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, tells of the time when the moon was so close to the earth that Qfwfq and his companions could row out in a boat and scramble up on it to collect Moonmilk, which was “very thick, like a kind of cream cheese.” In the closing story Qfwfq argues that, though the mollusk remained blind itself, it was the cause of eyes in other species by virtue of producing something to be seen—a beautiful shell.
What adds an element of power to the ingenious, humorous, and charming fantasy of these tales is the palpable though undeclared them which runs through them, the urge to evolve, the sense in the most primitive forms of life of better things to come, the touching readiness to adopt a receptive posture toward “the future.” In Cosmicomics, simple organisms yearn forward, innocently and trustingly, toward the next stage in evolution. In The Baron in the Trees Cosimo appears to be retrogressing by “returning” to an arboreal existence, but his love of life prevails over the restrictions he has imposed on himself by a childish act of defiance. He is not really backward-looking, he simply maintains that “anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it,” and many of his views and attitudes are in the best sense progressive.
Not that Calvino is writing programmatically in these stories. “The Aquatic Uncle” is about a relative of Qfwfq’s who shames his family by contentedly staying put in a lagoon after the rest have all removed to the land. Old Uncle N’ba N’ga is a reactionary, literally a stick-in-the-mud, and young Qfwfq is reluctant to introduce him to his fiancée, Lll, because she is a sophisticated young piece and comes of a “very good” family, one of those so long established on land that they “had finally become convinced they had never lived anywhere else.” However, Lll is fascinated by the old fish’s stories of life under the water and, while Qfwfq is still having a little difficulty in using his fins as paws, she practices using her paws as fins—“Good for you! That’s a big step forward,” says Qfwfq sarcastically—and then jumps into the lagoon, to marry old Uncle N’ba N’ga and be a fish again and bring more fish into the sea…. Qfwfq’s uncle has much in common with the Baron Cosimo, sexual charm as well as eccentricity. The parallel situation in human terms is, of course, the old world’s emigration to America, that new found land, as is made tactfully plain by Qfwfq’s account of the time when there wasn’t a family in the sea without someone who had moved to dry land, and the emigrants used to send back “fabulous tales of the things that could be done there,” urging their relatives to join them in this New World.
Read as a fable, the tale suggests the propriety of diversity within creation, that it is right that some fishes should go on being fish, and also, perhaps, it suggests that while at every stage of evolution something is gained, something is lost too. Uncle N’ba N’ga seems to Qfwfq a bigoted relic of the past with whom you can hardly communicate since his idiomatic expressions are so sadly out of date, but we perceive that Uncle is a canny old fish, understanding and loving his environment, and that for all his progressiveness Qfwfq has a good deal of the brash and ignorant young tadpole about him. That was part of the Baron’s message, too: progress is right, but a reverence for the past is right as well, and they also serve who stand and act as brakes.
More plainly than The Baron in the Trees, Cosmicomics calls for that willing suspension of disbelief which constitutes poetic faith, and since the book is poetic, it willingly gets it. There is just enough appearance of “science” in it to enable one to swallow such seeming anachronisms as Qfwfq’s description of the underbelly of the Moon as smelling like smoked salmon. And when he remarks casually of his sister, who disappeared when the planets were solidifying, that he never knew what had happened to her “until I met her, much later, at Canberra in 1912, married to a certain Sullivan, a retired railroad man,” we swallow that too, for we are utterly disarmed by his next remark, that she was then “so changed I hardly recognized her.” Nothing succeeds like a mixture of effrontery and charm. Moreover, we tell ourselves, there is perhaps some serious implication here, concerning the survival of identity, the conservation of personality.
Dr. Johnson complained of Paradise Lost that its plan comprised neither human actions nor human manners. “The reader beholds no condition in which he can by any effort of imagination place himself; he has, therefore, little natural curiosity or sympathy.” The plan of Cosmicomics must labor under an even greater inconvenience, since it treats of ancestors distinctly more remote than our Grand Parents. Perhaps it is in rueful acknowledgment of the risked “want of human interest” that, in a world as yet without an atmosphere and without colors, Qfwfq comments, “You rarely met anyone in those days: there were so few of us!” Sympathy does flag here and there, but for the most part Calvino succeeds by a perfect tact. His characters are human enough, he gives us the essence of each evolutionary stage by allowing old Qfwfq a degree of hindsight wisdom acceptable in one of his age, and then he passes quickly on. These are short stories because they couldn’t possibly be long ones. Cosmicomics is a truly original piece of writing, an engaging and refreshing book, and (one would venture) translated into English with great sensitiveness.
Antonio in Love, alas, is the opposite of refreshing. Like its predecessor, Incubus, it suffers from a deficiency of punctuation and from the excess of fausse-naïveté which commonly attends this deficiency. More than with its predecessor, the reader is continuously afflicted by a niggling cleverness, a frightfully insistent knowingness. Nothing can be said without twenty other things having to be brought to our numbed attention. The opening sentence of Chapter X will serve as an example; it doesn’t speak volumes, but it speaks for this one:
When at a later date Antonio felt obliged to place his story with Maria in a predominately moral framework to overcome its statistical irrelevance and make it as was only right the critical and painful core of his young man-hood, the step she took that day quick as a wink making her decision to come up into his room was one of the most ticklish and controversial passages in the whole matter since on the one hand it couldn’t be ignored that Maria was acting in a state of great emotion, not to say distress, on the other hand reasonable prominence could surely be given to the detail that slipping into a boy’s bedroom for a girl however moved she may be is a procedure of some gravity especially since the emotion couldn’t be all that great if the procedure in itself in its every phase involved the use of prudence and diligence namely in waiting for the signal from the window and in reaching the street door pushing it open and climbing the flight of stairs, in short there was more than enough time for her to realize sufficiently what she was doing, and also to draw back if she began to suspect she was doing something a bit too daring.
This inevitably but unnecessarily lengthy book is an account of young Antonio’s experiences with Maria, a virgin who can love but whom he doesn’t get to make love with, and then with Marika, a non-virgin who cannot love but whom he gets to make love with. Life, as someone has said more economically, is like that. Several of the situations and ideas (such as that are springs from humiliation, or might if you were an artist) were mooted in Incubus, an altogether richer and funnier book, savingly written in the first person. The basic objection to this new novel is that there is something faintly disgusting in being made to look at young love through such very old eyes, by way of a narrator so sophisticated and worldly-wise, and especially when the narration is long-drawn-out and relentlessly facetious in tone. What we learn from Antonio in Love is that, by the end of the book, Antonio has learned something about life. But we haven’t learned much.
November 21, 1968