It happens in your life as a reader that you encounter a book that unexpectedly, and subtly, changes your literary taste. In your youth, you read anything that comes your way. As you grow older, you become more discriminating. You realize that there are authors that you like, and some others that you don’t; that there are genres that better suit your particular mood, and some you could read at any given time; that there are literary styles that you prefer over others. How you select which ones to read is based on your seemingly unshakeable and fully developed literary taste. You seem contented with the books that you allow to shape your own Weltanschauung, and discard those that don’t fit the bill. Then, you reencounter a book that you have previously tossed aside haphazardly; and the moment you read the first few lines, you realize what a moron you once were.
Such was my experience with Italo Calvino. I first encountered one of his works in college (Daughters of the Moon from the Cosmicomics series) – a selection that was part of a survey course in literature. I didn’t like it then. Probably I was turned off by the funkiness, his zany narrative that left a bad taste in my mouth. Some years later, I was able to read another Calvino short story, Adam, One Afternoon, which was included in another story collection, Difficult Loves (translated by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright, 290 pages, Harcourt Brace) and I was suddenly in love I had to get a copy of that book.
Italo Calvino’s Difficult Loves (Gli Amori Difficili) was among his last books published during his lifetime. All the stories contained herein were first published in Italian between 1945 to the 1950’s, but this particular compilation didn’t see publication until 1984, about a year before his death. It has four thematic and chronological divisions: “Riviera Stories”, “Wartime Stories”, “Postwar Stories”, and “Stories of Love and Loneliness”.
At the heart of these twenty-eight stories is love and alienation – love in its varied shades, and its accompanying estrangement – be it from other people, from the society at large, or from the ego. In “The Adventure of a Bather”, a woman named Isotta Barbarino “had an unfortunate mishap” while swimming at a beach. She was far from the shore and was about to come in from the water when she found out that “at some twist of her hip, some buttons must have popped,” and her bikini had slipped off. Prior to that, she was paranoid about other bathers judging her in her bikini which made her feel ill at ease among those strangers at the beach. But as soon as she was underwater, she “felt naked”, unrestrained, and peaceful even with her two-piece bathing suit on. She felt mortified again when she discovered that she had been swimming without her bikini for some time and while in the water looking at the people on the shore, she felt isolated and insecure. In another sublime story, “The Adventures of a Clerk”, modest clerk who possesses a “discreet and somewhat anonymous looks, which would mark him as an undemanding, unobtrusive companion,” enjoys a one-night stand with a beautiful lady who was apparently out of his league. Calvino does not tell us what exactly happened the night leading to and during the act itself – instead, the spotlight is turned to the details of the morning after, as the clerk goes to work with a fresh outlook despite not having had any sleep: “Coming out of the house, early, he felt the air and the colors of the spring morning open before him, cool and bracing and new, and it was as if he were walking to the sound of music.”
With each of his short stories in this collection, Italo Calvino never ceases to overwhelm me with surprise. His characters’ information are not fully revealed, yet his portrayal of human emotions and tendencies is surgical in its precision, yet tender and cinematic, a nod to his neorealist roots. Reading his stories is like watching a a film: the scenes are quick and undelayed, yet detailed and sensual. Consider this excerpt from “A Goatherd At Luncheon”:
“My mother now went into the attack, with a very sweet, “And how old are you, Giovannino?”
The number the boy gave rang out like a shout. He repeated it slowly. “What’s that?” said our grandmother and repeated it wrongly. “No, this,” and everyone began shouting it in her ear. Only my brother was silent. “A year older than Quinto,” my mother now discovered; and this had to be repeated all over again to my grandmother. These were the things I could not bear, which shamed me to the bottom of my heart, for my sake and his; this comparing of him and me, he who had to look after goats to make a living and stank of ram and was strong enough to fell an oak, and I who spent my life on a sofa by the radio reading opera librettos, who would soon be going to the university and disliked flannel next to my skin because it made my back prickle. This injustice, these things lacking in me to be him and lacking in him to be me, gave me a sharp feeling of our being, he and I, two incomplete creatures hiding, diffident and ashamed, behind that soup bowl.”
There is a lightness in these stories, they have a fantastical, fairy tale quality to them, like this one from “Adam, One Afternoon” which is a story about a gardener’s boy coaxing a young maid to touch all sorts of phallic critters (but I really think it really is about sex):
“Maria-nunziata had just finished washing the dishes when she heard a pebble beat against the window. Underneath stood Libereso with a large basket.
“Maria-nunziata, let me in. I want to give you a surprise.” “No, you can’t come up. What have you got there?” But at that moment the signora rang the bell, and Maria-nunziata vanished.
When she returned to the kitchen, Libereso was no longer to be seen. Neither inside the kitchen nor underneath the window. Maria-nunziata went up to the sink. Then she saw the surprise.
On every plate she had left to dry there was a crouching frog, a snake was coiled up inside a saucepan, there was a soup bowl full of lizards, and slimy snails were making iridescent streaks all over the glasses. In the basin full of water swam the lonely old goldfish.
Maria-nunziata stepped back, but between her feet she saw a great big toad. And behind it were five little toads in a line, taking little hops toward her across the black-and-white-tiled floor.”
With all things considered, this collection of short stories is a testament to Italo Calvino’s superb skill as a master storyteller, one who sits alongside Borges, Barthelme, and Garcia Marquez. I could be wrong, but right now, this book is a favorite. The stories in Difficult Loves are like lenses that probe and mirrors that reflect, they become a parable of the human condition – whether in love and/or in alienation.