Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Difficult Loves

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, Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies have influenced a generation.

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 Italy in the years after World War II, and focus on the wild and wonderful field of male and female relations. Each story takes a tiny incident, describes it in heightened detail, and implies in that detail a whole hidden world (in this, perhaps, we see the root of Calvino’s later magical realism).

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 cafĂ©, 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.


David Isaak said...

I read quite a bit of Calvino...but not the early stuff.

Sigh. My to-read stack is about to topple over, and you, pal, ain't helpin' much!

Tim Stretton said...

Yeah, well, it's payback for the pile of Zelazny I invested in on your recommendation...

Difficult Loves is a quick read - a shortish book padded with two novellas at the end, which, although interesting, aren't the triple-distilled vintage.

princess kanomanom said...

GREAT analysis of this beloved book. Some of my personal favorites are the candy shoppe story, the girl/boy insect/snake one, the ones you mention...

Such sweet goodness, this collection.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks, Princess Kanomanom! Difficult Loves is a neglected thing of beauty (and a great name for a blog too!). A quiet masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

I am in total agreement. I read difficult loves first and was just left in a total funk (in a good way) - so true to life and lovely - his later work was for too intellectual and "clever". Many can do the later - very few can capture the former.