In recent years, Mariner Books has been promoting the legacy of the great Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-1985) by publishing a series of paperback editions as crisp as the author's own style. You don't have to be a fan of postmodernism to recognize Calvino as a keeper. "Last Comes the Raven" is a very welcome addition to the series, as this early story collection (1949) has never before appeared in English in its entirety. The big story here is Calvino becoming Calvino; and the sight of his mature work reminded me of how I was introduced to his fiction.
When Calvino died, far too young, his friend Gore Vidal stated, "By [now], except for England, Calvino [is] read wherever books are read." The English exception was not quite accurate. By then, Salman Rushdie had successfully championed his work in the London Review of Books. And Calvino had also established a beachhead of talented readers at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which has a commitment to contemporary literature. Five years later, those priorities would draw me across the Irish Sea to go to graduate school there.
At UEA, the two most prominent Calvino advocates were critics Malcolm Bradbury and Lorna Sage. In 1983, Bradbury appeared as the "castaway" on "Desert Island Discs," a BBC radio show that is also a national institution. For his permanent beach read, he chose Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," a novel that frolics with all novels, reflecting the playful spirit that has existed in the genre since at least the 18th century.
Meanwhile, Sage had us read Calvino's other major achievement, "Invisible Cities." Even in translation, Marco Polo's reports to Kublai Khan on his unseen imperial possessions had a shimmering, experiential quality.
Known as a fabulist, Calvino was also discovering for literature new provinces of the real. He hints at this project in the introduction to his celebrated 1956 compendium of Italian folklore: "These … stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women."
"Last Comes the Raven" is another catalog of the actual and the potential. The book dates from the period after the publication of his debut novel, "The Path to the Nest of Spiders," written in the prevailing neorealist style, a time when he was failing to write a sequel in the same mode. Here this conventional approach has become a constraint; as his imagination walks around the early stories, you sense that it's wearing a suit several sizes too small and bursting at the seams.
The collection really takes off about a hundred pages in, when Calvino, who fought against fascism, turns to his wartime experiences and the hungry atmosphere of postwar Italy. It's this grimmest material that galvanizes the fiction. (American readers may be reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's migration to sci-fi after his World War II trauma.) The writing is now at its sharpest: "The war twisted closely around and around in those valleys like a dog trying to bite its tail."
Time and again, gritty episodes transform into narrative pearls. What begin as scenes that could be outtakes from the 1948 film "Bicycle Thieves" becomes stories suggestive of Dante, Kafka, fable. Indeed, the best (and funniest) story is about stealing: "Theft in a Pastry Shop." A chef's kiss for its comic construction. Elsewhere, legends emerge from the landscape; in the title story, an almost infallible sharpshooter is "a mountain youth with an apple look to his face."
For my desert island title, I'd be more likely to chose Calvino's late comedy of knowledge "Mr. Palomar." But "Raven" is a fine start for anyone wanting to take the marvelous tour that is the maestro's fiction.
Robert Cremins teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.