JORGE LUIS BORGES gets the Nobel Prize in literature, only 25 or 30 years overdue, and the next year they give it to Italo Calvino. . . So much for daydreams. Meanwhile, here's a selection of Calvino's short stories 1945- 1960, felicitously translated by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright.
A kitchen full of wild animals -- frogs on the plates, snakes in the saucepans, lizards in the soup, toads on the tiles. A forest full of tame animals -- lambs in caves, pigs in bushes, cows in clearings, a chicken here, a guinea pig there. A pastry shop full of thieves, ignoring the cash register to wallow in creampuffs and jelly rolls. A furrier's shop invaded by a naked old beggar who robes himself in sable, beaver, lambswool, and appears to a startled shopgirl as "a gigantic human bear with its arms entwined in an astrakhan muff. . ." Her response is not Calvinist but pure Calvino. "How lovely!" she says.
Calvino's early stories, exact, delicate, kind, dry, crazy, often follow this theme of invasion or interpenetration of animal life and artificial life -- a subversion of order by the strange. I can't come at the distinction more precisely, for it is a complex one, not to be pulled out of the stories as a mere idea. It is a political, a social, and a psychological theme, and a fascinating one. Indeed Calvino is such an interesting writer intellectually that one tends to forget the powerful gift of narrative that has let him pull off such "anti-narrative" stunts as Invisible Cities or If on a winter's night a traveler. In this volume you can see the storyteller pure and simple in "Mine Field," a paradigm of suspense. Will he get blown up or won't he? I didn't know I could hold my breath for seven pages.
The war stories, fearful and/or humorous, are brilliant. A deaf old peasant rides his mule down the mountain to get food for his starving village in 1945:
"He had lived his life with mules, and his ideas were as few and as resigned as theirs; it had always been long and tiring to find his bread, bread for himself and bread for others, and now bread for the whole of Bevera. The world, this silent world which surrounded him, seemed to be trying to speak to him, too, with confused boomings that reached even his sleeping eardrums, and strange disturbances of the earth. He could see banks crumbling, clouds rising from the fields, stones flying, and red flashes appearing and disappearing on the hills; the world was trying to change its old face now show its underbelly of earth and roots. And the silence, the terrible silence of his old age, was ruffled by those distant sounds."
Calvino's stories from the '40s have the mood of the great postwar films of Rossellini and De Sica, with their strange clarity of feeling, a vernal power springing in release from the long, dead grip of fascist lying and bullying. These tales are loving and terrible, very tender, never truly hopeful.
The stories from the '50s might make you think of Fellini -- the farce, the fantasy, the wit, delight, and vitality, and the marvelous gift of image. Where Fellini errs toward incoherence, Calvino overcontrols, erring towards the cerebral -- but seldom, and never fatally. He is far too intelligent to become really cerebral.
"The Adventure of a Bather" won't become a myth or byword like Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes," because it isn't quite simplistic enough. The plot is certainly simple: Swimming alone at a big beach resort, a bather loses the bottom half of her swimsuit. Now how can you make anything out of that but a wink, a snicker? Calvino makes it a story worthy of Chekhov, a tiny comedy that touches the greatest chords. The smart-aleck kid who says the Emperor has no clothes speaks for the child in us, but Calvino's swimmer is an adult, and her peculiar problem is an adult problem, in fact you could say that her problem is that she is adult -- that she is fully human.
Repeatedly in the later stories the metaphor of happiness is a man's sexual enjoyment of a woman. I found this a bit tiresome. A male writer may expect a female reader to accept description of sex from the man's point of view as a satisfactory representation of human sexual experience, but he can't ask her to agree that male pleasure defines human bliss. Not these days. Under the patriarchy "the nude" could stand for "beauty," but these days she's likely to be seen as a naked woman painted by a clothed man. There is nothing pornographic in Calvino, of course. His sensuality is free and real, as exact, mysterious, and enjoyable as everything in his writing. But the metaphor, repeated, trivializes.
In the last story, a fine restatement of the major theme, the image of inexpressible joy is a woman swimming naked, watched by a man. Wretchedly poor fisherfolk, seen by the same man, represent equally inexpressible despair. The second image, which works, reveals the banality of the first. Very pretty, the nude swimmer, but prettiness isn't what Calvino is after. And what a bore she is compared to that other swimmer, ridiculous, terrified, respectable, who instead of taking off her bathing suit to please a man, loses it and so wins the heart of anybody reading her story, our story, all of us swimming anxiously around in the Sea of Life getting colder and colder and not brave enough, not shameless enough, to come ashore alone. . . .