Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Calvino, Italo

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(1923-1985) Italian novelist, born in Cuba, who began publishing soon after WWII, his experience of which (as a Partisan in the Ligurian mountains) appears in some of his early fiction. Although his earliest work was written in the prevailing climate of the post-WWII Italian Neorealists, his collection Ultimo viene il corvo (coll 1949; trans A Colquhoun and P Wright with some stories dropped and 1 added as Adam, One Afternoon 1957 UK), while containing no fantastic elements – the English translation adds the later fantasy "La Formica Argentina" (1952; trans as "The Argentine Ant") – possesses an Arcadian sunniness and sense of numinous wonder that already signal an essential difference in temperament from the neorealisma of, say, Alberto Moravia (1907-1990).

The two short fantasy novels that IC published in the 1950s, Il Visconte dimezzato (1952) and Il Cavaliere inesistante (1959) – assembled as The Non-Existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (omni trans A Colquhoun 1962 UK) – marked a shift to the kind of fiction for which he became famous: Fabulations, often set between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, that deal wittily and exuberantly with questions of knowledge, formalism and ontology. Il Barone rampante (1957; trans A Colquhoun as The Baron in the Trees 1959 UK) – in which an 18th-century baron's son climbs a tree in an act of defiance and ends up spending his life in various treetops – displays the narrative extravagance and intellectual playfulness that characterize IC's more overt fantasies. All three volumes were assembled as I nostri antenati (omni 1960; trans as Our Ancestors 1980 US).

Le Cosmicomiche (coll of linked stories 1965; trans William Weaver as Cosmicomics 1968 US) and Ti con zero (coll of linked stories 1967; trans Weaver as t zero 1969 US; vt Time and the Hunter 1970 UK) are, with their cosmological ruminations (by an entity as old as the Universe), closer to sf than to fantasy. Le città invisilibi (1972; trans Weaver as Invisible Cities 1974 US) and Il Castello dei Destini incrociati (coll of linked stories 1973; trans Weaver as The Castle of Crossed Destinies 1977 US) adopt the form that IC would employ for the rest of his life: meditations, with elaborate variations and framing devices, on matters involving the interaction between humanity and the Universe. The former, comprising Marco Polo's discourses to Kublai Khan on 55 (imaginary) cities he has visited, and the latter, which organizes a series of stories through the complex rules set forth by a Tarot reading, are arranged with a formal rigour that shares much with the aesthetic of Oulipo and very little with the narrative-driven linearity of most Genre Fantasy.

IC's urbane geniality and gift for giving airy expression to weighty themes are evident despite the (sometimes fevered) virtuosity of his formal ingenuity, which reaches its high point in Se una notte d'inverno unviaggiatore (1979; trans Weaver as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler 1981 US). The novel alternates the opening chapters of 10 different novels with instalments of a long discourse on the experience of reading that frequently segues into a fantastical narrative concerning the intrigues of a literary translator, who may be responsible for the 10 opening chapters. This most ambitious of IC's productions may, like The Castle of Crossed Destinies, have been influenced by the numerous interwoven narratives in his massive Fiabe italiane (coll 1956; trans Louis Brigante as Italian Fables 1959 US; trans George Martin as Italian Folktales 1980 US). The 1980 translation is very much longer than the 1959: we have not been able to confirm if this is because the 1959 translation was cut or if the later translation is of an expanded Italian edition. IC's last novel, Palomar (1983; trans Weaver as Mister Palomar 1985 US), not fantasy, abjures the intensive virtuosity of the previous two novels for a lighter mode, but possesses a characteristically complex structure.

IC created a body of work that seems at home with the fabulations of Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov and Günter Grass. His was a fancifully imagined and geometrically exacting country that genre fantasy has yet to discover. [GF]

other works: The Watcher and Other Stories (coll trans Weaver 1971 US), three novellas, one sf and two fantasy; Sotto il sole giaguaro (coll 1986; trans Weaver as Under the Jaguar Sun 1988 US), three fabulations about the senses of taste, hearing and smell, part of an unfinished cycle of five; Six Memos for the Next Millennium (trans Patrick Creagh 1988 US), five lectures (of a projected six) IC wrote in the last year of his life for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard; Primal che tu Dicta "Pronto" (coll 1993; trans Tim Parks as Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories 1995 UK).

Italo Calvino


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.