The Path to the Nest of Spiders
The Watcher and Other Stories
Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, there was a burst of creative activity throughout the American empire as well as in our client states of Western Europe. From Auden’s Age of Anxiety to Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye to Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to Tudor’s ballets and to Bernstein’s enthusiasms, it was an exciting time. The cold war was no more than a nip in the air while the junior senator from Wisconsin was just another genial pol with a drinking problem and an eye for the boys. In that happy time the young American writer was able to reel in triumph through the old cities of Europe—the exchange rate entirely in his favor.
Twenty-six years ago this spring I arrived in Rome. First impressions: Acid yellow forsythia on the Janiculum. Purple wisteria in the Forum. Chunks of goat on a plate in a trattoria. Samuel Barber at the American Academy, talking Italian accurately. Harold Acton politely deploring our barbarous presence in his Europe. Frederick Prokosch at Doney’s, eating cakes. Streets empty of cars. Had there been traffic of any kind, Tennessee Williams would have been planted long since in the Protestant cemetery for he drove a jeep although “I am practically blind in one eye,” he would say proudly, going through the occasional red light, treating sidewalk and street as one.
I visited George Santayana in his hospital cell at the Convent of the Blue Nuns. He wore a dressing gown; Lord Byron collar open at the withered neck; faded mauve waistcoat. He was genial; made a virtue of his deafness. “I will talk. You will listen.” A sly smile; black glittering eyes—he looked exactly like my grandmother.
“Have you met my young new friend Robert Lowell?” I said no. “He will have a difficult life. To be a Lowell. From Boston. A Catholic convert.” The black eyes shone with a lovely malice. “And a poet, too! Oh, dear. Now tell me who is a Mr. Edmund Wilson? He came to see me. I think that he must be very important. In fact, I believe he said that he was very important. You sent me a book, he said. I said that I had not. He said but you did, and got very angry. I tried to tell him that I do not send books. But later I recalled that when we were rescued by the American army—and how glad we were to see you!” A fond glance at me (one still wore khakis, frayed army belt). “A major, a very forceful man, came to see me, with a number of my books. He stood over me and made me sign them…for this one, for that one. I was terrified and did as requested. Perhaps one of those books was for Mr. Wilson.”
The only books in Santayana’s cell were his own—and a set of Toynbee’s recently published history, which he was reading characteristically; that is, he first broke (or foxed) the spine of the book and undid the sections; then, as he finished reading each section, he would throw it in the wastebasket. “Some sort of preacher, I should think,” he said of Toynbee. “But the footnotes are not entirely worthless.”
Santayana signed a copy of The Middle Span for me; he wrote “from” before his name. “I almost never do that,” he said. An appraising look. “You look younger than you are because your head is somewhat small in proportion to your body.” That was in 1948 when the conquering Americans lived in Rome and Paris and strolled streets as yet uncrowded with automobiles or with the billion or so human beings who have since joined us.
In that far-off time, the people one met talked about novels and novelists the way they now talk of movies and directors. Young people today think that I am exaggerating. But novelists mattered then and the Italian novel, in particular, was having a fine flowering. Yet the American writers in Rome and Paris saw little of their counterparts. For one thing, the Italians were just getting around to reading Dos Passos and Steinbeck—the generation that had gone untranslated during the Fascist era. Also, few Italian writers then (or now) spoke or read English with any ease while the American writers then (though not so much now) proudly spoke no language but English.
I do remember in 1948 coming across a book by Italo Calvino. An Italian Calvin, I said to myself, fixing permanently his name in my memory. Idly, I wondered what a man called Italo Calvino would write about. I glanced at his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947). Something about partisans in Liguria. A fellow war novelist. No, I thought; and put it down. I did note that he was two years older than I, worked for the publisher Einaudi, lived in Turin.
During the last year, I have read Calvino straight through, starting with the book I only glanced at in 1948, now translated as The Path to the Nest of Spiders.
Calvino’s first novel is a plainly told, exuberant sort of book. Although the writing is conventional, there is an odd intensity in the way Calvino sees things, a closeness of scrutiny much like that of William Golding. Like Golding he knows how and when to inhabit entirely, with all senses functioning, landscape, state of mind, act. In The Spire Golding makes the flawed church so real that one smells the mortar, sees the motes of dust, fears for the ill-placed stones. Calvino does the same in his story of Pin, a boy living on the Ligurian coast of Italy, near San Remo (although Calvino was brought up in San Remo, he was actually born in Cuba, a detail given by none of his American publishers; no doubt in deference to our attempted conquest of that unfortunate island).
Pin lives with his sister, a prostitute. He spends his days at a low-life bar where he amuses with songs and taunts the grownups, a race of monsters as far as he is concerned, but he has no other companions for “Pin is a boy who does not know how to play games, and cannot take part in the games either of children or grownups.” Pin dreams, however, of “a friend, a real friend who understands him and whom he can understand, and then to him, and only to him, will he show the place where the spiders have their lairs.”
It’s on a stony little path which winds down to the torrent between earthy grassy slopes. There, in the grass, the spiders make their nests, in tunnels lined with dry grass. But the wonderful thing is that the nests have tiny doors, also made of dried grass, tiny round doors which can open and shut.
This sort of precise, quasi-scientific observation keeps Calvino from the sort of sentimentality that was prevalent in the Forties, when wise children learned compassion from a black mammy as she deep-fried chitlins and Jesus in equal parts south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Pin joins the partisans in the hills above the Ligurian coast. I have a suspicion that Calvino is dreaming all this for he writes like a bookish, nearsighted man who has mislaid his glasses: objects held close to are vividly described but the middle and far distances of landscape and war tend to blur. It makes no difference, however, for the dreams of a nearsighted young man at the beginning of a literary career can be more real to the reader than the busy reportage of those journalist-novelists who were there and, seeing it all, saw nothing.
Although Calvino manages to inhabit the skin of the outraged and outrageous child, his men and women are almost always shadowy. Later in his career, Calvino will eliminate men and women altogether as he re-creates the cosmos. Meanwhile, as a beginner, he is a vivid, if occasionally clumsy, writer. Two thirds of the way through the narrative he shifts the point of view from Pin to a pair of commissars who would have been more effective had he observed them from outside. Then, confusingly, he shifts again, briefly, into the mind of a traitor who is about to be shot. Finally, he returns us to Pin just as the boy finds the longed-for friend, a young partisan called Cousin who takes him in hand not only literally but, presumably, for the rest of the time Pin will need to grow up. Calvino’s last paragraphs are almost always jubilant—the sort of cheerful codas that only a deep pessimist about human matters could write. But then Calvino, like one of Pin’s friends, Red Wolf, “belongs to the generation brought up on strip cartoons; he has taken them all seriously and life has not disproved them so far.”
In 1952 Calvino published The Cloven Viscount, one of the three short novels he has since collected under the title Our Ancestors. They are engaging works, written in a style somewhat like that of T. H. White’s Arthurian novels. The narrator of The Cloven Viscount is, again, an orphan boy. During a war between Austria and Turkey (1716) the boy’s uncle Viscount Medardo was cloven from top to crotch by a cannon ball. Saved by doctors on the battlefield, the half Viscount was sent home with one leg, one arm, one eye, half a nose, mouth, etc. En route, Calvino pays homage (ironic?) to Malaparte (“The patch of plain they were crossing was covered with horses’ carcasses, some supine with hooves to the sky, others prone with muzzles dug into the earth.” A nice reprise of those dead horses in The Skin).
The story is cheerfully, briskly told. The Half Viscount is a perfect bastard and takes pleasure in murder, fire, torture. He burns down part of his own castle, hoping to incinerate his old nurse Sebastiana; finally, he packs her off to a leper colony. He tries to poison his nephew. He never stops slashing living creatures in half. He has a thing about halfness.
“If only I could halve every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying face down on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness. I was whole and all things were natural and confused to me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind. If you ever become a half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you’ll understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole. You’ll have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious.”
I note that the publisher’s blurb would have us believe that this is “an allegory of modern man—alienated and mutilated—this novel has profound overtones. As a parody of the Christian parables of good and evil, it is both witty and refreshing.” Well, at least the book is witty and refreshing. Actually the story is less Christian than a send-up of Plato and his idea of the whole.
In due course the other half of the Viscount hits town; this half is unbearably good and deeply boring. He, too, is given to celebrating halfness because, “One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness. I was whole and did not understand….” A charming young girl named Pamela (homage to Richardson) is beloved by both halves of the Viscount; but she has serious reservations about each. “Doing good together is the only way to love,” intones the good half. To which the irritable girl responds, “A pity. I thought there were other ways.” When the two halves are finally united, the resulting whole Viscount is the usual not very interesting human mixture. In a happy ending, he marries Pamela. But the boy narrator is not content. “Amid all this fervor of wholeness, [I] felt myself growing sadder and more lacking. Sometimes one who thinks himself incomplete is merely young.”
The Cloven Viscount is filled with many closely observed natural images like “The subsoil was so full of ants that a hand put down anywhere came up all black and swarming with them.” I don’t know which was written first, The Cloven Viscount (1952) or “The Argentine Ant,” published in Botteghe Oscure (1952), but Calvino’s nightmare of an ant-infested world touched on in the novel becomes the subject of “The Argentine Ant” and I fear that I must now trot out that so often misused word “masterpiece.” Or, put another way, if “The Argentine Ant” is not a masterpiece of twentieth-century prose writing, I cannot think of anything better. Certainly it is as minatory and strange as anything by Kafka. It is also hideously funny. In some forty pages Calvino gives us “the human condition,” as the blurb writers would say, in spades. That is, the human condition today. Or the dilemma of modern man. Or the disrupted environment. Or nature’s revenge. Or an allegory of grace. Whatever…. But a story is, finally, what it tells and no more.
Calvino’s first sentence is rather better than God’s “in the beginning was the word.” God (as told to Saint John) has always had a penchant for cloudy abstractions of the sort favored by American novelists, heavyweight division—unlike Calvino who simply tells us what’s what: “When we came to settle here we did not know about the ants.” No nonsense about here or we. Here is a place infested with ants and we are the nuclear family: father, mother, child. No names.
“We” have rented a house in a town where our Uncle Augusto used to hang out. Uncle Augusto rather liked the place, though he did say, “You should see the ants over there…they’re not like the ones here, those ants….” But we paid no attention at the time. As the local landlady Signora Mauro shows the young couple about the house they have just rented from her, she distracts their attention from the walls with a long dissertation on the gas meter. When she has gone, the baby is put to bed and the young couple take a stroll outside. Their next-door neighbor is spraying the plants in his garden with a bellows. The ants, he explains, “as if not wanting to make it sound important.”
The young couple return to their house and find it infested with ants. The Argentine ants. The husband-narrator suddenly recalls that this country is known for them. “It comes from South America,” he adds, helpfully, to his distraught wife. Finally, they go to bed without “the feeling we were starting a new life, only a sense of dragging on into a future full of new troubles.”
The rest of the story deals with the way that the others in the valley cope with the ants. Some go in for poisons; others make fantastic contraptions to confuse or kill the insects while for twenty years the Argentine Ant Control Corporation’s representative has been putting out molasses ostensibly to control (kill) the ants but many believe that this is done to feed the ants. The frantic young couple pay a call on Signora Mauro in her dim palatial drawing room. She is firm; ants do not exist in well-tended houses, but from the way she squirms in her chair it is plain that the ants are crawling about under her clothes.
Methodically, Calvino describes the various human responses to The Condition. There is the Christian Scientist ignoring of all evidence; the Manichean acceptance of evil; the relentless Darwinian faith that genetic superiority will prevail. But the ants prove indestructible and the story ends with the family going down to the seaside where there are no ants; where
The water was calm, with just a slight continual change of color, blue and black, darker farthest away. I thought of the expanses of water like this, of the infinite grains, of soft sand down there at the bottom of the sea where the currents leave white shells washed clean by the waves.
I don’t know what this coda means. I also see no reason for it to mean. A contrast has been made between the ant-infested valley and the cool serenity of mineral and of shell beneath the sea, that other air we can no longer breathe since our ancestors chose to live upon the land.
In 1956 Calvino edited a volume of Italian fables, and the local critics decided that he was true heir to Grimm. Certainly the bright, deadly fairy tale attracts him and he returned to it with The Baron in the Trees (1957). Like the other two tales in the trilogy, the story is related in the first person; this time by the eponymous baron’s brother. The time is 1767. The place Liguria. The Baron is Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, who after an argument at dinner on June 15 decides to live in the trees. The response of family and friends to this decision is varied. But Cosimo is content. Later he goes in for politics; deals with Napoleon himself; becomes legend.
Calvino has now developed two ways of writing. One is literally fabulous. The other makes use of a dry rather didactic style in which the detail is as precisely observed as if the author were writing a manual for the construction of a solar heating unit. Yet the premises of the “dry” stories are often quite as fantastic as those of the fairy tales.1
“Smog” was published in 1958, a long time before the current preoccupation with man’s systematic destruction of the environment. The narrator comes to a large city to take over a small magazine called Purification. The owner of the magazine, Commendatore Cordà, is an important manufacturer who produces the sort of air pollution that his magazine would like to eliminate. Cordà has it both ways and his new editor settles in nicely. The prevailing image of the story is smog: gray dust covers everything; nothing is ever clean. The city is very like the valley of the Argentine ants but on a larger scale for now a vast population is slowly strangling in the fumes of its industry, of the combustion engine.
Calvino is finely comic as he shows us the publisher instructing his editor in how to strike the right tone. “We are not utopians, mind you, we are practical men.” Or, “It’s a battle for an ideal.” Or, “There will not be (nor has there ever been) any contradiction between an economy in free, natural expansion and the hygiene necessary to the human organism…between the smoke of our productive factories and the green of our incomparable natural beauty….” Finally, the editorial policy is set. “We are one of the cities where the problem of air pollution is most serious, but at the same time we are the city where most is being done to counteract the situation. At the same time you understand!” By some fifteen years, Calvino anticipated Exxon’s double-talk ads on American television.
This is the first of Calvino’s stories where a realistic affair takes place between a man and a woman—well, fairly realistic. We never know how the elegant and wealthy Claudia came to meet the narrator or what she sees in him; yet, periodically, she descends upon him, confuses him (“to embrace her, I had removed my glasses”). One day they drive out of the city. The narrator comments on the ugliness of the city and the ubiquitous smog. Claudia says that “people have lost the sense of beauty.” He answers, “Beauty has to be constantly invented.” They argue; he finds everything cruel. Later, he meets a proletarian who is in arms against Cordà. The narrator admires the worker Omar, admires “the stubborn ones, the tough ones.” But Calvino does not really engage, in Sartre’s sense. He suspects that the trap we are in is too great for mere politics to spring.
The narrator begins to write about atomic radiation in the atmosphere; about the way the weather is changing in the world. Is there a connection? Even Cordà is momentarily alarmed. But then life goes on, for is not Cordà himself “the smog’s master? It was he who blew it out constantly over the city,” and his magazine was “born of the need to give those working to produce the smog some hope of a life that was not all smog, and yet, at the same time, to celebrate its power.”
The story’s coda resembles that of “The Argentine Ant.” The narrator goes to the outskirts of the city where the women are doing laundry. The sight is cheering. “It wasn’t much, but for me, seeking only images to retain in my eyes, perhaps it was enough.”
The next year Calvino switched to his other manner. The Nonexistent Knight is the last of the Our Ancestors trilogy though it comes first chronologically, in the age of Charlemagne. Again a war is going on. We are not introduced to the narrator until page 34—Sister Theodora is a nun in a convent who has been assigned to tell this story “for the health of the soul.” Unfortunately, the plot is giving her a good deal of trouble because “we nuns have few occasions to speak with soldiers…. Apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasions, sacking, rape and pestilence, we have had no experience.”
Sister Theodora does her best with the tale of Agiluf, a knight who does not exist. What does exist is a suit of white armor from which comes the voice of Agiluf. He is a devoted knight in the service of Charlemagne who thinks him a bit much but graciously concedes, “for someone who doesn’t exist, you seem in fine form.” Since Agiluf has no appetites or weaknesses, he is the perfect soldier and so disliked by all. As for Agiluf, “people’s bodies gave him a disagreeable feeling resembling envy, but also a stab of pride of contemptuous superiority.” A young man (an older version of Pin, of the cloven Viscount’s nephew) named Raimbaut joins the army to avenge his father’s death. Agiluf gives him dull advice. There are battles. General observations. “What is war, after all, but this passing of more and more dented objects from hand to hand?” Then a meeting with a man who confuses himself with things outside himself. When he drinks soup, he becomes soup; thinks he is soup to be drunk in turn: “the world being nothing but a vast shapeless mass of soup in which all things dissolved.”
Calvino now strikes a theme which will be developed in later works. The confusion between “I”/”it”; “I”/ “you”; the arbitrariness of naming things, of categorizing, and of setting apart, particularly when “World conditions were still confused in the era when this book took place. It was not rare then to find names and thoughts and forms and institutions that corresponded to nothing in existence. But at the same time the world was polluted with objects and capacities and persons who lacked any name or distinguishing mark.”
A triangle occurs. Raimbaut falls in love with a knight who proves to be a young woman, Bradamante. Unfortunately, she falls in love with Agiluf, the nonexistent knight. At this point there is rather too much plot for Sister Theodora, who strikes the professional writer’s saddest note. “One starts off writing with a certain zest, but a time comes when the pen merely grates in dusty ink, and not a drop of life flows, and life is all outside, outside the window, outside oneself, and it seems that never more can one escape into a page one is writing, open out another world, leap the gap.”
But the teller finally gets a grip on the tale; closes the gap. Knightly quests are conducted, concluded. Agiluf surrenders his armor and ceases to be; Raimbaut is allowed to inhabit the armor. Bradamante has vanished, but with a fine coup de théâtre Sister Theodora reveals to us that she is Bradamante, who is now rushing the narrative to its end so that she can take the beloved white armor in her arms: aware that it now contains the young and passionate Raimbaut, her true love. “That is why my pen at a certain point began running on so. I rush to meet him…. A page is good only when we turn it and find life urging along….”
With the completion of the trilogy, Calvino took to his other manner and wrote “The Watcher,” the most realistic of his stories and the most overtly political. The narrator has a name, Amerigo Ormea. He is a poll watcher in Turin for the Communist party during the national election of 1953. Amerigo’s poll is inside the vast “Cottolengo Hospital for Incurables.” Apparently the mad and the senile and even the comatose are allowed to vote (“hospitals, asylums and convents had served as great reservoirs of votes for the Christian Democrat party”). Amerigo is a serene observer of democracy’s confusions, having “learned that change, in politics, comes through long and complex processes”; he also confesses that “acquiring experience had meant becoming slightly pessimistic.”
In the course of the day, Amerigo observes with fine dispassion the priests and nuns as they herd their charges into the polling booths that have been set up inside the hospital. Despite the grotesqueries of the situation, Amerigo takes some pleasure in the matter-of-factness of the voting, for “in Italy, which had always bowed and scraped before every form of pomp, display, sumptuousness, ornament, this seemed to him finally the lesson of an honest, austere morality, and a perpetual, silent revenge on the Fascists…; now they had fallen into dust with all their gold fringe and their ribbons, while democracy, with its stark ceremony of pieces of paper folded over like telegrams, of pencils given to callused or shaky hands, went ahead.”
But for the watcher boredom eventually sets in: it is a long day. “Amerigo felt a yearning need for beauty, which became focused in the thought of his mistress Lia.” He contemplates Lia in reverie. “What is this need of ours for beauty? Amerigo asked himself.” Apparently Calvino has not advanced much beyond the last dialogue in “Smog.” He contemplates the perfection of classical Greece but recalls that the Greeks destroyed deformed children, redundant girls. Obviously placing beauty too high in the scale of values is “a step toward an inhuman civilization, which will then sentence the deformed to be thrown off a cliff.”
When another poll watcher remarks to Amerigo that the mad all must recognize one another in Cottolengo, he slips into reverie: “They would remember that humanity could be a different thing, as in fables, a world of giants, an Olympus…. As we do: and perhaps, without realizing it, we are deformed, backward, compared to a different, forgotten form of existence….” What is human, what is real?
Calvino’s vision is usually presented in fantastic terms but now he becomes unusually concrete. Since he has elected to illuminate an actual time and place (Italy between 1945 and the election of 1953) he is able to spell it out. “In those years the Italian Communist party, among its many other tasks, had also assumed the position of an ideal liberal party, which had never really existed. And so the bosom of each individual communist could house two personalities at once: an intransigent revolutionary and an Olympian liberal.” Amerigo’s pessimism derives from the obvious fact that the two do not go together. I am reminded of Alexander Herzen’s comment about the Latins: they do not want liberty, they want to sue for liberty.
Amerigo goes home to lunch (he has a maid who cooks and serves! Written in 1963 about the events of 1953, this is plainly a historical novel). He looks for a book to read. “Pure literature” is out. “Personal literature now seemed to him a row of tombstones in a cemetery: the literature of the living as well as of the dead. Now he sought something else from books: the wisdom of the ages or simply something that helped to understand something.” He takes a stab at Marx’s Youthful Writings. “Man’s universality appears, practically speaking, in that same universe that makes all nature man’s inorganic body…. Nature is man’s inorganic body precisely because it is not his human body.” Thus genius turns everything into itself. As Marx invented Kapital from capitalism, so Calvino turns a passage of Marx into Calvino himself: the man who drinks soup is the soup that drinks him. Wholeness is all.
Fortified with this reassuring text, Amerigo endures a telephone conversation with Lia. It is the usual quibbling conversation between Calvino protagonist and Calvino mistress. She tells him that she is pregnant. “Amerigo was an ardent supporter of birth control, even though his party’s attitude on the subject was either agnostic or hostile. Nothing shocked him so much as the ease with which people multiply, and the more hungry and backward, the more they keep having children….” In the land of Margaret Sanger this point of view is not exactly startling, but for an Italian communist a dozen years ago, the sense of a world dying of too many children, of too much “smog” was a monstrous revelation. At this point, Amerigo rounds on both the Bible and Marx as demented celebrators of human fecundity.
Amerigo returns to the hospital; observes children shaped like fish and again wonders at what point is a human being human. Finally the day ends; the voting is done. Amerigo looks out over the complex of hospital buildings and notes that the reddish sun appeared to open “perspectives of a city that had never been seen.” Thus the Calvino coda strikes its first familiar chord. Laughing women cross the courtyard with a caldron, “perhaps the evening soup. Even the ultimate city of imperfection has its perfect hour, the watcher thought, the hour, the moment, when every city is the City.”
Most realistic and specific of Calvino’s works, “The Watcher” has proved (to date) to be the last of the “dry” narratives. In 1965 Calvino published Cosmicomics: twelve brief stories dealing in a fantastic way with the creation of the universe, man, society. Like Pin’s young friend who decided that life indeed resembles the strip cartoon, Calvino has deployed his complex prose in order to compose in words a super strip cartoon narrated by Qfwfq whose progress from life inside the first atom to mollusk on the earth’s sea floor to social-climbing amphibian to dinosaur to moon-farmer is told in a dozen episodes that are entirely unlike anything that anyone else has written since, perhaps, Lucian.
“At Daybreak” is the story of the creation of the universe as viewed by Qfwfq and his mysterious tribe consisting of a father, mother, sister, brother, Granny, as well as acquaintances—formless sentiencies who inhabit the universal dust that is on the verge of becoming the nebula which will contain our solar system. Where and who they are is, literally, obscure since light has not yet been invented. So “there was nothing to do but wait, keep covered as best we could, doze, speak out now and then to make sure we were all still there; and, naturally, scratch ourselves; because—they can say what they like—all those particles spinning around had only one effect, a troublesome itching.” That itch starts to change things. Condensation begins. Also, confusion: Granny loses her cushion, “a little ellipsoid of galactic matter.” Things clot; nickel is formed; members of the tribe start flying off in all directions. Suddenly the condensation is complete and light breaks. The sun is now in its place and the planets begin their orbits “and, above all, it was deathly hot.”
As the earth starts to gell, Qfwfq’s sister takes fright and vanishes inside the planet and is not heard from again “until I met her, much later, at Canberra in 1912, married to a certain Sullivan, a retired railroad man, so changed I hardly recognized her.”
The early Calvino was much like his peers Pavese and Vittorini—writers who tended to reflect the realistic storytelling of Hemingway and Dos Passos. Then Calvino moved to Paris where he found his own voice or voices and became, to a degree, infected by the French. Since the writing of Our Ancestors and the three stories that make up The Watcher, Calvino has been influenced, variously, by Barthes and the semeiologists, by Borges, and by the now old New Novel. In Cosmicomics these influences are generally benign since Calvino is too formidable and original an artist to be derailed by theoreticians or undone by the example of another creator. Nevertheless the story “A Sign in Space” comes perilously close to being altogether too reverent an obeisance to semeiology.
As the sun takes two hundred million years to revolve around the galaxy, Qfwfq becomes obsessed with making a sign in space, something peculiarly his own to mark his passage as well as something that would impress anyone who might be watching. His ambition is the result of a desire to think because “to think something had never been possible, first because there were no things to think about, and second because signs to think of them by were lacking, but from the moment there was that sign, it was possible for someone thinking to think of a sign, and therefore that one, in the sense that the sign was the thing you could think about and also the sign of the thing thought, namely, itself.” So he makes his sign (“I felt I was going forth to conquer the only thing that mattered to me, sign and dominion and name…”).
Unfortunately, a spiteful contemporary named Kgwgk erases Qfwfq’s sign and replaces it with his own. In a rage, Qfwfq wants “to make a new sign in space, a real sign that would make Kgwgk die of envy.” So, out of competitiveness art is born. But the task of sign-making is becoming more difficult because the world “was beginning to produce an image of itself, and in everything a form was beginning to correspond to a function” (a theme from The Nonexistent Knight) and “in this new sign of mine you could perceive the influence of our new way of looking at things, call it style if you like….”
Qfwfq is delighted with his new sign but as time passes he likes it less and less, thinks it is a bit pretentious, old-fashioned; decides he must erase it before his rival sees it (so writers revise old books or make new ones that obliterate earlier works—yes, call it style if you like). Finally, Qfwfq erases the inadequate sign. For a time he is pleased that there is nothing in space which might make him look idiotic to a rival—in this, he resembles so many would-be writers who contrive to vanish into universities and, each year, by not publishing that novel or poem, increase their reputations.
But doing nothing is, finally, abhorrent to the real artist: Qfwfq starts to amuse himself by making false signs, “to annoy Kgwgk…notches in space, holes, stains, little tricks that only an incompetent creature like Kgwgk could mistake for signs.” So the artist masochistically mocks his own art, shatters form (the sign) itself, makes jokes to confuse and exploit 57th Street. But then things get out of hand. To Qfwfq’s horror, every time he passes what he thinks was one of his false signs, there are a dozen other signs, all scribbled over his.
Finally, everything was now so obscured by a crisscross of meaningless signs that “world and space seemed the mirror of each other, both minutely adorned with hieroglyphics and ideograms” including “the badly inked tail of the letter R in an evening newspaper joined to a thready imperfection in the paper, one among the eight hundred thousand flakings of a tarred wall in the Melbourne docks…. In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs super-imposed and coagulated.”
Qfwfq gives up: there is no longer a point of reference “because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.” So the story concludes: and the rest is the solipsism of art. To the old debate about being and nonbeing, Calvino adds his own vision of the multiplicity of signs which obliterates all meaning. Too many names for a thing is like no name for a thing; therefore, no thing, nothing.
“How Much Shall We Bet?” continues the theme. At the beginning Qfwfq “bet that there was going to be a universe, and I hit the nail on the head.” This was the first bet he won with Dean (k)yK. Through the ages the two continue to make bets and Qfwfq usually wins because “I bet on the possibility of a certain event’s taking place, whereas the Dean almost always bet against it.”
Qfwfq kept on winning until he began to take wild leaps into the future. “On February 28, 1926, at Santhià, in the Province of Vercelli—got that? At number 18 in Via Garibaldi—you follow me? Signorina Giuseppina Pensotti, aged twenty-two, leaves her home at quarter to six in the afternoon: does she turn right or left?” Qfwfq starts losing. Then they begin to bet about characters in unwritten novels…will Balzac make Lucien de Rubempré kill himself at the end of Les illusions perdues? The Dean wins that one.
The two betters end up in charge of vast research foundations which contain innumerable reference libraries. Finally, like man’s universe itself, they begin to drown in signs and Qfwfq looks back nostalgically to the beginning, “How beautiful it was then, through that void, to draw lines and parabolas, pick out the precise point, the intersection between space and time when the event would spring forth, undeniable in the prominence of its glow; whereas now events come flowing down without interruption, like cement being poured, one column next to the other…a doughy mass of events without form or direction, which surrounds, submerges, crushes all reasoning.”
In another story the last of the dinosaurs turns out to be Qfwfq who meets and moves in with the next race. The New Ones don’t realize that he is one of their dread enemies from the past. They think him remarkably ugly but not unduly alien. Qfwfq’s attitude is like that of the protagonist in William Golding’s The Inheritors except that in Calvino’s version the last of the Old Ones merges with the inheritors. Amused, Qfwfq listens to the monstrous, conflicting legends about his race, tribute to the power of man’s imagination, to the words he uses, to the signs he recognizes.
Finally, “I knew that the more the Dinosaurs disappear, the more they extend their dominion, and over forests far more vast than those that cover the continents: in the labyrinth of the survivors’ thoughts.” But Qfwfq was not at all sentimental about being the last dinosaur and at the story’s end he left the New Ones and “travelled through valleys and plains. I came to a station, caught the first train, and was lost in the crowd.”
In “The Spiral,” the last of the Cosmicomics, Qfwfq is a mollusk on a rock in the primeval sea. The theme is again in ovo omnes. Calvino describes with minuteness the sensations of the mollusk on the rock, “damp and happy…. I was what they call a narcissist to a slight extent; I mean I stayed there observing myself all the time, I saw all my good points and all my defects, and I liked myself for the former and for the latter; I had no terms of comparison, you must remember that, too.” Such was Eden. But then the heat of the sun started altering things; there were vibrations from another sex; there were eggs to be fertilized: love.
In response to the new things, Qfwfq expresses himself by making a shell which turns out to be a spiral that is not only very good for defense but unusually beautiful. Yet Qfwfq takes no credit for the beauty: “My shell made itself, without my taking any special pains to have it come out one way rather than another.” But then the instinctive artist in the mollusk asserts itself: “This doesn’t mean that I was absent-minded during that time; I applied myself instead, to the act of secreting….” Meanwhile, she, the beloved, is making her shell, identical with his.
Ages pass. The shell-Qfwfq is on a railroad embankment as a train passes by. A party of Dutch girls looks out the window. Qfwfq is not startled by anything for, “I feel as if, in making the shell, I had also made the rest.” But one new element has entered the equation. “I had failed to foresee one thing: the eyes that finally opened to see us didn’t belong to us but to others.” So dies Narcissus. “They developed eyes at our expense. So sight, our sight, which we were obscurely waiting for, was the sight that the others had of us.”
But the artist who made the spiralshaped shell is not to be outdone by miscalculation or by fate. Proudly he concludes: “All these eyes were mine. I had made them possible; I had had the active part; I furnished them the raw material, the image.” Again the gallant coda, for fixed in the watcher’s eye is not only the fact of the beautiful shell that he made but also “the most faithful image of her” who had inspired the shell and was the shell: thus male and female are at last united in the retina of a stranger’s eye.
In 1967, Calvino published more of Qfwfq’s adventures in Time and the Hunter. For the most part they are engaging cartoons, but one is disconcerted to encounter altogether too many bits of Sarraute, of Robbe-Grillet, of Borges (far too much of Borges) incorporated in the prose of what I have come to regard as a true modern master (Pace Kermode). On page 6 occurs “viscous”; on page 11 “acid mucus.” I started to feel queasy: these are Sarraute words. I decided that their use was simply a matter of coincidence. But when, on page 29, I saw the dread word “magma” I knew that Calvino has been too long in Paris, for only Sarrautistes use “magma,” a word the great theoretician of the old New Novel so arbitrarily and uniquely appropriated from the discipline of science. Elsewhere in the stories, Robbe-Grillet’s technique of recording the minutiae of a banal situation stops cold some of Calvino’s best effects.
“The Chase,” in fact, could have been written by Robbe-Grillet. This is not a compliment. Take the beginning:
That car that is chasing me is faster than mine; inside there is one man, alone, armed with a pistol, a good shot…. We have stopped at a traffic signal, in a long column. The signal is regulated in such a way that on our side the red light lasts a hundred and eighty seconds and the green light a hundred and twenty, no doubt based on the premise that the perpendicular traffic is heavier and slower.
And so on for sixteen pages, like a movie in slow motion.
The theory behind this sort of enervating prose goes like this: since to write is to describe, with words, why not then describe, words themselves (with other words)? Or, glory be! words describing words describing an action of no importance (the corner of that room in Robbe-Grillet’s Jalousie). This sort of “experiment” has always seemed to me to be of more use to students of language than to readers of writing. On his own and at his best, Calvino does what very few writers can do: he describes imaginary worlds with the most extraordinary precision and beauty (a word he has single-handedly removed from that sphere of suspicion which the old New Novelists used to maintain surrounds all words and any narrative).
In Cosmicomics Calvino makes it possible for the reader to inhabit a meson, a mollusk, a dinosaur—makes him see for the first time light as it ends the dark universe. Since this is a unique gift, I find all the more alarming the “literariness” of Time and the Hunter. I was particularly put off by the central story “t zero,” which could have been written (and rather better) by Borges.
With a bow and arrow, Qfwfq confronts a charging lion. In his head he makes an equation: Time zero is where he Qfwfq is; where the Lion—Lo is. All combinations of a series which may be finite or infinite pass through Qo‘s head, exactly like the man before the firing squad in Borges’s celebrated story. Now it is possible that these stories will appeal to minds more convergent than mine (students of mathematics, engineers, Young Republicans are supposed to think convergently while novelists, gourmets, and non-Christian humanists think divergently) but to me this pseudoscientific rendering of a series of possibilities is deeply boring.
But there are also pleasures in this collection. Particularly “The Origin of the Birds.” “Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other.” So the crafty Calvino by placing one sentence after another describes a strip cartoon and the effect is charming even though Qfwfq’s adventure among the birds is not really a strip cartoon but the description of a cartoon in words.
The narrator’s technique is like that of The Nonexistent Knight: he starts to draw a scene; then erases it the way Sister Theodora used to eliminate oceans and forests as she hurried her lovers to their inevitable rendezvous. Calvino also comes as close as any writer can to saying that which is sensed about creation but may not be put into words (or drawn in pictures).
“I managed to embrace in a single thought the world of things as they were and of things as they could have been, and I realized that a single system included all.” In the arms of Or, the queen of the birds, Qfwfq begins to see that “the world is single and what exists can’t be explained without….” But he has gone too far. As he is about to say the unsayable, Or tries to smother him. But he is still able to blurt out, “There’s no difference. Monsters and non-monsters have always been close to one another! What hasn’t been continues to be….” At that point, the birds expel him from their paradise; and like a dreamer rudely awakened, he forgets his vision of unity. “(The last strip is all photographs: a bird, the same bird in close-up, the head of the bird enlarged, a detail of the head, the eye….)” It is the same eye that occurs at the end of Cosmicomics, the eye of—well, cosmic consciousness for those who recall that guru of a past generation, Dr. Richard M. Bucke.
Calvino ends these tales with his own “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The problem he sets himself is how to get out of Château d’If. Faria keeps making plans and tunneling his way through an endless, exitless fortress. Dantès, on the other hand, broods on the nature of the fortress as well as on the various drafts of the novel that Dumas is writing. In some drafts, Dantès will escape and find a treasure and get revenge on his enemies. In other drafts, he suffers a different fate. The narrator contemplates the possibilities of escape by considering the way a fortress (or a work of art) is made. “To plan a book—or an escape—the first thing to know is what to exclude.” This particular story is Borges at his very best and, taking into account the essential unity of the multiplicity of all things, one cannot rule out that Calvino’s version of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is indeed the finest achievement of Jorge Luis Borges imagined by Italo Calvino.
Calvino’s seventh and latest novel^2 Invisible Cities is perhaps his most beautiful work. In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo—Tartar emperor and Venetian traveler. The mood is sunset. Prospero is holding up for the last time his magic wand: Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire, of his cities, of himself.
Marco Polo, however, diverts the emperor with tales of cities that he has seen within the empire and Kublai Khan listens, searches for a pattern in Marco Polo’s Cities and memory, Cities and desire, Cities and signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and eyes, Cities and names, Cities and the dead, Cities and the sky, Continuous Cities, Hidden Cities. The emperor soon determines that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.
Marco Polo agrees: ” ‘Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,’ Polo said.” (So does Borges, repeatedly!) ” ‘Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.’ ” Again the theme of multiplicity and wholeness, “when every city,” as Calvino wrote at the end of “The Watcher,” “is the City.”
Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant. I shall spare myself the labor; noting, however, that something wise has begun to enter the Calvino canon. The artist seems to have made a peace with the tension between man’s idea of the many and of the one. He could now, if he wanted, stop.
Yet Calvino is obliged to go on writing just as his Marco Polo goes on traveling because
he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.
“Journeys to relieve your past?” was the Khan’s question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”
And Marco’s answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
Later, after more descriptions of his cites, Kublai Khan decides that “the empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.”
“On the day when I know all the emblems,” he asked Marco, “shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?”
And the Venetian answered, “Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.”
Finally, Kublai Khan recognizes that all cities are tending toward the concentric circles of Dante’s hell.
He said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”
And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension; seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
During the last quarter century Italo Calvino has advanced far beyond his American and English contemporaries. As they continue to look for the place where the spiders make their nests, Calvino has not only found that special place but learned how himself to make fantastic webs of prose to which all things adhere. In fact, reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.
I have not read La speculazione edilizia (1957). From the description of it in Dizionario della letteratura italiana contemporanea, it is a general indictment of Italy's postwar building boom and of the helplessness of the intellectual Quinto Anfossi to come to terms with "cement fever."↩
I have not read La speculazione edilizia (1957). From the description of it in Dizionario della letteratura italiana contemporanea, it is a general indictment of Italy’s postwar building boom and of the helplessness of the intellectual Quinto Anfossi to come to terms with “cement fever.”↩