At the end of this past September, I happened to find myself in Salerno on the Amalfi coast of Italy. (This is the kind of sentence I’ve waited half a lifetime to write.) There, I checked in at the Hotel Plaza near the train station, then took a leisurely walk up the Corso, the crowded shopping boulevard that runs through town. While sauntering past a Mondadori bookstore, I decided, quite inevitably, to take a quick look inside. Located just beyond the bestseller tables, an entire wall of “Classici” — classics — was noticeably dominated by a long row of elegant, white-spined paperbacks. These were all by the same author. In fact, this provincial bookstore carried more than 70 copies — in hardcover and paperback — of the various works of the protean Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Italy’s most beloved modern writer.
One of those books was “Cosmicomiche,” (1965), which first appeared in English as “Cosmicomics” in 1968, and was soon followed by “Time and the Hunter” (1969), the further adventures of a seemingly immortal multi-form entity named Qfwfq. Calvino occasionally produced additional stories in this serio-absurdist vein — essentially the early history of the universe retold as a series of unhappy love affairs and old family legends — and all of them have now been brought together in “The Complete Cosmicomics.” As Martin McLaughlin writes in his excellent introduction, “The basic technique throughout is to let Qfwfq’s colloquial tone as a narrator offset the great cosmic events he describes to his family as if he were an elderly relative reminiscing about the good old days.” “At Daybreak,” for instance, takes us back to the emergence of light:
“Pitch-dark it was — old Qfwfq confirmed — I was only a child, I can barely remember it. We were there, as usual, with Father and Mother, Granny Bb’b, some uncles and aunts who were visiting, Mr Hnw, the one who later became a horse, and us the little ones. I think I’ve told you before the way we lived on the nebulae: it was like lying down, we were flat and very still, turning as they turned. Not that we were lying outside, you understand, on the nebula’s surface; no, it was too cold out there. We were underneath, as if we had been tucked in under a layer of fluid, grainy matter. There was no way of telling time; whenever we started counting the nebula’s turns there were disagreements, because we didn’t have any reference points in the darkness, and we ended up arguing. So we preferred to let the centuries flow by as if they were minutes; there was nothing to do but wait, keep covered as best we could, doze, speak out now and then to make sure we were all still there; and, naturally, scratch ourselves.”
In “All at One Point,” Qfwfq recalls that the universe began to expand only when Mrs. Ph(i)NK declared that if she had a little more room, she would cook up some tagliatelle. In the dreamlike “Distance of the Moon,” we learn that Earth’s satellite was once so close that “all you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”
As with so many accounts of creation (Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” Genesis), love is the force that drives the universe. No matter what form Qfwfq assumes, he somehow finds himself falling hard for some female counterpart, suffering jealousy, and either getting his heart broken or facing “void, separation and waiting.” When, in one story, color bursts forth into a previously monochrome world, Qfwfq is exuberant, but his beloved Ayl flees all this “confusion” to dwell underground in the soothing blackness. (Throughout the cosmicomics, women are associated with darkness and stasis; they yearn for the bliss of non-being.) When Qfwfq descends into the depths to bring Ayl back to the Earth’s surface, we realize that we are reading Calvino’s version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
In probably my favorite of the cosmicomics, “How Much Shall We Bet?,” Qfwfq and a friend called the Dean begin to wager on the future.
“I don’t want to boast,” says Qfwfq, “but from the start I was willing to bet that there was going to be a universe, and I hit the nail on the head.” After a while, though, Qfwfq’s wagers with the Dean grow increasingly particularized:
“On 8 February 1926, at Santhià, in the Province of Vercelli — got that? At number 18 in Via Garibaldi — you follow me? Signorina Giuseppina Pensotti, aged twenty-two, leaves her home at quarter to six in the afternoon: does she turn right or left?”
When the Dean hesitates, Qfwfq says, “ ‘I say she turns right . . .’ And through the dust nebulae, furrowed by the orbits of the constellations, I could already see the wispy evening mist rise in the streets of Santhià, the faint light of a street lamp barely outlining the pavement in the snow, illuminating for a moment the slim shadow of Giuseppina Pensotti as she turned the corner past the Customs House and disappeared.”
As McLaughlin notes, the cosmicomics were influenced by Lewis Carroll and Borges, philosophy and cartoons. “The Origin of the Birds,” for instance, is imagined as a series of panels in a comic book. Still, none of Calvino’s stories is truly whimsical; they possess a dryness of tone, as well as a logician’s compulsion to run through every possible permutation or implication of any line of thought. But as Qfwfq says, “If you aren’t going to be patient there’s no use in my trying to explain.” These are, after all, scientific fairy tales by an admirer of Samuel Beckett who was also a member of the mathematically oriented Oulipo school of writers.
Not surprisingly, contemporary literary allusions abound in the cosmicomics. In “Nothing and Not Much,” Qfwfq talks about “a time when it was only in the chinks of emptiness, the absences, the silences, the gaps, the missing connections, the flaws in time’s fabric, that I could find meaning and value.”
Those who studied literary theory in the 1970s will recognize this nod to Jacques Derrida, who argued for the importance of what went unsaid in any poem or story. Semiotics — championed by Roland Barthes — teaches that we are surrounded by “signs,” and “A Sign in Space” and “The Light-Years” take this literally. In the latter, Qfwfq observes a sign hanging in a distant galaxy that reads, “I Saw You.” Shocked, he realizes that this might refer to something embarrassing he did precisely 200 million years before. So how should he respond? Initially he tries “What Of It?,” though this is only a beginning.
But then “The Complete Cosmicomics” is an entire book about beginnings. It’s also one of the inaugural volumes — with the early short stories of “Into the War” and the essays of “Collection of Sand” — in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new uniform edition of Calvino. Look for other titles, some newly translated and all of them welcome, during the coming year.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday in The Washington Post.
THE COMPLETE COSMICOMICS
By Italo Calvino
Translated by Martin McLaughlin, Tim Parks and William Weaver
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 402 pp. $24