Light and Lively

Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories

by E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 145 pp., $14.95

When the early work of a famous writer rides in on the coattails, so to speak, of the later work that has made him famous, one is inclined either to dismiss it with a knowing wink at the cupidity of publishers or else, if a devotee of the writer in question, to examine it for signs pointing to subsequent maturations and triumphs. Neither response is appropriate in the case of Difficult Loves. Calvino’s stories stand on their own as finished performances, as distinctive and seductive in their own way as the more spectacular “metafictions” that followed them. The author of Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities seems to have sprung fully armored from the head of his muse.

The first section of Difficult Loves consists of the “Riviera Stories,” which date back to the beginning of Calvino’s career in the 1940s. For the most part they are nearly plotless sketches, many of them dealing with children, that shift delicately between realism and fantasy; a major pleasure in reading them is to watch the way Calvino maintains a light but perfect control as he allows the material to veer slightly to one side of the line and then to the other. In “Adam, One Afternoon,” a gardener’s boy, Libereso, woos a kitchen girl, Maria-nunziata, by presenting her with a series of innocently phallic creatures. “D’you want to see something nice?” he asks as he leads her to a moldy corner of the garden where he reveals a toad. “Mammamia!” cries the girl, but Libereso tries to convince her that it is pretty and that she should stroke it. The toad is followed by a handful of rose chafers, a lizard, a pair of copulating frogs, snails, a snake, a goldfish—all of which he tries to persuade her to touch. At the end, saying, “I want to give you a surprise,” the boy releases a whole basketful of the creatures in the kitchen, and the girl’s future is symbolically prophesied:

Maria-nunziata stepped back, but between her feet she saw a great big toad. And behind it were five little toads in a line, taking little hops toward her across the black-and-white-tiled floor

In this piece, as in “The Enchanted Garden” and in “Lazy Sons” (the droll account of two narcoleptic young men who shamelessly resist all appeals for help from their hard-working, hard-pressed parents), one keeps expecting a metamorphosis into fairy tale that never quite takes place. The slightly teasing effect is nicely calculated.

In “Wartime Stories” and “Postwar Stories” the cruelties of partisan warfare and the exigencies of poverty invite a more grimly realistic treatment of the peasants, migrant workers, prostitutes, and black marketeers who populate them. These stories are the fictional counterparts of the great Italian films of the period—Paisan, Rome, Open City, and The Bicycle Thief. But metaphysical, fabulist, or farcical elements keep breaking in. In the most impressive of the war stories, a trigger-happy soldier-boy, “a mountaineer with an apple face,” keeps shooting, with miraculous accuracy, at everything…

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