It’s hard to pick a favourite from Cosmicomics. In this one, the narrator Qfwfq explores the scientific fact that the moon was once close to the earth. It bobbed just above the sea so that men rowing beneath it feared they might bang their heads if they stood up, and regularly visited it to collect the creamy, curdy milk that collected on its surface, which needed to be filtered due to the pollution of “fingernails and cartilage, bolts, sea horses, nuts and peduncles, shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb.” A mad, vivacious tale that fills me with joy every time I read it.
First published in Italian in 1965. First published in English by Jonathan Cape, 1968. Now available from Penguin Classics, 2010
This is my favourite of the Cosmicomic stories, each of which begins with the expression of a scientific hypothesis – true, subsequently disproved or apocryphal – which is then inhabited fictionally, with absurd consequences. This particular story hinges on the fact of our evolution from the oceans, with the recalcitrant uncle of the title refusing to make the transition to dry land.
Originally published in Italian between 1964 and 1965 in the periodicals Il Caffè and Il Giorno; first published in English translation in Cosmicomics, Harcourt Brace, 1968; translated by William Weaver, collected in The Complete Cosmicomics, Penguin Modern Classics, 2010
To indulge completely in fantasy, and to risk. By risk I mean to avoid resting in comfort for long, always trying to expand the reaches of what you’re doing, never shying away from the new and untested. In the Cosmicomics Calvino uses scientific hypotheses of the day as jumping-off points, creating a new genre described as “a subspecies of science fiction” by Ursula K. Le Guin.
First published in Italian in 1965. First published in English translation in Cosmicomics, Harcourt Brace, 1968. Collected in The Complete Cosmicomics, Penguin Modern Classics, 2010. Available as an animation, in Hebrew with subtitles here
Chosen by Jane Roberts
(Dedicated to those of us who have loved for one night only, and equally to those of us who have never loved for one night only.)
We meet our protagonist in the early hours of post-coital bliss: “It so happened that Enrico Gnei, a clerk, spent a night with a beautiful lady.” Bedroom antics are hinted at, allowing the reader to wander off the pages of the present and join Enrico in his imaginings of the sensual and tender “inheritance of that night”, whilst embedded in the converse mundanity of the morning’s necessities. The basic human urge to broadcast his nocturnal exploits, seems here something more than the braggadocio of a lad about town. This is the middle class, middle man, middle of the road, clerk who has undergone an abrupt metamorphosis from the constrains of his bourgeois humdrum. The moment merits marking; as we bask in revelation and comedy, Calvino, the descriptive master of both microcosm and macrocosm, ensures the world breathes into life with an intense – almost pixelated – ecstasy of “boundless Edens”.
From the exquisite idealisation of those early hours of the morning when he leaves the house at the top of the hill, Enrico the Adventurer descends back down to earth – or the office – “mad with love among the accountants” – with a bathetic crash. The unexpected illicit beauty and joy of the day is stripped away by thwarted communication of various kinds; and his fate is to wonder the “what if” of a one night stand. Often love can be realised when the moment passes – the orgasmic glory, a fleeting moment of tenderness never to be reclaimed, maybe never to be spoken of again once passed: all eventually fades into a “ secret pang of grief” and a closed account book of passion.
First published in Difficult Loves and Other Stories, 1953. Available in Vintage Classics, 2018
Jane Roberts is a freelance writer living in South Shropshire. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in anthologies and journals including: Litro, Bare Fiction Magazine, The Lonely Crowd, Wales Arts Review.
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
Federico, who lives in the north of Italy, makes occasional long-distance train journeys to visit his lover Cinzia, who lives in Rome. He travels by night as it’s cheaper, and he is almost always guaranteed an entire compartment to himself. Each time, he undresses carefully and allows himself the pleasure of the enclosed space and precisely-allotted timespan to anticipate his arrival in Rome. But this night, his solitude is interrupted.
First published in English in Difficult Loves, 1983
“Well, then, excuse my curiosity,” the one with the freckled voice asked, “but who lives here?”
A primer in how to be short, how to get away with ‘freckled voices’, how to let an ending howl beyond a page.
Read in Vintage’s 1996 Numbers in the Dark: And Other Stories translated by Tim Parks. Available to read here