Why Should I Read?...
Italo Calvino, 1948-58
Calvino is one the quirkiest and most distinctive authors of the 20th century. A member of the experimental Oulipo group and one of the defining voices of magic realism, Calvino’s intellectual, playful amusing fictions are at once profound and stylish. Works like Cosmicomics,
My favourite Calvino comes from much earlier in his career, in the series of short stories written in his twenties and collected as Difficult Loves. These stories are influenced not so much by magic realism as the Italian postwar cinematic movement, neorealism. Calvino’s beautiful short stories are set in urban
In one magnificent story, The Adventure of a Clerk¸ a humble bureaucrat enjoys a one-night stand with a great lady. Calvino is uninterested in the act itself: his focus is the mood of the fortunate Enrico Gnei the next morning, as he slinks into his office without going home, and applies himself to the tedium of his work, a man transformed. The delight is in the detail, restrained yet telling, working always indirectly. In another story, a married woman slips out early and takes coffee in a working man’s café, an adultery of the spirit. Calvino has the happy knack of nailing a mood, a moment, a transformation, with elegance and brevity.
Why do I prefer these seemingly slight early stories to Calvino’s later mastery? For my tastes, Calvino’s mature fiction is perhaps over-intellectualised: the all too apparent cleverness is at the expense of warmth, of sustained characterisation, and of human relationships. That’s not because Calvino can’t do those things—Difficult Loves shows everything except sustained characterisation—but because his interests as a writer moved elsewhere. Difficult Loves is minor Calvino; but it’s major fiction nonetheless.
How has it influenced me?
Calvino is a writer I’ve admired for over twenty years. His magic realism has consistently entertained, amused and piqued my imagination; Difficult Loves has long been a touchstone of how much can be done with seemingly insignificant incidental detail. My work is entertainment, pure and simple: I make none of the claims for it which can easily be advanced for Calvino. If Calvino has influenced me at all, it’s been through those early neorealist fictions, and their underlying assumptions that all stories, if you boil them down enough, usually come down to a man and a woman.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
The voice you master in your youth is not necessarily the one you will retain for life
All details have a wider significance if they are examined closely enough
Not all loves may be difficult, but easy ones don’t make good fiction
Not for the first time in Why Should I Read?, less is more.