Ambiguities of meaning, experiments of form, fantasies and reimaginations of what it means to be human; our histories, political and cultural contexts, allegories and fables; Italo Calvino changes the structural elements of ourselves and our civilization to renew and reawaken us. Few of our liberators have transgressed and shifted our boundaries as rigorously as he has with his scientific experiments in literature, nor with such a fine sense of play.
There is an element of prankster fun in all this, of the jester in his traditional role of speaking truth to power. as well as a satirical intent; Italo Calvino’s grand theme in all of his works is the arbitrary nature of the formal means by which we organize ourselves. I think he imagines himself as the Jester of King Lear, though he carries forward the work of Kafka.
The Complete Cosmicomics collects his whimsical and brilliant science-fictional cosmology and Scheherazade-like cycle of stories exploring man’s place in the cosmos, our origins and destiny. Outward his stories spin, like the spirals of a Nautilus shell in a Fibonacci symmetry of growth, as do we in his metaphor and allusion-laden tales. Like all his writing, they are deceptive in their fabullistic simplicity, concealing depths behind the precious and decorative artistry of his devices.
Invisible Cities describes the possibilities of imaginal realms through the conversations of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, in a prose poem of compelling and baroque beauty.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an experiment in form and in the interdependence of history and identity, kaleidoscopic and surreal.
The Baron in the Trees is a fable of parallel worlds, satires, Absurdism, and the fragile nature of Idealist Utopias.
The Cloven Viscount, a classic doppelganger tale, also presents a holistic meditation on the nature of good and evil.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Chaucerian traveler’s tales told through the device of tarot cards, in the words of the publisher “an exquisite interlinking of narratives, and a fantastic, surreal and chaotic history of all human consciousness.” This one is a special favorite of mine; are we not the stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves and one another?
The Nonexistent Knight is another satire of Idealism and interrogation of identity, this time referential to Don Quixote, with a protagonist who embodies the values of a chivalrous knight but who is only an empty suit of armor.
Mr Palomar, his final exploration into human being, meaning, and value, a novel of 27 belles-lettres episodes, continues to inspire and provoke throughout a lifetime.
Why Read the Classics? collects 36 of his essays on literature which together are a brilliant and insightful defence of the Great Books canon and of our civilization, to me nearly the same thing.