Ever since Italo Calvino suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma on Sept. 6, Italy's daily press has chronicled his agony as if it represented the passing of a pope.
In a way it did.
Calvino, who died today at the age of 61, was almost as important to modern Italian -- and, some would say, world -- literature as the pope is to the Catholic Church. And as all Italians know, popes are quickly replaced by new popes; cultural giants, whether they be film directors like the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, novelists like Cesare Pavese, or poets like the late Nobel laureate Salvatore Quasimodo, are not as easily duplicated.
Certainly the death of Italo Calvino, who was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, in l923, and raised in Italy in the turbulent years before World War II, promises to leave a great hole in post-war Italian culture. A novelist, short story writer, editor and visionary, he has been compared to Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Argentina's Jorge Luis Borges, and the American John Barth, as well as to Kafka and Pirandello.
His friend and fellow novelist Gore Vidal introduced him to the United States in a landmark New York Review of Books article in the early l970s. More recently, in the New York Times Book Review, the late John Gardner called Calvino "possibly Italy's most brilliant living writer."
To those who knew him and read him, Calvino was that -- and more. As a man, he was modest, intellectually provocative, humorous, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye that is everywhere reflected in his writings. As a writer, he was a preserver of a rich cultural tradition reaching back to Dante and beyond, a chronicler of the intellectual dilemmas of his time, and an inimitably innovative explorer of ideas and language.
He was probably most widely known in the United States for his vast and ambitiously researched "Italian Folktales," which became a best-seller earlier in this decade. But his real importance in the world of letters comes from the flow of short stories and novels that emerged from his typewriter after the publication in 1947 of his much-acclaimed first novel, "The Path to the Nest of Spiders."
That book announced his arrival on the Italian literary stage -- but it turned out to be the last classic, realistic novel he would produce. For it was Calvino's genius that almost nothing he wrote was like anything else that he had written before. He thrived on being unpredictable, different, explorative in the greatest creative sense of the word. A master of allegorical fantasy, he prided himself on giving his writing different tones and styles.
Typical of his art was his ability to mock himself, and mankind as a whole. In his marvelous "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler," published in 1979, he has his reader purchase the very book he is holding in his hands, then go home and prepare to read it.
"So here you are now ready to attack the first lines of the first page," he writes. "You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author."
"No. You don't recognize it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary he is an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognize him as yourself. Here, however, he seems to have absolutely no connection with all the rest he has written. Are you disappointed?"
This is quintessential Calvino. The book turns out to be not one, but 10 fragments of novels held together by the dialogue, and perplexity, of two bewildered readers -- who, through the sort of intellectual twists and turns that are the one constant in Calvino's writing, are transformed from literary observers to heroes.
Calvino was Italian to his core, but his works and vision were universal. He dealt less with the parochial issues of his culture -- though they sometimes formed the backdrop of his exposition -- than with the universals of communication and thought, where dream and reality, truth and fantasy, are one.
In such books as "The Cloven Viscount," "The Baron in the Trees," the ethereal "Cosmicomics," "The Castle of Crossed Destinies," and "Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City," he expanded the normal limits of how we see, and hear, in literature -- and that, probably, will be his greatest legacy.
He was also very much a writer's writer, an artist who dealt as much with discussing his craft as his ideas. As Gore Vidal wrote more than a decade ago: "During the last quarter-century Italo Calvino has advanced far beyond his American and English contemporaries . . . reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One."