Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Robert Cremins: New editions give Calvino a fresh appeal

Robert Cremins: New editions give Calvino a fresh appeal

Italian writer Italo Calvino in 1984..

Italian writer Italo Calvino in 1984. (Ulf Andersen/Aurimages/Zuma Press/TNS)

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.


Stay up-to-date on what's happening

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Sure, Prince William’s tweets made international news after the Euro 2020 soccer championships. But his brother, Harry, is on a mission to craft his own narrative, one far longer than 280 characters. Backed by Penguin Random House, the younger prince will publish an “intimate and heartfelt” memoir on the life, lessons and losses that have shaped him, tentatively planned for release in late ...

It's been only a few months since I took on the monumental task of organizing my books, and once again, they are a mess. Last September, I went through every book in the house and decided on what to keep and what to give. The "to give" pile turned into dozens of piles, bags and boxes, filling our front porch. I hauled tables out into the front yard, invited friends and neighbors to stop by, ...

The Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen brotherhood of man mission continues. “Renegades,” the podcast collaboration between the former president and the Boss has been repurposed and will be released as a book this fall. “Renegades: Born in the USA,” the book adaptation, will be released Oct. 26, Penguin Random House announced on Thursday. The 320-page tome will retail for $50 and include ...

FICTION: A migrant child washes up on a beach — alive — in Omar El Akkad's follow-up to "American War." "What Strange Paradise" by: Omar El Akkad; Alfred A. Knopf (256 pages, $25.95) ——— In his 2017 debut novel, "American War," Omar El Akkad spotlighted Middle East humanitarian crises by reimagining them on U.S. soil. Perhaps, the novel implied, Americans might pay refugees and sectarian ...

Here are the bestsellers for the week that ended Saturday, July 17, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide, powered by NPD BookScan © 2021 NPD Group. (Reprinted from Publishers Weekly, published by PWxyz LLC. © 2021, PWxyz LLC.) HARDCOVER FICTION 1. The Cellist. Daniel Silva. Harper 2. The Last Thing He Told Me. Laura ...

"Rachel to the Rescue" by Elinor Lipman; Mariner Press (296 pages, $15.99) ——— Elinor Lipman's latest novel, "Rachel to the Rescue," might not stand the test of time, but for this particular time, it's hilarious. Rachel has just gotten fired from her job in the Trump White House for accidentally sending an email to the entire White House staff criticizing the president. (Oh, the perils of ...

NONFICTION: Liv Arnesen recounts her 1994 solo journey to the South Pole. "Skiing Into the Bright Open" by Liv Arnesen, translated from the Norwegian by Roland Huntford; University of Minnesota Press (208 pages, $21.95) ——— There's something wonderfully perplexing about Norwegian adventurer Liv Arnesen's account of her solo ski journey to the South Pole. She did this in 1994, the first woman ...

FICTION: A thrilling debut in which a pilot must crash his plane to save his family. "Falling" by T.J. Newman; Avid Reader Press (304 pages, $28) ——— Early into "Falling," and not long into a flight from Los Angeles to New York, the pilot-protagonist Bill Hoffman takes a calculated risk and confides in a hushed tone to his friend. "Jo," he whispers. "We have a situation." Which is something of ...

Here are the bestsellers for the week that ended Saturday, July 17, compiled from data from independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors nationwide, powered by NPD BookScan © 2021 NPD Group. (Reprinted from Publishers Weekly, published by PWxyz LLC. © 2021, PWxyz LLC.) HARDCOVER FICTION 1. "The Cellist: A Novel" by Daniel Silva (Harper) Last week: — 2. "The ...

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News