The Complete Cosmicomics
(Penguin Classics, 2009)
Italo Calvino, as everyone knows, launched writing his career as a realist—or rather, as an Italian working in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a neo-realist. Soon frustrated by the limitations of that aesthetic, the story goes, he took new inspiration from fantasy, fable, and folklore—as he would later from Oulipian experimentalism—and turned himself into a very different sort of writer. It was Calvino Two who became the world’s darling in the 1970s: the virtuosic artificer of metafictional masterpieces like Invisible Cities and If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler. Yes. But as always, the story is not so simple. First of all, as Calvino himself would later recall, his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, was praised by Cesare Pavese (who was a sort of godfather to the book) precisely for its “fairy-tale tone” as much as for its realism. And then, for a long time even after he’d unleashed his abundant fancy with his second novel, The Cloven Viscount, in 1952, right up through the early ’60s, he was still alternating books in that fantastical mode with works of more quotidian inspiration, such as A Plunge into Real Estate (which takes off from the boom in illegal construction in postwar Italy), or The Watcher (about a poll watcher on election day). Consider, as well, that the stories Calvino gathered for his 1956 collection of Italian Folktales are notable as much for the “realist” flavor imparted by their down-to-earth tone and mundane details as for their fanciful yet highly conventionalized plots. No one knew better than Calvino how well realism and fantasy go hand in hand.
So it seems misleading to say, as Martin McLaughlin does in his otherwise excellent introduction to The Complete Cosmicomics, that “the main reason” for Calvino’s turn in these stories toward a more experimental way of writing (in this instance, a kind of playful science fiction) was “that he felt that realist fiction was exhausted and that the writer had to turn elsewhere for inspiration.” Most of the stories were published in two volumes in 1965 and 1967 (and translated shortly afterward by William Weaver) but later joined by a few stragglers, two of them written as late as 1984, the year before their author’s death; seven of the latter have not previously been translated, so Calvino completists will want this volume despite the fact that the best of the cosmicomics remain the familiar ones from the original two books. Those first cosmicomics were something new in literature, and yet to see in them a definitive break in Calvino’s career, as McLaughlin does, is to make too close an identification between the conventions of the realist novel and realism as a broader literary tendency that can crop up even in the context of a folktale or, indeed, of science fiction.
In fact, it often seems that as soon as realist observation of the world is pursued with sufficient intensity, it almost automatically becomes a sort of science fiction. Consider the following meditation on the impossibility of controlling what today would be called one’s “image” in everyday life:
Each of our actions, our words, our attitudes is cut off from the “world,” from the people who have not directly perceived them, by an ambience whose permeability is infinitely variable and unknown to us; when we learn from experience that some important remark we dearly hoped would be spread about…has at once, often because we hoped too hard, been consigned to darkness, then we are hardly likely to start believing that some tiny remark we have forgotten, which we may not even have uttered ourselves but which was formed in the course of events by the imperfect refraction of different words, could be transported, unhindered, infinite distances away…to divert at our expense the banquet of the gods. What we remember of our conduct remains unknown to our nearest neighbor; the things we had forgotten we had said, or even those we never did say, travel far off to evoke hilarity on another planet, and the image other people form of our actions and exploits no more corresponds to our own than an inaccurate tracing does to the original drawing.
Marcel Proust is not usually thought of as a writer of science fiction, but as the author who immersed himself so minutely in the convoluted surfaces of social existence that he gave to the novel a new form and an unprecedented sense of time—not a conventional realist, but a realist to the nth power. He can find no more apt image for our attempts to communicate with one another than that of signaling across the vast distances of interstellar space.
In his cosmicomic “The Light-Years,” Calvino elaborates on Proust’s metaphor. The narrator of many of the stories, Qfwfq—Calvino would have had a knack for concocting “strong” passwords had he survived, as by all rights he should have, into the era of the World Wide Web—notices a sign “hanging from a galaxy a hundred million light-years away. On it was written: i saw you.” In his ideal and abstract existence, Qfwfq seems to be both infinitely polymorphous and immortal, having existed in some indeterminate form (as we learn in another of the stories, “All at One Point”) even before the Big Bang: “Naturally we were all there—old Qfwfq said—where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?” In any case, a look at his diary reminds Qfwfq that exactly two hundred million years prior—enough time for the sight of it to have reached that distant galaxy, and for the unknown viewer to have sent this word back—he had done something untoward, something he’d rather not have been seen doing. Isolated in space, Qfwfq feels not shame, but social embarrassment. Worse yet, Qfwfq soon begins to perceive more such signs from different parts of the universe, and then ones that say things like looks as if they’ve seen you or from where they are they can see you. Even those who might not have seen what they shouldn’t have seen are aware that others have seen it. But what about the wonderful, magnanimous thing that Qfwfq has also done? That action gets a sign that says tra-la-la-la; that is, it is studiously ignored. Later there are more encouraging words—you know something? you are really on the ball!—but because these don’t come from the same quarters that had previously seen Qfwfq in bad light, they give no comfort. It’s hopeless: “All the actions of my life, every time I picked my nose, all the times I managed to jump down from a moving tram, were still there, travelling from one galaxy to another, and they were being considered, commented on, judged”—just as Proust said.
“The Light-Years” is not really about the distance between galaxies; it is about the figure one cuts in the eyes of others. And the tone in which Qfwfq expresses his anxiety about this is as recognizably Italian as Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man is recognizably Jewish (even when reminiscing about, say, dating Joan of Arc). The pungent Italianness of Qfwfq’s voice—at once specific and typical—is a marvelous act of ventriloquism on Calvino’s part, given that he has invented for his character situations (living on a planet with no air, or on one where the moon is practically close enough to touch, or having become a land animal when some of your elderly relatives still insist on keeping to their old life in the sea) that are, shall we say, ones the Italian vernacular was never made to handle. Even in translation, if you know Italian, you can hear that vernacular (and the character that goes with it) everywhere. So when Qfwfq, seeing that accusing sign from a far galaxy, at first decides to try to “act as if nothing had happened,” it is impossible not to hear that extraordinary Italian phrase, far finta di niente—literally, “feign nothing”—and with it, a very particular sense of the culture in which such pretense is normal. The strangely familiar voice that tells of these absurd and unimaginable events is thus realistic in itself—a recognizable reconstruction of one that can be heard in any Italian street, office, or home, and if it were possible to make a cosmicomic movie he would probably be played by Roberto Benigni—but is also an instrument of realism in the sense that this voice of one who is not particularly good or honest or brilliant (but also not the opposite of any of those) inevitably brings all high-flown concepts down to earth, including the abstractions of science on which the stories are ostensibly based.
This kind of realism—the deflation of ideals and abstractions, a polemical demonstration that even the most historic acts are done and even the most sublime moments are experienced merely by rather pathetic human beings with all their flaws, all their ignorance and self-absorption—was Calvino’s from the beginning. As he later explained his motivation in writing The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, it “could be encapsulated in these words: ‘Oh, so you want ‘the socialist hero’ then? You want ‘romantic revolutionaries’? Well, I’m going to write you a story about partisans in which nobody is a hero, nobody has any class-consciousness.” And Calvino nominated as the great novel of the Resistance, not his own, but rather Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Affair, whose protagonist is motivated (as the title suggests) more by personal jealousy, really the need (which Proust’s narrator would have instantly recognized) to torture himself with the worst possible truth about the girl he’s in love with, than by a will to fight the Fascists. Calvino calls it “an absurd, mysterious book, in which the object of pursuit is only pursued in order to pursue something else, and this something else is in turn pursued for the sake of something else again, and we never reach the ultimate goal.” That sounds like the formula for a story Calvino kept trying to write and rewrite his whole life. Mr. Palomar, in Calvino’s last work of fiction, trying to catch sight of and follow a single wave of the sea and realizing that in order to do so he would have to observe the entire universe, is caught up in such a pursuit; so are the protagonists of many of the cosmicomics, entangled as so many of them are in some version of Zeno’s paradoxes, most obviously in “The Chase” and in “The Night Driver,” an abstract love story whose nameless narrator (not unlike Qfwfq in “The Light-Years”) is one of those “who wish to be identified with what they say, without the distorting buzz our presence or the presence of others transmits to our messages.”