This is a gloriously sensual story, narrated by a man who wants another’s wife – but the true star of the show is the moon. Calvino imagines it so close it risks dipping its scales in the sea. Fishermen gather lunar milk as the protagonist writhes in unrequited love. I still remember discovering magic realism and fantasy – adult literature that gave me permission to work seriously with playfulness, allegory and the “precious muck” of detail. This is a great example of the form – full of texture and motion and mischief and longing. I suggest you read it while eating a very good crème brûlée.
First published in Cosmicomics, Giulio Einaudi (Italy) and Harcourt Brace (US), 1965. Currently available from Penguin Modern Classics, 2010, and as a £1 Penguin Modern, 2018. Read the story online here
Marcovaldo is a popular character who shaped our childhood and imagination. Created by the genius of Italo Calvino during the Italian economic boom, Marcovaldo’s stories tell about the character’s life and family, whose mediocre everyday existence is punctuated by sudden discoveries and epiphanies. Despite living in a cold grey city, Marcovaldo is always able to spot a touch of poetry, the hidden beauty of daily life; yet in the background we can see the dawn of consumerist society with all its ambiguities. In these stories, Calvino’s style combines melancholy and fun, farce and fantasy.
In ‘Moon and Gnac’, the view of the night sky from Marcovaldo’s family home is thwarted by the commercial sign of Spaak Cognac, a neon sign that turns itself on and off every twenty seconds. After his son Michelino destroys the sign with his sling, one of the competitors of Spaak, Cognac Tomawak, offers to hire Marcovaldo’s family in order to make Spaak go bankrupt. But once they succeed, the original neon sign is replaced by a similar, even more annoying one from Tomawak. Calvino captures a moment of transformation in 1960s Italian life, when Italian society is irremediably losing its innocence.
First published in Marcovaldo, Einaudi, 1963. Published in English in Marcovaldo: or The Seasons in the City, Vintage, 2001
Did we mention that we love Italo Calvino? We couldn’t resist including in this anthology another of his stories. ‘The Cloven Viscount’ tells of Viscount Medardo, who is bisected by a Turkish cannonball during the Crusades; when his two halves come back to his homeland, walking around independently from each other, one reveals to be the kind half of the viscount, while the other terrifies everyone.
When this longish short story appeared at the start of the 1950s, Calvino was criticised for abandoning the realism of his early writing. Later he revealed that the story had developed from a visual image that he saw in his mind – the image of a man split in two halves. But more than with a moral good/evil division, this splitting had to do with a feeling of being incomplete and the impossibility of feeling whole, of being everything that one would like to be. This novella includes one of our favourite literary quotes: “Alle volte uno si crede incompleto ed è soltanto giovane.” (“Sometimes one who thinks himself incomplete is merely young.”)
First published by Einaudi, 1952 / collected in Our Ancestors, Vintage, 1992
I’ve lived in Italy for several years, and always loved Calvino. Some of his work can be a little dry and systematic, but Marcovaldo, the central character of this tale, and the protagonist of a collection of Calvino’s stories, is his most human creation. I remember reading the stories on a plane and being delighted by them. Marcovaldo is the Italian neo-realist equivalent of Homer Simpson. Hapless, comic, but also affecting and poignant. The story reminds me of Cesare Pavese’s marvellous poem ‘Idleness’ in its mixture of foreground poverty and fantasy background. The ending is comic and sublime.
First published in Italian, 1963. Collected in English in Marcovaldo, Secker and Warburg, 1983, and in Vintage Classics, 2001
At Melania, every time you enter the square, you find yourself caught in a dialogue.
Yes, I have chosen Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and yes, I have chosen a city called Melania. It’s almost too perfect. The story of Melania essentially predicts social media: the town square representing the platforms we gather on, and the characters—or “roles” as Calvino calls them—are all of us, hiding behind our profile pictures and avatars and invented personas. It is a fierce and accurate premonition of how we communicate in the latter half of the second decade of this century. The outrageously wonderful irony is that social media is the city’s namesake’s husband’s favoured method of making political and personal proclamations as 45th President of the United States of America. And I’m terribly sorry for this: for putting Italo Calvino and Donald J. Trump in the same sentence.
Melania’s population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes role or abandons the square forever, or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes until all the roles have been reassigned; but meanwhile the angry old man goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer never ceases following the disinherited youth, the nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the previous scene.
Invisible Cities should be read in its entirety, but I’m including ‘Cities & the Dead 1’ here to make a point. In this story, Calvino appears to be prescient to the point of satirising entire societies and even global trends more than 30 years after his death. Calvino’s true genius, of course, is the timelessness of the mirror he holds up to us.
First published in 1972, translated into English in 1974 by William Weaver
This is an understated story. It is also such a brilliant insight into war, I experience a little shock each time I read it. The narrator is recalling his adolescence in the summer of 1940 in an Italian city. Italo Calvino would have been seventeen years old that year. “It was a time in our lives when we weren’t interested in anything.” The boy goes to the beach with his friend, Jerry Ostero, and a girl “with blondish hair and a long neck”, who “was Fascist in her opinions”. After the beach, they part. When they meet again, it is early evening. The war has begun. There is no sudden drama and no exaggeration of violence. The writing continues in steady rhythm, observations are made as matters of fact. French planes fly over, sirens are heard, and the rural poor, now displaced inside their own country, arrive in town. But the nature of people continues, the same as ever. Everything changes but everything stays the same. I love this story because it echoes my experience and understanding of war. It is Calvino at his best.
From Into the War, Penguin Classics, 2011. First published in Italy as L’entrata in guerra, Einaudi, Turin, 1954
For what is more romantic than molecules?
First published in Italian in Ti Con Zero, Guilio Einaudi, 1967, and in English in Time and the Hunter, Cape, 1970. Also available in The Complete Cosmicomics, Penguin Modern Classics, 2009. Available to read online here