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Featured Author: Italo Calvino


Italo Calvino was born on October 15, 1923 in Cuba to academic parents. His father was an agronomist who spent many years working in Latin America and his mother was a botanist. Shortly after Italo’s birth, the family moved back to Italy where they lived for the rest of his life. Italo studied in the agriculture department of the University of Turin until the German occupation of Northern Italy during WWII. He dropped out of school to join the partisans and his first publications were stories that centered primarily on his war experience

After the war, he re-enrolled in University and transferred from Agriculture to Literature. His first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders was initially submitted to a contest sponsored by the Mondadori publishing company and later released in 1947 after not placing in the competition.

As a young man, Calvino joined the Communist Party and worked as a journalist for several years. He published his second work in 1952, a novella titled The Cloven Viscount that later became part of his collection, Our Ancestors (one of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die). Calvino’s works are notable for their diversity of style, structural complexity, and experimental format. Over the course of his life he has written journalistic pieces, short stories, fables, historical novels, experimental works, and political allegories. Five of his books are on the 1001 Books to Read Before you Die list.

He died on September 19, 1985 three days after suffering a stroke.

Bibliography (selected works):

  • The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947)
  • The Cloven Viscount (1952)
  • The Argentine Ant (1952)
  • Italian Folk Tales (1956)
  • The Baron in the Trees (1957)
  • A Plunge into Real Estate (1957)
  • The Nonexistent Knight (1959)
  • Our Ancestors (1960)
  • The Watcher (1963)
  • Marcovaldo (1963)
  • Smog (1965)
  • Cosmicomics (1965)
  • Time and the Hunter (1967)
  • The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969)
  • Difficult Loves (1970)
  • Invisible Cities (1972)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979)
  • Mr. Palomar (1983)
  • Under the Jaguar Sun (1986)

Jen’s Thoughts

Calvino’s books are like nothing I have ever read and most of them are hard, if not impossible, for me to describe. In a 1983 lecture he stated “most of the books I have written and those I intend to write originate from the thought that it will be impossible for me to write a book of that kind: when I have convinced myself that such a book is completely beyond my capacities of temperament or skill, I sit down and start writing it.” This quote captures the essence of his works since they seem to accomplish the impossible. I have read three of his books and each one was so different from the other that, if I hadn’t known better, I would have assumed they were written by different authors. Calvino is a writer for the serious reader and his books are not to be tackled lightly. Below are my abbreviated reviews for the three books I’ve read.

Invisible Cities
★★★.5 (2 star for enjoyment, an extra 1.5 for appreciation of writing and style).
Find it here: Invisible Cities
Invisible Cities is a series of imaginary conversations between a young Marco Polo and an aging Kublai Khan. Marco Polo describes a series of cities he has encountered (or has he?) on his travels. The cities are arranged in a numerical sequence of 11 groups: Cities and memory, cities & desire, cities and signs, thin cities, trading cities, cities and eyes, cities and names, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, continuous cities, & hidden cities. The descriptions of the various cities read more like poetry than prose and are interspersed by conversations between Marco Polo and Khan.

This was my first experience with Calvino and I found it to be a confusing and complex book.  It’s filled with themes about imagination, language and communication, future of humanity, and reflections on the past, present and future. I didn’t particularly enjoy it because it was so surreal and abstract. At times I felt like I just wasn’t ready for the challenge of this book. The cities blend together (especially at the beginning) making it hard to remember any one city and leave the reader questioning whether they are all the same city. The structure of the book is interesting and deviates from the norm. The climax (if you can call it that) is in the middle of the book, there is no build up to the conclusion, and the chapters are a mix of dreamlike reflections that are organized in a numerical sequence that I had to plot out on paper to see a pattern emerge (which I did about ¾ of the way through the book). It was like nothing I had read before and like nothing I’ve read since.

Want to try if for yourself? Find it/Buy it: Invisible Cities

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller
★★★★.5 stars
Find it here: If on a winter’s night a traveler
This book is a series of book beginnings (10 to be precise) — each with it’s own distinct author, tone, plot, style, and characters. Each story is unfinished, ending on a cliff-hanger at the story climax. Linking the stories together are two readers who attempt to follow the original storyline but get drawn into multiple “false books” and other directions. It is hard to describe this book in a way that does it justice — a sentiment that seems to characterize my experience of Calvino’s books.

I loved this book and it was much more accessible than Invisible Cities. It’s clever, completely original, and very bizarre. Calvino plays with perspective, at times seeming to talk directly to you and other times using “you” to refer to one of the two readers (the narrator talking directly to the characters). This book is a remarkably intelligent and enjoyable  commentary on the process of reading, writing, and literary analysis. And as an extra bonus, the title makes perfect sense only on termination of the entire book.

Want to try if for yourself? Find it/Buy it: If on a winter’s night a traveler

The Path to the Spiders’ Nest
Find it here:The Path to the Spiders’ Nests: Revised Edition

The Path to the Spiders’ Nest is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of WWII. The protagonist, Pin, is a young boy who lives with his prostitute sister and spends much of his days amusing men in his local taverns with his vulgar stories, gossip, and singing. Pin feels alone in the world with no friends his own age and a feeling of disconnect from the adults in his life. When he is arrested for stealing a Nazi’s gun, he escapes and runs off to camp with Partisans fighting against the Fascists.

This was Calvino’s first book, published when he was only 23 years-old. It is perhaps his most straightforward book — lacking the experimental techniques for which he later became renowned, but enjoyable in its simplicity. Calvino does a wonderful job capturing the essence of life and war through the eyes of a child. Calvino raises issues about what drives men into war as he attempts to bring his own war experiences to life in this fictional work. The book does have it flaws (as Calvino himself described in the wonderful preface). There is a clumsy attempt to frame an ideological message onto the story and this is done through one particular chapter that appears out of place from the rest of the story in both tone and perspective (it is the sole chapter that follows the mindset of a character other than Pin). Yet, despite its flaws, the book is emotionally evocative and powerful.

Want to try if for yourself? Find it/Buy it: The Path to the Spiders’ Nests: Revised Edition

Book Worm’s thoughts
I have only read two books and, depending on how you classify one of them, I loved it or hated it. My review below will explain what I mean.

Invisible Cities
This is a very difficult review for me to write because I loved the writing and found loads of great quotes, but I hated the fact that we are defining this collection of musings as a novel. so I have if you like 2 reviews based on how I would classify it.

Invisible Cities Italo Calvino (my subtitle: A Collection of Philosophical Thoughts About the Hidden Nature of Cities and Their Inhabitants)
This is a wonderful collection of short writings using descriptions of cities to reflect the world and the nature of the human race through the simple device of how a city appears to them. Each short section is beautifully written and, in a few words, Calvino manages to capture the essence of each of his imagined cities.

“There is a city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return”

Invisible Cities Italo Calvino (my subtitle: A Novel)
My gripe with this is not the dream-like nature of the writing but the fact that it is being classified as a novel. For me, a novel has a beginning, a middle, and an end and quite frankly this doesn’t have any straightforward structure. The language is beautiful, the descriptions vivid but it is not a novel.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
Wow is all I can say! In this novel Calvino questions what it means to be a reader, what reading actually is, and also what it means to be a writer and what writing actually is. I have spent hours thinking about this book and can still think of no way to categorize it.

The reader is more than just a reader you are an accomplice to the storyteller.

We want to hear from you. Have you read any of Calvino’s books? If so, which ones  and what did you think?

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