Effrontery & Charm


by Italo Calvino, Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Harcourt, Brace & World, 153 pp., $3.95

Antonio in Love

by Giuseppe Berto, Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Knopf, 303 pp., $5.95

Italo Calvino’s novel, The Baron in the Trees (Random House, 1959), concerned an Italian nobleman who took to the trees as a boy and never came down to earth again. Within the story’s charming premises there was space for Calvino’s highly developed and humanistic imagination to accomplish quite a lot. In the interests of credibility, we were shown how eminently possible it was for Cosimo to lead “a normal life,” all the way from performing his daily duties in a decent, hygienic manner to performing the act of love in a comfortable as well as sometimes a rather acrobatic fashion. (The blurbwriter was inspired to an unusual wittiness on this occasion, remarking that women were quite ready to go out on a limb for Cosimo.) Our hero studied the Encyclopédistes, fought a duel with a Spanish Jesuit, led successful campaigns against wolves, forest fires, and Mohammedan pirates, acquired a press and printed pamphlets composed by himself (such as The Magpie’s Gazette), became Master of an unorthodox Lodge of Freemasons (“he who had never wanted nor built nor inhabited any house with walls”), was visited by Napoleon (“Were I not the Emperor Napoleon, I would like to be the citizen Cosimo Rondò”), etc., etc. Cosimo forswore the earth as an act of rebellion against his family, and even when he dies, he does not return. The old dying man is swept out of the branches by the anchor of a balloon belonging to some English aeronauts and his body is never seen again. Between these two eccentric events, Cosimo has led a reasonably full life, it occurs to us, and a more than usually satisfying one. He has lived according to his lights, he has never compromised, yet neither has he renounced his species.

It is cheering to deduce from the modest success of The Baron in the Trees that there is still interest in something quite other than the Great American Novel (and smaller British one), the Apocalyptic-Excremental or Sexual Variations without a Theme, that there is still interest in an art which is more concerned with life and growth than with decay and death. Calvino’s reviewers were forced to dip into a new (or perhaps old) word-hoard: “mellow,” “graceful,” “beautifully written,” “delightful,” “antique ease and enjoyment,” “a lovely book.”

Some of these epithets, I imagine, will be applied to Calvino’s new book, a collection of linked stories, or “evolutionary tales.” The narrator, old (indeed remarkably old, or ageless, or even young) Qfwfq, tells of his experiences at various stages of evolution, as a young vertebrate who is in process of deserting the sea for the land, as the last of the dinosaurs anxiously concealing his identity from the New Ones, for whom his sort are doubtfully mythical figures of dread, like giants in later history (“You looked as if you’d seen…a Dinosaur!”), and as a mollusk knowing love and jealousy. The opening story, which makes the film 2001 look about as imaginative as a spilled bucket of distemper,…

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