In general I prefer authors who write satirical or straightforward pieces, i.e., I don’t need to concentrate on determining any symbolism, as well as older classical literature. I admit I gained what appreciation I have of modern authors (or whose writing makes me feel sophisticated because I’ve read them) during my college years. For example, I discovered the joys and darkness of Jorge Amado in addition to the fun of reading Isabel Allende. Fortunately for me I also discovered the joy of reading Italo Calvino after college.
I first devoured Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, a colorful narration of various folk tales: you could almost read the 713 pages without pause (except for hunger, thirst, exhaustion, going to the bathroom, and work, etc.). Apparently Calvino was asked to work at becoming the Italian version of the Grimm Brothers, and I think he achieved this superbly. So enchanted was I that I went out and immediately purchased If on a winter’s night a traveler and The Baron in The Trees.
Somewhat foolishly for me, I first read If on a winter’s night a traveler; I needed approximately five chapters to figure out the structure of this truly unique book. The first chapter starts with you (the reader) preparing to read this book, meaning having to find a quiet place and escape everyone and everything else. I thought the story actually began in the “second” chapter, as it occurs in a train station and actually seems to be a story. In the “third” chapter (called chapter 2) you discover the book has returned to you the reader, but you’re the protagonist who was reading the “second” chapter and discovered the book has some sort of weird typo going on. The “fourth” chapter starts another story unrelated to the previous two plots. The “fifth” chapter returns to you, and you discover the book vacillates between different stories that may or may not be related to one another and the story of how you the reader seek to find the different stories in this book as well as determine the story behind this book you are currently reading. By the way, you are now a male and have a female love interest. The girl not only shares your questions about the book but is also paramount to why the book is so deliberately uneven.
You may ask why I say I “foolishly” started with this book. Simply, the book pushes many bounds of what you expect in a story, and the fact I didn’t know going into the book that this story would be so intentionally fractured caused me a great deal of difficulty. I had bought these books purely because of these amazing folktales and instead found this confusing and frustrating book. Did I make a mistake in falling in love with the writings of Italo Calvino?
(2/5) I realized over the past two days that my comments on If on a winter’s night a traveler sounded as though I loathed the book. Once I caught on to Calvino’s intentions I did enjoy the book, but I worried I would find the remaining books as troublesome. I have to admit, if nothing else I will always remember this story. However, I dislike lacking the opportunity to continue most of these other tales elsewhere. Only the portion from War and Peace can be found.
Interesting idea… did Italo Calvino use an Italian translation of the Russian War and Peace chapter, and did the English translator work with the Italian version? (I assume the Italo Calvino maintained the primary language of the book — but he could have used French or German instead.) If so, I wonder what changes in the double translation could be found. Alas, I don’t want to consider that situation on this posting or possibly ever…
I next read Marcovaldo, or The seasons in the city (which I had since purchased along with Cosmicomics). Marcovaldo follows a struggling family man living in the city, in which each chapter reveals an episode about a specific seasonal event in this man’s life. Most are pretty funny, such as when the family “medically” treats neighbors using stinging bees, but all have a poignancy you can’t ignore. I have no idea whether these are told in sequence of time other than by season, but in all you get about three or four years worth of stories. Maybe all events occurred in the same year, who knows. What I do know is that after reading Marcovaldo I felt I had affirmed my appreciation.
Having these two novels out of the way I venture forward with The Baron in The Trees. This title exactly summarizes the story. A young man with the rank of baron decides to live his life in trees and is actually successful at it! He goes up the trees at age 12 to avoid his sister’s awful food options (grasshoppers, toads, mice, rats, etc.) and his father’s abusive insistence the boy eat this food among other actions. He travels Europe in the trees, occasionally stopping on a roof or mast of a boat, and observes others while living his own life. This boy becomes a man in the trees! I enjoyed this story, as the whimsical decision to live life in a unique manner is unexpected but surprisingly believable as you read. In reviewing other websites, I also discovered the story could be interpreted as an allegory about freedom, which makes sense, but as I earlier said I do not usually look for these types of interpretations.
To date my last read of Italo Calvino was Cosmicomics (although I have since purchased Invisible Cities and Mr. Palomar), which I have since loaned to my mom – or it’s hiding really well. Again, Calvino takes a different approach to this book, as it is short stories about the protagonist and a few others in different periods of time and evolution (so to speak). For this discussion I’ll call them essences. These essences orbit in space one chasing the other until it somehow becomes the second chasing the first, they split from each other due to the Big Bang, they’re dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures, amoebas, beings who can jump between the moon and the earth, essences playing marbles, and so forth. Some points are no longer considered scientific factual, but all are entertaining. The protagonist throughout is named Qfwfg – good luck pronouncing that!
Italo Calvino likes to explore facets of the universe and life as we know it, both what is accepted and what is rejected, asking ourselves why we do so. He enjoys challenging our ideas of an ordered and sequential timeline while ensnaring us with poetic language and evocative images. The majority of his most successful books are described here, although he wrote on a variety of topics. His favorites were the ones exploring topics he enjoyed as a youth.