Is Italo Calvino an overrated author?

Translation by Bianca Giacobone

Thirty years after his death, the critical debate on Italo Calvino – who passed away on the 19th of September 1985 – is back once again, like an undertow. The debate is, like it’s always been, about the value of Calvino’s work and his privileged status in contemporary Italian literature.

On the 16th of September, Paolo di Paolo published in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero a summary of the opinions of the members of what he likes to call “the anti-Calvino party”. “The anti-Calvino party” is made of a multitude of fierce literary critics, who basically think that the Ligurian writer is largely overestimated. The controversy is quite old: in 1999 Carla Benedetti had already made a comparison between Pasolini and Calvino, and the result was not good for the latter. Calvino was accused of being a conformist and servile writer, the symbol of «literature’s giving up on affecting the world» (as if everyone agreed on the idea that «affecting the world» is the purpose of literature).

More recently, in an essay published in the literary magazine Belfagor, Claudio Giunta worked hard to demolish – with some rancour – Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium[1]. He did so mostly misunderstanding the meaning of the four (just sketched) lectures. Furthermore, he focused only on the first and most famous one, like those who belittle the lecture on Lightness with an easy collection of inspirational quotes on their side. Saying Six Memos for the Next Millennium is not clear enough and far too casual in its literary references, Giunta is betraying his own annoyance at being a professional philologist who feels overstepped by the poet, and who does not understand that being a philologist and being a poet are two different things.

Incontro con Italo Calvino

Calvino’s detractors were quite active during his life as well: famous is the bitter definition of «cynical unharmed child» pinned on him by Franco Fortini in 1959, which is an efficient recap of how this hostility was always played on the same basis.

According to Claudio Giunta’s essay, in Calvino’s it is hard to put up with the condescending manner of the writer, and with his stance as spectator (Calvino’s own definition), which is seen as a sign of opportunism. This is what Giunta says near the end of his essay (revealing his not-only-philological reason for his bad review): “Reading his [Calvino’s] biography once again, one has the feeling that, during his entire life, he has always done the right thing at the right time”. (!)

What’s been bothering people is that Calvino has been precociously accepted among the authors taught in schools (together with Umberto Eco, he is the only one belonging to the second half on the 20th century). That, and his success as a pop writer, which is something that immediately makes people suspicious. Therefore, the ones who don’t want to agree with the enthusiastic chant of Calvino’s fans are prejudiced, and unable to judge his work rightfully. Calvino is easily accused of being superficial, prosaic, childish («cynical unharmed child») and badly logical. In an essay published on the 30th of August on, Matteo Marchesini writes about Calvino’s «hygienical mania» and about «the multifaceted rationalism with which the writer is inclined to remove what’s rough and visceral in life». Calvino, «expertly beating about the bush», with «pleased fatuousness […]does not build games, but toys; he does not produce complete literary houses, but buildings without basements – that is to say without the shady existential subsoil, intended for the nekya […]».

It is true that Calvino, as a writer, can be easily trivialized. It is mostly a consequence of his high level of diffusion, and it happens to a lot of classics. Also, it’s easy to mistake the clarity, the logical fluency of his speech, and the ability to convey philosophy and poetry with the gloomy tenderness of a fairy tale (Marcovaldo, or the Seasons in the City) for paternalism and for an affected superiority complex. But it is actually just honesty we are talking about. Looking through the eyes of a child is not – since The Path to the Nest of Spiders – affected puerility, but what’s needed to search for lost authenticity and for the natural naivety, through which we can recognize beauty. It is a matter of looking for what’s essential. In other words, the ones who charge Calvino with shallowness are not able to go beyond the surface of his lesson.

The juxtaposition between visceral quality and logic – which is quite simplistic, to be sincere – was fuelled by Calvino himself, when he distinguished between logical and visceral writers, and put himself in the first category. This way, he kind of justified the stereotype mostly used by present and past detractors: the one of an author who loathes every vile and dirty angle of life, and who hides himself among pure geometries and fruitless architectures of the mind, far away from every material problem, through a stylistic removal of chaos and pain (Marchesini, again).

It is a judgment founded on a restrictive, shallow, and purely stylistic interpretation of the meaning of visceral. And, on the other side, there is the mistake of judging Calvino’s late “structuralist turn as an escape from reality, while it is actually a progressive digging inside interiority, looking for the ultimate nucleus of conscience, of the meaning of our being alive. Calvino slowly goes under, methodic and obsessive, with the necessary transaction from narration to description. And it all culminates in the last, terrible, consideration of Mr. Palomar, dryly entitled How to learn to be dead.

New Image

Looking for the self is the will to nullify the thinking “I”, the will to reduce oneself to a meaningless particle, the will to become pure observation, without any influence on the universe. Calvino’s geometrical way is the literary equivalent of a monk’s asceticism while looking for the Nirvana. It is exactly the difficult relationship between self and chaos (not removed at all) to lead Calvino’s characters to the paralysis of choice. We can find an example of what has just been said in the claustrophobic, eponymous short story of T zero. The relationship between self and chaos can also lead to the as painful condition of a choice carried to its drastic consequences, exemplified by Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the baron in the trees. The attempt to run out of particular possibilities is a recurring criterion: the Unpaired Slipper of Mr. Palomar (is it possible that somewhere in the world there is someone with the other “unpaired slipper”? Or is the pile of unpaired slippers in the oriental bazaar inexhaustible?), and, in Difficult Loves, the photographer trying to get as many pictures as possible of his model.

This is where Calvino’s fascination for science, especially physics and astronomy, comes from. Physics and astronomy speak about a world without human beings. However the search is all about human beings, who have to change their nature to find their nature, and who have to reduce themselves to planetary material, crystal, light. We have the best proof of all this in a short story which is also literally visceral: Blood, Sea. In it, Calvino, speaking through his immortal cosmicomical narrator Qwfq, plays with the concepts of “inside” and “outside” – which are the same as the ancient juxtaposition of “one” and “multiple” – and with the very thin line between them. The thin line is the skin, which can be turned inside out like a glove, with the hypothesis of a primordial sea. In it the individualities used to swim all together, before it was enclosed, like blood, inside us. At the time, human relationships were due to a play of streams, beatings felt in the distance. Today, the love which brings us to contact, through skin, is the search for that ancestral unity, which existed before the birth of self, and which is still perceivable through the common flow of our inner sea (the only real movement). Individuals, however, stay irreducible, the ancient unity cannot be restored. In the story, the passengers are in love and they crash with their car. “But their common blood, which flows the bruised foil, is not the original blood-sea. It is only an infinitesimal detail of the outside, of the meaningless and dry outside, a number for the statistics of car accidents during the weekends.”

It is not escape, and it is not removal. Every single one of Calvino’s lines faces the daily horror of life, and sometimes he takes it to the extreme, to death instinct, with an almost sadistic orderliness. Some other times, on the other hand, he pities that daily horror with humorous good nature, but he always resolves it in the balance of literary creation. Calvino’s literature is pure and absolute, not because it is apart from reality, but because it contains reality while it tries to make it bearable; the eye of the author flies over it.

[1] “Lezioni Americane” in Italian.

Sebastian Bendinelli
In missione per fermare la Rivoluzione industriale.