T-Zero” take this form, as do “Marcovaldo,” “Mr Palomer” and many of the stories in “Difficult Loves.” Or else the game is the story, and the frame of the book, neither game nor story nor gamestory, is what “moves” the book along, in other words, the world (or, time) in which the game is being played is the book itself, the physical thing you’re reading. This is the case in “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler…” and “Invisible Cities.”

So Calvino uses game, story, characters, and frame/book-in-itself. That’s how I see it, anyway. A one-up on Kafka, who never deals with this last category. Calvino mixes and matches all four in different ways: frame- and game-stories, characters aware or ignorant of the other categories, and so on. The deft ability comes in the style of the prose. The writing itself flows so easily, quickly, lightly, as if skipping down a garden path where peripherally you glimpse luscious waterfalls of flowers and bursts of plants and different rocks and pebbles and so much else. Calvino is able to keep you on the path while letting you see, if you choose to look, all that entangled garden.

The only other two writers I’ve read who could pull this off were Franz Kafka and James Joyce. So there you have it. In my opinion the three greatest to ever write, at least in terms of craft (a few others perhaps have them on magnificence, bombast, sheer personality, trembling empathy, etc). These three are the ones who shock me with the way they write, if not necessarily what they are writing about–though the one thing can easily lead to the other, and frequently does. There is much to dig into and yet the writing is spare. There are minimalists–Hemingway, Salinger, Vonnegut, Carver–who through their style give you an overall mood, an almost systematic way of reading the text. You enter a world–the world of Hemingway–and you know what to look for and it’s brilliant, but it’s all there.

This trio–KJC–they keep you on your toes. You would never call them minimal, though their style is at times much the same–Joyce led to Hemingway, who led to the rest, after all, and the other half led from Kafka, though there are more than just two halves, as it were, in this particular legend.

Because of the sizable worlds and ideas they effortlessly conjure up, not as mood, but as actual object, these three writers are always new. Their stories do not depend on mood. They don’t depend on anything outside of themselves. Each one is crafted how it needs to be and each has just enough words to serve that craft.

Calvino was more inventive than Joyce, and more playful. Kafka is his most obvious precursor (as Kundera is their most obvious successor), though Kafka is more serious. Both knew irony well, and both laughed at it, but Calvino’s is a lighthearted laugh, a love-of-life laugh. Kafka’s laugh is bitter and sardonic and devastatingly funny. Both could look at anything and instantly see the two sides of it. For Calvino this was the source of endless wonderment. How humans comport themselves, in society and in private, and their interminable ridiculous battles within which they come to judgments: what is proper, right, wrong, good, in poor taste, the meaning of such-and-such, and so on.

Calvino, like the other two, is too formidable and original an artist to be derailed by theoreticians or undone by the example of another creator (though some say Borges, but Borges was too cold). Gore Vidal, may he rest, had much praise for Calvino, particularly as original voice (the Vidal essay in NY Review of Books can be found, in somewhat primitive, typoed form, here).

The first line quoted above is the ending of a story about a dinosaur. But it is also about all dinosaurs, and about the concept “dinosaur” that we hold in our modern minds, and about the melding of all time into our time, and all evolution and history as embodied by us in the present, all the past retold and seen through our perception and thus lived by us. These are his Cosmicomics, true the way comics are, by way of outlandish presentation done deftly–a talking dog who is stereotypically human; a hungry cat who runs straight through a door.


From → Readings

  1. Calvino had a texture in his writing that engaged deeper thought for me ,Cortazar as well and to a degree Barth

    • Yes, Cortazar is incredible. Though more stylized, like Beckett and Kerouac, a late-night card game to Calvino’s clean chess board.

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