Covers and Synopses
of Calvino's Books

This is the story of Pin, the cobbler's apprentice, who grows up in one of the ancient fortress-towns of the Ligurian coast in the period of World War II when the partisans are fighting back from the hills, and German soldiers are quartered in the town. Pin is a skinny kid who must keep his wits sharp in order to live. With the other boys who have families, he is an outcast: he has no family except a prostitute sister. Pin therefore is "forced to take refuge in the world of grown-ups" in "the smoky violet air of the tavern," where he hears talk which he can imitate—to get obscene laughter—but cannot understand. He sings sentimental songs and learns how to insult and to curse - but all the while he yearns to be one of the gang, "to go off with a band of young companions to whom he could show the place where spiders make their nests, or with whom he could have battles among the bamboos in the river-bed." How he joins the partisans and makes common cause with another "outcast"—one of the strangest combinations since Of Mice and Men—is part of the story; but chiefly this is a tender-tough portrait of a boy living in a world he never made and never would have made; and it is told with absolutely no sentimentalism. In fact, Sean O'Faolain finds that the author "has something of the subjective response to nature of Pavese, and the hardness and innocence of Vittorini." Originally published by Einaudi in 1947. Published by Beacon Press, 1957. Translated by Archibald Colquhoun.
In 1767, when he was twelve years old, a rebellious Italian nobleman, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, reacted against his father's authoritarianism and the injustice of being forced to eat macabre dishes—beheaded snails among them—prepared by his diabolical sister Battista. He climbed a tree, as boys that age are wont to do. Unlike other boys, Cosimo never came down.
     The Baron in the Trees is the wonderfully witty novel of Cosimo's unique arboreal existence. From the trees, Cosimo explained, he could see the earth more clearly. Free from the humdrum routine of an earthbound existence, the Baron had fantastic adventures with pirates, women and spies, and still had time to read, study, and ponder the deeper issues of the period. He corresponded with Diderot and Rousseau, become a military strategist, and outstared Napoleon when the Emperor paid him a visit.
     Dispensing truth and justice from wherever he might be, the Baron was friend to fruit thieves and noblemen alike. he converted the most feared bandit in the area into a dedicated bookworm, whose passion for literature led to his professional downfall. Women were quite willing to go out on a limb for Cosimo. The most daring of all was Viola, the exotic blonde whose love affair with Cosimo is one of the most intense and extraordinary in fiction.
     This beautifully written novel is a highly imaginative satire of 18th century life and letters. Reminiscent of Voltaire's satirical romances, The Baron in the Trees displays to dazzling effect Italo Calvino's sure sense of the sublime and the ridiculous. Originally published by Einaudi in 1959. Published by Random House, 1959. Translated by Archibald Colquhoun.
The two novellas, together with Calvino's previously published The Baron in the Trees, make a witty trilogy of allegorical fantasy. Was republished in Italy under the title Our Ancestors. The Nonexistent Knight is an earthy parody of chivalry and knighthood. Agilulf, the improbable hero of this tale, is an empty suit of armor, yet he is the essence of military perfection, resented by his fellow paladins, loved by Bradamante, a dashing female knight, and admired by Raimbaut, an idealistic volunteer who is eager for the glamour of war. In order to retain his knightly rank, Agilulf is forced to scour Europe to verify the chastity of a virgin he rescued fifteen years before. His quest, a burlesque of the time-honored rituals of medieval romance, finds him evading the seductive charms of the widow Priscilla, and rescuing the reluctant virgin from a Sultan's harem.
     The Cloven Viscount, set in the late Middle Ages, is the grisly tale of viscount Medardo di Terralba, who in his first battle against the Turks is neatly cut in half by a cannon shot. He returns to his lands in Austria—literally half a man—and becomes the personification of evil, provides children with poison mushrooms, banishes his faithful nurse to a leper colony, and carries on a ghoulish courtship with a beautiful shepherdess. When the other half of the Viscount miraculously appears on the scene and tries to undo the damage, a weird conflict develops, and the happy ending is no less startling than the story itself. As an allegory of modern man—alienated and mutilated—this novel has profound overtones. As a parody of the Christian parables of good and evil, it is both witty and refreshing. Originally published by Einaudi in 1951 and 1959. Published by Random House, 1962. Translated by Archibald Colquhoun.
Cosmicomics is a phantasmagoria on Creation, an enchantingly ingenious idea which translates theories about the evolution of the Universe into stories and makes "characters" out of mathematical formulas and simple cellular structures. The narrator, Qfwfq, spends his childhood in the soundless, timeless void; among the incandescent colors of stellar explosions, he plays with hydrogen atoms like marbles and, sitting astride a galaxy, chases his friend Pfwfp around the firmament. Or, as an adolescent on the new Earth, he has his first shy love affairs with Ayl, Lll, and Mrs. Vhd Vhd; climbs up to the moon on a ladder as it looms hypnotically bright over him; watches the planet flood with its first color as an atmosphere forms; migrates as an adventurous young vertebrate from sea to land; or wanders the deserted plateaus as the last, lonely dinosaur, desperately wanting to belong. Most dazzling of all. Qfwfq thinks back on his state as a mollusk evolving, eyeless himself, a shell to delight all eyes.
     The result of this entrancing union of mathematics and poetic imagination is pure delight. But more than this: the infinities of time and space contract, becoming momentarily acceptable to the finite mind, and the reader glimpses his own infinitesimal significance as part of the complex vastness of the cosmos. Originally published by Einaudi in 1965. Published by Harcourt, Brace & World in 1968. Translated by William Weaver.
Qfwfq, the protean hero of Cosmicomics dexterously moving through time and space, solar systems and geological eras, takes on a new dimension in these tales. Though keeping to his playful ways, he heightens the sense of linkage between prehuman and present-day experience, the biological depth, as it were, of our species. We meet him as a commuter from New Jersey, juggling the potentialities of a geological happening with the actualities of the scene around him. We see him go over a cliff on a weekend outing, seas becoming blood and blood the sea, in a mixture of modern and immemorial experience. In Paris, Qfwfq falls in love with a freckled girl named Priscilla, in what may be called an intercellular relationship.
     In the latter part of the book, Qfwfq drops from view and Calvino takes fiction one bound further into the realm of logic and mathematics. Man, lion, and arrow deal dizzyingly with the time/space problem; a chase with intent to murder during rush-hour traffic traces the ultimately saving method in the madness; cross lovers are further crossed by the crazy pattern of highway driving - and so it goes.
     The mind is stretched and dazzled by Calvino's fantastic application of scientific concepts to modern life and letters, tossed off airily in impeccably lucid prose. Originally published by Einaudi in 1967. Published by Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969. Translated by William Weaver, who received the National Book Award for this translation.
In this marvelously imaginative work that defies categories, the visionary Venetian traveler Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the aged and melancholy ruler of the Tartars, engage in a dialogue. Marco Polo conjures up for the emperor the images of cities he has visited—cities with seductive female names. As Marco Polo begins to describe them, they appear jewell-like, as in medieval manuscripts. Gradually, his tales encompass elements of the modern world. The bright pictures become tainted as the voyager moves through time as well as space. in the end the emperor is left brooding over cities that do not yet exist but will come—such future nightmares as Yahoo and Brave New World.
     "The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, the cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins." This key sentence best describes the subtle game played by the author, the visions of past, present, and future he magically evokes. Gore Vidal wrote that "of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant. Originally published by Einaudi in 1972. Published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974. Translated by William Weaver.
The Watcher and Other Stories consists of three long stories. In "The Watcher," fact predominates over fantasy. The setting is Cottolengo, a city within the city of Turin, where, hidden from sight, the rejects of the human race - cripples, idiots, monsters - are cared for by the Church in a self-contained world of their own. Here, on Election Day, Amerigo Ormeo, member of a left-wing party, penetrates into the enemy stronghold to see that no election fraud is committed. Two concepts of man confront each other, movingly, revealingly, and not without a subtle ambiguity.
     In the other stories fantasy rockets off from its base in fact. "Smog," written in 1958, marvelously anticipates a preoccupation with pollution that is raised to lunatic proportions. "The Argentine Ant" is a masterpiece of sustained horror with farcical undertones, illustrating man's defeat before an enemy too small and ubiquitous to be overcome. "The Watcher" (La giornata d'uno scrutatore) was originally published by Einaudi in 1963; "The Argentine Ant" ("La formica argentina") was originally published in Botteghe Oscure X in 1952 and in English in Adam, One Afternoon in 1957 by Collins; "Smog" ("La nuvola di smog") and "The Argentine Ant" were also published in I Racconti in 1958 by Einaudi; The Watcher and Other Stories was published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1971. Translated by William Weaver.
If on a winter's night a traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, author, ambiance, style; each breaks off with the first chapter, at the moment of suspense. A labyrinth, no less, in which two readers, male and female, pursue the story lines that intrigue them. Thus, If on a winter's night a traveler gets inextricably mixed up with Outside the town of Malbork, a work of unquestionable Polish origin, redolent of somewhat carbonized onions.
     As the book branches out into known and unknown literatures, including a translation from an extinct language, the author, not without malice, rings the changes of contemporary literature with virtuoso versatility. The two bewildered readers tie their own knots and end up in a king-size bed for parallel readings. They are the true heroes of the tale: for what would writing be without responsive readers? Would it be at all. Originally published by Einaudi in 1979. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. Translated by William Weaver.
With magical dexterity, Italo Calvino uses the device of tarot cards and their archetypal images to create a series of short fantastic narratives. In a fairytale setting - a castle and a tavern in the heart of a dense wood - a company of men and women are brought together by chance. Distraught by strange adventures, they find they have lost their voices. To communicate their fates—love affairs, battles, conquests, betrayals—they must deal out, one after the other, the cards of a game of tarot, whose configurations reveal their several plights. Some of the stories turn out to be authentic folk myths and legends—Parsifal, Oedipus, Hamlet—but others are entirely Calvino's own. All of them have a prismatic blend of the old and the new; the author has pinpointed the potentially mythic elements in our frenzied, plastic twentieth-century world and uses ancient symbols to comment wryly on what we have become.
     Calvino was inspired by a series of beautiful fifteenth-century tarot cards, eight of which are reproduced in actual size and full color. Black-and-white reproductions of an eighteenth-century pack run along the margins of the tales, showing the combinations out of which the stories grew. His use of the cards is precisely that made by fortunetellers, but his method is more complicated; he has created what amounts to a crossword and crossimage diagram. The book is fascinating in its inventiveness, in the evocative use of the tarot, in the elegance of its twists and turns. Originally published by Ricci in 1969. Published by Einaudi in 1973. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976, 1977. Translated by William Weaver.
Marcovaldo the irrepressible dreamer, Marcovaldo the inveterate schemer. An unskilled worker in a drab northern Italian industrial city of the 1950s and 1960s, Marcovaldo has a practiced eye for spotting natural beauty and an unquenchable longing to come a little closer to the unspoiled world of his imagining. Much to the puzzlement of his wife, his children, his boss, and his neighbors, he chases his dreams, gives rein to his fantasies, tries—with more ingenuousness than skill—to lessen his burden and that of those around him. The results are never the anticipated ones.
     In twenty stories of striking charm and exuberant originality, Italo Calvino creates a memorable portrait, recounting Marcovaldo's adventures with grade, verbe, and wit: Marcovaldo plotting to trap game birds on his apartment house roof, Marcovaldo chopping down highway billboards for firewood, Marcovaldo going to extremes to care for an office plant (his companion in misfortune). Whether vowing a personal war against "synthetic foods" or leading his family in a trancelike tour of a supermarket in which absolutely nothing is affordable, Marcovaldo remains inimitable himself. Originally published by Einaudi in 1963. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1983. Translated by William Weaver.
Who but Italo Calvino could blend realism and illusion to capture so precisely and so elegantly these moments in the lives of ordinary people? A theft in a pastry shop, a frenzied evening in a tavern, a young soldier caught up in a private fantasy of seduction, a middle-class woman who discovers while swimming that she has lost the lower part of her bikini—all are transformed by Calvino's consummate artistry into stories that brilliantly explore intricate interior worlds. In these classics of the 1940s and 1950s, Calvino depicts instants of recognition and alarm, when cherished deceptions and illusions of love—frequently self-love—are stripped away. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. Translated by William Weaver, Archivald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright.
In these essays Calvino reflects on literature as process, the great narrative game in the course of which writer and reader are challenged to understand the world. He discusses literature in relation to science, philosophy, and politics. He analyzes aspects of the works of the great classical writers of the past—Homer and the Odyssey, Ariosto and Orlando Furioso, Balzac and the city. The collection concludes with tributes to contemporary writers: Eugenio Montale, Roland Barthes, and Marianne Moore.
     From Calvino's criticism emerge many of the themes that are woven into his own work: the image of the city, cybernetics, myth and folktale, the heroic journey. In "Cinema and the Novel" Calvino even drops a fascinating aside about his own fiction: "If any part of cinema has in fact influenced some of my work, it is the animated cartoon."
     Calvino himself made the selection of pieces to be included in this volume. The literary interests and critical insights expressed are an important contribution to an understanding of the uses of literature and to a comprehension of the work of a modern master. Originally published by Einaudi in 1980, 1982. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. Translated by William Weaver.
Who but Italo Calvino could have selected two hundred of Italy's traditional folktales and retold them so wondrously? The reader is lured into a world of clearly Italian stamp, where kings and peasants, saints and ogres - along with an array of the most extraordinary plants and animals—disport themselves against the rich background of regional customs and history. Whether the tone is humorous and earthy, playful and nonsensical, or noble and mysterious, the drama unfolds strictly according to the joyous logic of the imagination.
     Chosen one of the New York Times's ten best books in the year of its original publication, Italian Folktales immediately won a cherished place among lovers of the tale and vaulted Calvino into the ranks of the great folklorists like the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. In this collection Calvino combines a sensibility attuned to the fantastical with a singular writerly ability to capture the visions and dreams of a people. Published by Harcourt Brace, 1980. Translated by George Martin.
Mr. Palomar is one of Calvino's most brilliant creations, a descendant of the Baron who lived in the trees and the enchanting Cosmicomics. It is no accident that his name recalls that of a famous telescope. Mr. Palomar is a quester after knowledge, a visionary in a world sublime and ridiculous. On vacation, Mr. Palomar focuses on natural phenomena: the passion of mating turtles, the moon by day, the sky by night. Returning to the city, he goes off to shop and becomes absorbed by galantines, pâtés, terrines. Names and labels conjure up scenes of pastures, of the hunt, of sacred traditions of husbandry. Mr. Palomar's palate is in his mind. A delicatessen is a museum of civilization. He is impatient and taciturn in society, preferring to spin inner dialogues and listen to the silence of infinite spaces and the song of birds. Yet the intrusive, civilized "I" insists on being that crusty, charming gentleman, a failure as a telescope, a delight as Mr. Palomar. This is a witty, elegant, fantastic tale. Originally published by Einaudi in 1983. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. Translated by William Weaver.
The senses—taste, hearing, and smell—dominate the lives of the characters in these witty, fantastical stories. In "Under the Jaguar Sun" a couple tours Mexico to discover a startling combination of sublime and erotic love in the cuisine of fire-hot chiles and exotic spices. In "A King Listens" the enthroned tyrant is prisoner not only of his power but also of his ear, as echoes in his huge palace carry contradictory messages of deliverance, love, and betrayal. In "The Name, the Nose" a man of the world consults a fashionable parfumerie in search of a scent worn by a mysterious masked lady, while in London a drugged rock musician ruts like an animal in heat for the female whose odor lures him into crazed pursuit.
     And so the senses, promising the fulfillment of desire and an exit from the self, only lead back to their source: the savoring palate, the listening ear, the smelling nose.
     Three senses—three brilliant adventures into the art of narration by the Italian master. "Under the Jaguar Sun" was first published as "The Jaguar Sun" in The New Yorker in 1983; "The Name, the Nose" was first published in Antaeus in 1976. Originally published by Garzanti in 1988. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Italo Calvino died on the eve of his departure for Harvard, where he was to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1985-86. Reticent by nature, he was always reluctant to talk about himself, but he welcomed the opportunity to talk about the making of literature. In the process of devising his lectures—his wife recalls that they were an "obsession" for the last year of his life—he could not avoid mention of his own work, his methods, intentions, and hopes. This book, then, is Calvino's legacy to us: those universal values he pinpoints for future generations to cherish become the watchword for our appreciation of Calvino himself.
     What about writing should be cherished? Calvino, in a wonderfully simple scheme, devotes one lecture (a memo for his reader) to each of five indispensable literary values. First there is "lightness" (leggerezza), and Calvino cites Lucretius, Ovid, Boccaccio, Cavalcanti, Leopardi, and Kundera—among others, as always—to show what he means: the gravity of existence has to be borne lightly if it is to be borne at all. There must be "quickness," a deftness in combining action (Mercury) with contemplation (Saturn). Next is "exactitude," precision and clarity of language. the fourth lecture is "visibility," the visual imagination as an instrument for knowing the world and oneself. Then there is a tour de force on "multiplicity," where Calvino brilliantly describes the eccentrics of literature (Flaubert, Gadda, Musil, Perec, himself) and their attempt to convey the painful but exhilarating infinitude of possibilities open to humankind.      The sixth and final lecture—worked out but unwritten—was to be called "Consistency." Perhaps surprised at first, we are left to ponder how Calvino would have made that statement, and, as always with him, the pondering leads to more. With this book Calvino gives us the most eloquent, least defensive "defense of literature" scripted in our century—a fitting gift for the next millennium. Esther Calvino supervised the preparation of the book. She is Italo Calvino's Argentinian-born wife and a translator for several international organizations. Published by Harvard University Press, 1988. Translated by Patrick Kreagh.
This major testament by an essential writer of the twentieth century is comprised of five strikingly elegant "memory exercises" about his life and his work. "The Road to San Giovanni" poignantly evokes Calvino's childhood home, "on the last slopes at the foot of San Pietro hill, as though at the border between two continents." "A Cinema-Goers Autobiography" gives a mesmerizing account of the years of Calvino's adolescence, when he attended the cinema "almost every day and maybe even twice a day," riveted by such films as Lives of a Bengal Lancer with Gary Cooper and Mutiny on the Bounty with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. "Memories of a Battle" sharply focuses on his experience fighting the Fascists during World War II but becomes in turn a deeply affecting reflection on the role of real and imagined memories. "La Poubelle Agréée" is a Parisian set-piece and "From the Opaque" is essentially his writer's credo.
     In The Road to San Giovanni, the originality, grace, wit, and wisdom that we have come to associate with Calvino are everywhere on display. Originally published by Mondadori in 1990. Published by Pantheon, 1993. Translated by Tim Parks.
A major literary event: this enchanting collection of diabolically brilliant stories, fables, and "impossible interviews" confirms Italo Calvino's stature as one of the essential writers of the twentieth century. A list of "abominable deeds" is found among the charred remains of a house and the four bodies in it, and it is up to a computer programmer to discover who composed the macabre inventory—before he himself becomes ensnared in the deadly conspiracy. A tourist encounters a whole new machinery for the attainment of egalitarianism: the beheading of state officials at the end of their respective terms. Coming to you live from the picturesque Neander Valley just outside Düsseldorf: an interviewer asks the 35,000-year-old Neanderthal Man to justify the fact that his mere endurance is his sole claim to fame. And the legendary lover Casanova tells of the one who got away: was the woman who offered up every part of herself, spiritual and otherwise, in fact employing a cunning strategy to evade capture?
     Written between 1943 and 1984, these several dozen short fictions are whimsical and horrific, feverish and delightful, tragic and wry, sweet and brutal—sometimes alternately, sometimes all at once. Ranging over a panoply of concerns—politics, the nature of power, the implications of a relentless application of technology, the quest for truth, and the elusive possibility of human connection—they are all of them pure Calvino. Originally published by Mondadori in 1993 (Primal che tu dica "Pronto"). Published by Pantheon. Translated by Tim Parks.
Compiled by Calvino, Fantastic Tales is a rich and wide-ranging collection of twenty-six classic, uncanny tales from the nineteenth century written by an intriguing panoply of European and American authors. Master storyteller himself, Calvino has contributed an informative introduction to the collection, and an engaging précis to each story.
      Fantastic Tales traces the genre from its roots in German Romanticism to the ghost stories of Henry James. Calvino writes: "The fantastic tale is one of the most characteristic products of nineteenth-century narrative. For us, it is also one of the most significant . . . As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten . . . In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times."
     Fantastic Tales is a fantastically canonical anthology assembled by an editor who, in the words of Salman Rushdie, "possesses the power of seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams back to life." Originally published as two separate volumes, Racconti Fantastici Dell'Ottocento: Volume Primo, Il Fantastico Visionario and Volume Secondo, Il Fantastico Quotidiano, by Mondadori in 1983. Published by Random House, 1997.
This new volume of autobiographical writings (never before translated into English) by Calvino, whose short stories and novels gave him international acclaim as one of the 20th century's most important Italian fiction writers, is a welcome addition to his extensive works as well as to The Road to San Giovanni, a posthumous collection of autobiographical essays published more than a decade ago. This volume includes a series of articles and interviews that builds on the understanding of Calvino's life after World War II when he returned to Italy from the Communist resistance in the Alps, a period when Calvino felt a "moment of uncertainty" and a "perplexity about" his vocation as a writer before producing his first novel, The Cloven Viscount. The articles also feature Calvino's views on some of his most popular novels: "In the United States... the book of mine that became a hit was the one that you would have said was the furthest from American reading habits: Invisible Cities." But it is Calvino's lifelong fascination with America that makes this collection remarkable: more than half the book is given to an "American Diary 1959-1960," written during Calvino's two years traveling in the U.S., as he explores New York's thriving Greenwich Village and Actors Studio; a "violent, tough" Chicago; San Francisco's "squalid and filthy" beatnik scene; and Montgomery, Ala., where Calvino (who died in 1985) finds himself "in the middle" of "crucial days of struggle" of the Civil Rights movement. His diary reveals an obsession with what he later says most interests him as a writer: "daily life as the constant nourishment for writing." Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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