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Top 5 and Why: Italo Calvino’s Best

ITALO CALVINO, portrait by Graziano Origa, pen&ink + blowout retino + letraset + pantone, kodak cornice, 20X30, framed for Nòva100, 2009.

It’s a tough choice, but here are 5 that stand the test of time. Ordering is always subjective, isn’t it? Or are there laws of selection we don’t even yet understand?

1. Invisible Cities

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

Published in 1972, the novel takes the form of a conversation between the 13th century explorer Marco Polo and Kubla Khan. This is Calvino at his thematic and structural best. Overall, it’s an exploration of imagination and the imaginable. Consisting of brief prose poems describing 55 cities, interspersed with short dialogues every five to ten cities with Polo and Khan who do not speak the same language.

One of the most amazing things about this masterpiece is how it’s structured. An interlocking pattern of numbered sections, the length of each section’s title graphically outlines a continuously oscillating sine wave, or you might even say, a city skyline. The interludes between Khan and Polo are no less poetically constructed than the cities, and form a framing device that plays with the natural complexity of language and stories.

Invisible Cities has even been used by architects and artists to visualize how cities can be, their secret folds, where the human imagination is not necessarily limited by the laws of physics or the limitations of modern urban theory. It offers an alternative approach to thinking about cities, how they are formed and how they function. Now that is a book!

2. (The Complete) Cosmicomics

You explode, if that’s more to your taste, shoot yourself all around in endless darts, be prodigal, spendthrift, reckless: I shall implode, collapse inside the abyss of myself, towards my buried centre, infinitely.”

His intellectual fantasy was definitely not welcome in literary circles, but he probably wasn’t much on the radar of science fiction readers either. Yet here we are some 40+ years later, discussing cosmicomics. What is a cosmicomic? It’s a form something like a fable, a song, a prose poem, a vignette that he invented about mid-career.

Cosmicosmics begins typically with a scientific hypothesis which sets the stage for narrator, Qfwfq. While hard to pronounce such a name–and one wonders what the point of that exactly is–Calvino’s humor holds it all together, sometimes with verbal (and even mathematical) wit, and occasionally laugh-out-loud parody, such as in “All at One Point.” Ursula K. LeGuin sums up a wonderful discussion of Calvino and Cosmicosmics so well:

So, there we are, given perfectly conflicting instructions. Perhaps if we could follow them we might arrive somewhere near the condition of “negative capability” which Keats believed the most fruitful of all. I have a notion that Italo Calvino lived a good part of the time there.”

3. If on a winter’s night a traveler

What harbor can receive you more securely than a great library?”

The 1979 book that famously consists of the opening chapters of ten different novels. The narrative, in the form of a frame story, is about the reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. The first section of each chapter is in second person, and describes the process the reader goes through to attempt to read the next chapter of the book he is reading. The second half is the first part of a new book that the reader (“you”) finds. The second half is always about something different from the previous ones and the ending is never explained. 

Alternating between second-person narrative chapters of this story are the remaining (even) passages, each of which is a first chapter in ten different novels, of widely varying style, genre, and subject-matter. All are broken off, for various reasons explained in the interspersed passages, most of them at some moment of plot climax.

4. Six Memos for the Next Millennium

In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogenous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.”

Based on a series of lectures given in the fall of 1985 for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, but never delivered as Calvino died before leaving Italy. Written 30 years ago, the memos have potency and immediacy today. You can get a feel for the way Calvino thought and played with language, and how seriously he took literature and what its thoughtful contribution to culture could mean. One of my all-time favorite books on writing.

5. The Baron In The Trees

We’ll make an army in the trees and bring the earth and the people on it to their senses.”

The novel received the prestigious Viareggio Prize in 1957. Despite some flaws, critic Martin McLaughlin argues, “remains something of a tour de force in Calvino’s oeuvre. It is an extraordinarily successful attempt to reproduce a utopian, philosophical conte for the 1950s, with a whole range of intertextual allusions and a sophisticated parody of the poetics of the early English moralising novel as practised by Richardson and parodied by Fielding.” Described as a conte philosophique and a metaphor for independence, it tells the adventures of a boy who climbs up a tree to spend the rest of his life inhabiting an arboreal kingdom. The Baron in the Trees is the second volume in the fantasy trilogy, Our Ancestors with The Cloven Viscount (1952) and The Nonexistent Knight (1959).

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