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Calvino, Italo

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1923-1985) Italian author, born in Cuba, active from the middle of World War Two, at first with realist works but soon with Gothic, surrealist romances of great vigour and impact, such as Il Visconte dimezzato (1951) and Il Cavaliere inesistente (1959) – translated together by Archibald Colquhoun as The Non-Existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (omni 1962) – and Il Barone rampante (1957; trans Archibald Colquhoun as Baron in the Trees 1959), three thematically linked fables later assembled as I nostri antenati (omni 1960; in the Colquhoun trans as Our Ancestors 1980). A more recent venture in the same idiom was Il Castello dei Destini incrociati (coll of linked stories 1969; trans William Weaver as The Castle of Crossed Destinies 1977), though here the gamelike estrangement is not simply an underlying premise but an active transformative agency – a group of men and women are stranded together speechless, and must communicate their stories by dealing a pack of tarot cards, which tells them who they are; rather like a Club Story with St Vitus' Dance. Beneath the Fabulation-drenched protocols of these volumes – the nonexistent knight, for instance, is an empty suit of armour with a "passion" for the formalities and ceremonies that keeps it "alive" – lies a concern for fundamental conundrums of being.

Calvino comes closest to sf in the various stories which he called "cosmicomics": short tales – usually told in an abstract but recognizable Club Story frame by the presence called Qfwfq, who is the same age as the Universe – which posit fantasticated scientific postulates whose implications are unpacked with a sometimes Absurdist, cartoonish clarity, as though they were Memes with tales to tell. Most of these cosmicomics appear in two linked volumes – Le Cosmicomiche (coll of linked stories 1965; trans William Weaver as Cosmicomics 1968) and Ti con zero (coll of linked stories 1967; trans William Weaver as t zero 1969; vt Time and the Hunter 1970); but The Complete Cosmicomics (coll/omni trans Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin and William Weaver 2009) also adds seven stories from La Memoria del Mondo ["The Memory of the World"] (coll 1968), four from Prima che tu dica "Pronto" (coll 1993; trans Tim Parks as Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories 1995), plus other stories. Speculations and fables about the nature of life, Mathematics, Evolution and the distinction between reality and appearance (see Perception) dominate; in the end, Calvino's cosmicomics seem radiantly witty, moving and, after their strange fashion, effectively didactic.

One of the stories in The Watcher and Other Stories (1952-1963; coll trans William Weaver 1971), "La nuvola di smog" (in I Racconti, coll 1958; trans William Weaver as "Smog"), a remarkable Pollution tale, is sf, one of the last tales published before Calvino gained his full international reputation, began the remarkable sequence of experimental fictions that have cemented that fame, and incurred the ire of the not-unprovincial Italian critical establishment. Le cittá invisibili (1972; trans William Weaver as Invisible Cities 1974) frames fragmented versions of Marco Polo's narrative of his extraordinary voyages (see Fantastic Voyages) with a remarkable set of meditations ostensibly triggered by distant, surrealistic Cities he has not in fact visited. Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (1979; trans William Weaver as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler 1981) stunningly transfigures the conventions and momentums of narrative into a Buñuelesque labyrinth. Calvino's powers of invention were formally ingenious; at the same time he was an extremely lucid writer. His use of sf subjects and their intermixing with a whole array of contemporary literary devices made him a figure of considerable interest for the future of the genre. He articulates this process in Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e società ["A Lid On It"] (coll 1980; cut trans Patrick Creagh as The Uses of Literature 1986; vt The Literature Machine 1987), some of these pieces being reassembled, with further material, as Perché leggere i classici ["Why Read the Classics?"] (coll 1991; trans Martin McLaughlin as Why Read the Classics? 1999). Calvino's arena-like staging of intricate jostlings of reality and irreality, being and identity, Equipoise and Oulipo, clearly prefigure the early twenty-first-century fantastic (see Fantastika). In 1981 he received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [JC]

see also: Cosmology; Ditmar Award; Identity; Italy; Origin of Man.

Italo Calvino

born Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba: 15 October 1923

died Siena, Italy: 19 September 1985

works (selected)


  • Le Cosmicomiche (Turin, Italy: Giulio Einaudi, 1965) [coll: hb/M C Escher]
    • Cosmicomics (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968) [coll: trans of the above by William Weaver: hb/Robin Forbes]
  • Ti con zero (Turin, Italy: Giulio Einaudi, 1967) [coll: hb/]
    • t zero (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969) [coll: trans of the above by William Weaver: hb/Anita Walker Scott]
    • The Complete Cosmicomics (London: Penguin Classics, 2009) [omni of the above two: plus material from other collections: trans by Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin and William Weaver: hb/]
  • La Memoria del Mondo ["The Memory of the World"] (Milan, Italy: Club Editori, 1968) [coll: hb/]
  • The Watcher and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971) [coll: trans by William Weaver of stories from I Racconti (Turin, Italy: Giulio Einaudi, 1958) and elsewhere: hb/Anita Walker Scott]
  • Il Castello dei Destini incrociati (Italy: Franco Maria Ricci, 1969) [coll: linked stories: binding unknown/]
  • Sotto il sole giaguaro (Italy: Garzanti Editore, 1986) [coll: hb/]
    • Under the Jaguar Sun (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988) [chap: trans by William Weaver of the above: hb/Malcolm Tarlofsky]
  • Prima che tu dica "Pronto" (Milan, Italy: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1993) [coll: hb/]


  • Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e società ["A Lid On It"] (Milan, Italy: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1980) [nonfiction: coll: binding unknown/]
    • The Uses of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986) [nonfiction: coll: cut trans by Patrick Creagh of the above: with additional essay: hb/from Saul Steinberg]
      • The Literature Machine (London: Secker and Warburg, 1987) [nonfiction: coll: cut vt of the above: with additional essay: hb/]
  • Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988) [nonfiction: trans by Patrick Creagh from the Italian manuscript version of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that Calvino died before delivering: hb/Marianne Perlak]
  • Perché leggere i classici (Milan, Italy: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1991) [nonfiction: coll: binding unknown/]
    • Why Read the Classics? (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999) [nonfiction: coll: trans Martin McLaughlin: hb/Marco Monti/Photonica]

works as editor

about the author


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