Calculators and Butterflies

Calculators and Butterflies

Italo Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics thrives on the tension between ideas and art.


Michael Wood begins his introduction to Italo Calvino’s Letters: 1941–1985 with a kind of disclaimer: Calvino often said that biographical information and autobiographical pronouncements were irrelevant to the task of criticism. When, for instance, students at Coletti Middle School in Treviso wrote to ask why an anthology gave his birthplace as San Remo, Italy, and not Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, which was the literal truth, Calvino said that he had spent his childhood in San Remo, and that this coastal city was “present in many of [his] works.” He explained that “in a writer’s life, it is only important to know facts that are relevant to the writer’s works, in other words what is usually called his ‘creative world.’” Three days later, he was telling a critic something similar: “What use is it to the critic…if the author issues judgments or statements regarding his own works?… The author does not exist, only a certain number of writings exist.”

Calvino doesn’t appear to have subscribed to this credo himself, however, and never ceased to issue judgments and statements about his work. The assertion that critics should ignore them is just another judgment or statement, but it does serve to introduce two central problems for the reader of his letters. First, there is his disconcerting involvement with his critics and his attempts to influence the conversation about his work. Second, there is the problem of published correspondence in general. Letters express ephemeral states of mind; they may be ill-conceived, poorly considered, instantly regretted. As Calvino says, “The letter is another text that adds doubts, problems, contradictions to the others that the scholar has to solve.” In that case, why read his letters at all?

As for the biography, critically relevant or not, it is easily dispatched. In 1923, Calvino was born in Cuba, where his parents were working at an agricultural-research center founded by his father, but the family moved to San Remo when Calvino was an infant. He fought with the Italian partisans in the final years of World War II, became a communist, and later resigned from the Communist Party without disavowing his political convictions. He worked for most of his life on the editorial staff of the Einaudi publishing house, married an Argentine translator named Esther Judith Singer, and lived with her and their daughter, Giovanna, in Turin, Paris and Rome. Meanwhile, he wrote his books and eventually became one of the most famous and well-regarded Italian novelists of the twentieth century. He died suddenly in 1985.

In the letters, Calvino has little to say about daily life. There is a brief but striking account of the war—“my father was on the point of being shot before my mother’s eyes”—and abundant material about his experience with communism, but most of the letters are distant and professional, and even when he’s writing to friends, he rarely gives any information about himself. Personal events of great moment, like his marriage and the birth of his daughter, go entirely unremarked. There are no letters to his wife. “The focus is on literary and political matters rather than family,” says Wood, explaining his selection, “but even the complete Lettere“—the longer Italian edition of the letters—“does not give us access to a secret, second Calvino, a person concealed behind the writer, so to speak.”

That doesn’t mean there is nothing whimsical or revealing here. At one point, Calvino describes “industrious and rational Turin” as a place where “the risk of going mad is no less than elsewhere.” He says that when students come to interview him, “the little I manage to articulate is so discouraging that they quickly change the topic of their thesis.” There is a remarkable treatment for a film adaptation of Marco Polo’s travels. The film was never made, but these notes anticipate Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which is a dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. There is a passionate defense of a woman’s right to seek an abortion, a letter in which he says that “a human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” And there is a strange and radiant letter in which he declares that “Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself.” He envisions the end of human history as the transmission, by humankind, of the “capacity for knowledge” to machines or extraterrestrial beings—an outcome he desires because at that point, “history will emerge from its anthropocentric provincialism.” Elsewhere, he looks forward to “a world of electronic calculators and butterflies.”

Still, the moments of radiance are infrequent. The greater part of the Letters consists of responses to critics. “I’ve read your article on my book,” he writes in 1952. “I agree with the external definition, if we can call it that…. On the other hand, I cannot concur with your definition of the book’s central motif.” Sometimes these replies are ironic and needling: one “little portrait of me” is “the nastiest thing I have read about myself, but probably also the most coherent…. You hit hard but with great elegance.” Sometimes they are harshly critical: “A critic has the right to interpret any work as he likes; however…the interpretation of The Non-Existent Knight as a political allegory is totally arbitrary, does not at all reflect my intentions nor my feelings and completely distorts one’s reading of the book.” Sometimes, however, they are full of praise: “The account of [If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler] seems to me to be the finest and most complete ever given, and I recognize myself in it, precisely because you also say things that I would not have known how to think or say but which match my intentions.”

Positive or negative, these letters reflect an intense belief in the importance of discussion. “Dear Silvio,” he writes in 1948, “I’m pleased we’re arguing. It’s a healthy symptom, for goodness’ sake! It means there’s life and movement and dialectic.” Ten years later, he tells a critic that “our job [as fiction writers] is basically to raise problems for you to solve.” Throughout his life, an article that forces him to reconsider his ideas is cause for celebration: “Rarely (not to say never) does one come across a critical article which stirs up so many ideas, all of them different from the usual rehashed notions, and forces us to rethink everything from scratch.” He keeps up with developments in literary theory and admires Northrop Frye, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. He wants to chart “lines of continuity” between the fiction of his youth (“Hemingwayism, spare stories, with a final shoot-out”), his early “fantasy-moral novels or lyrical-philosophical novels,” his cosmicomic stories and the “preciosity, Alexandrinism, the prose poem” of Invisible Cities. Calvino wants himself explained to himself. He wants to understand what his writing means, and he believes that criticism can tell him.

As for what he actually says about his work, there are plenty of interesting claims. Early in his career, he says that he is “in favor of a clown-like mimesis of contemporary reality.” Writing to his French publisher about The Nonexistent Knight, he says, “I never say that the knight is unreal. I say that he does not exist. That is very different.” To a translator he writes, “In a language that is grey and squalid one cannot use the words ‘grey’ and ‘squalid’ because in that case what we have is a language that judges the greyness and squalor from the outside.” But there are also countless oblique statements like this one: “In [the cosmicomic stories] I also deal with semanticity (for me this is the range of possible meanings of every sign-image-word, mostly historical-intellectual allegorizations, which always present themselves one minute later and about which I must never worry too much if I want to find the perfect organization in which the logic of the sign—which is one and only one—and the semantic logic—which has to have free play on various levels—become one and the same thing).”

The problem is not that Calvino says these things; the problem is that he means them. He says disingenuously that the “discussion of ideas is not my forte”—but the tension between these “ideas” and the alchemy of fiction is the definitive antagonism of his career. He says that he “became a writer through the columns of the Party press” and that “the very poverty of Communism’s official literature acted as a spur to me to try to bring a touch of creative felicity to my work as a writer,” which is to say that he learned to write by trying to reconcile theoretical discourse with felicitous prose. Even his claim that his “way of saying things is to write stories” seems to point to this dynamic. He is not just writing; he is trying to say things.

* * *

The tension between ideas and art is most explicit in The Complete Cosmicomics, a series of playful stories that Calvino penned during the last twenty years of his life. In a sense, the cosmicomic stories consist of ideas and ideas alone: most of them are narrated by a numinous jokester called Qfwfq—who is present for every significant cosmological, geological and biological event in the history of the universe—and most of them develop as the lyrical embodiment of a real or apocryphal scientific idea made explicit in an introductory note.

But the most successful of these stories are not the ones that articulate these ideas in the most elegant way. The most successful are those in which the ideas are subsumed and transfigured—the ones that discover new rhetorical possibilities in new conceptions of space and time. In “Games Without End,” Qfwfq makes a galaxy by throwing “all the new atoms” he’s gathered into space. “At first they seemed to scatter, then they thickened together into a kind of light cloud.” In “Crystals,” he longs for a perfect world of crystalline forms and denigrates glass as a false crystal, “a paste of haphazard molecules.” In “The Distance of the Moon,” the moon is close enough to the earth that Qfwfq and his friends can climb up to it using a ladder. Because it exerts a gravitational attraction, the moon becomes encrusted with trash from the earth. “There was always a flight of tiny creatures…that broke from the sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling,” Qfwfq reports, “or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off, waving banana leaves at them.”

The Complete Cosmicomics also contains stories in which Qfwfq is absent or changed, rendered more grave, and these stories are more meditative, more haunting, more preoccupied with what can’t be said or known. They are a bridge from the light fantasy of his early career to the inexpressible wonder of Invisible Cities. “Priscilla” is a love story that can’t be told because it isn’t possible to say what “I” am and what “Priscilla” is in the context of evolutionary history and genetics. Because “Priscilla” and “I” contain genetic material derived ultimately from the first free-living organisms on the earth, “The story I wanted to narrate…is not only impossible to narrate but first of all impossible to live, because it’s all there already, contained in a past that can’t be narrated since, in turn, it’s included in its own past, in the many individual pasts.”

Throughout the collection, the best stories are those in which scientific ideas, overly explicit as they are, become a comic or lyrical trope, part of the fabric of the writing, a means and not an end. This holds true for Calvino’s other work as well. The Castle of Crossed Destinies has the rigorous lucidity of a mathematical proof, but for me it is an unreadable book; it is nothing more than its idea. The Nonexistent Knight may not be a political allegory, but there is something off or out-of-focus in its metaphysical games. It turns in on itself; it seems like an allegory.

Calvino is aware of these tensions from the beginning. As a young man, he is forever saying things like “the definition of the novel as ‘propaganda with poetry or rather with pure representation’ seems to me imprecise: either it is propaganda or it is poetry…. Propaganda of an assumption already provided by someone else, I mean, because propagating one’s own idea, articulating one’s own moral beliefs, can be an act that is both ethical and poetic at the same time.” Even much later, deeply unhappy and protesting that he has lost “all love for images of contemporary life” and has “only progressed toward rarefaction and silence,” he seems to conceive of his fiction in terms of the ideas it expresses or doesn’t express. He laments, “I can no longer regain hold of the coordinates of my discourse.”

* * *

Calvino’s interest in “discourse”—his habit of dealing with critics on their own terms—makes the letters frustrating and sometimes maddening to read. I reached a point of crisis on page 216, in his letter to Marco Forti, a critic who has sent him a “wide-ranging survey on fiction and industry.” Calvino is considering the essay for publication in a magazine he helps edit, and this makes him “slightly embarrassed,” because his own fiction figures prominently in Forti’s analysis. He begins with the usual praise: “what you say provided an opportunity for me to reconsider what I have written from this particular point of view, and to focus some of my ideas.” But what follows is a surreal rewriting, by Calvino, of an essay about Calvino. At one point he turns to “Smog,” a story about a young man who writes for a magazine called Purification, which is published by an institute dedicated to reducing the air pollution in Italy’s industrial centers. The central irony is that the president of this organization is a factory owner himself. Thus Calvino’s revised description of “Smog”: “The revolutionary workers’ movement too, which ought to represent the genuine, invincible opponent of ‘smog,’ of the industrial malaise, is portrayed in this story almost as if it is by now of one nature with the smog it breathes. The workers’ movement that Calvino portrays for us is one that finds itself in the heart of the most advanced neo-capitalist regime.”

I felt defeated by the strangeness of this letter, but then, almost accidentally, I read “Smog” itself, which had for me the force of a revelation. The story is wiser and fuller than any account or analysis of it could be. There is the moment when the narrator discovers that his upper-class girlfriend can’t see the smog. There is the narrator’s obsession with dust and dirt, the medium in which he lives, and his attempt to shield her naked body with his own, “an embrace which was chiefly a way of covering her, of taking all the dust upon myself so that she would be safe from it.” And then there is a scene in which he goes to a party at which the president is cavorting with other factory owners. “I now realized how senseless my game was, because [the president] himself was the smog’s master; it was he who blew it out constantly over the city, and the [institute] was a creature of the smog, born of the need to give those working to produce the smog some hope of a life that was not all smog”—here is the moment when the story might turn on banal excoriation, a condemnation of the president’s hypocrisy, and does not—“and yet, at the same time, to celebrate its power.” There are no “moral beliefs” in that mysteriously poignant, mysteriously comic phrase, “to celebrate its power.” The language moves beyond ideas.

The important thing is that what Calvino says about “Smog” is valid and resonant. The other important thing is that what he says is beside the point. The story retains an allegorical shimmer, but it has drifted free of its milieu. It is no longer a story about the Italian workers’ movement. It is a true, human story, and it is valuable and beautiful on that basis.

The letters exist at the crossroads of fiction and criticism, and they are interesting to the extent that they clarify these two ways of saying things. Calvino makes pronouncements about his work, and they are often persuasive, and this is, after all, one of his jobs: he is a critic and editor himself, and he is trying to articulate his beliefs as clearly as possible. But he has also seen his ideas vanish into art, and he has watched his fiction acquire its own life and dictate the terms of its unfolding, so his task is also to meditate, articulately or inarticulately, on the impossibility of saying things.

In Invisible Cities, envoys come from all over the empire to make their reports to Kublai Khan. “In languages incomprehensible to the Khan, the envoys related information heard in languages incomprehensible to them.” But Marco Polo improvises a kind of sign language: “One city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl.”

Nothing can be said, but that doesn’t mean nothing can be communicated. It is true that the letters do not reveal that “secret, second Calvino” whom we so much want to meet, but in the end it doesn’t matter. There he is in Invisible Cities. He is the man gesturing at Kublai Khan with a fish, and he is the fish itself, and he is the naked man running through fire. He is all of these things and, of course, at the same time he doesn’t exist, and that doesn’t matter either.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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