Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Italo Calvino: The Road to San Giovanni

Italo Calvino.

Now there’s a writer I don’t particularly like who nevertheless keeps pulling me into his books. There are writers I read once or twice and decide they’re not for me, and stay away from them with little or no regret – Arthur Rimbaud, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Dickens –, and writers I wish I liked more. Of the Calvino books I’ve read, very few have appealed to me, and it wasn’t by lack of searching and trying. In fact I’ve read everything he’s written that is considered essential, and more.

The Baron in the Trees is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, living in my personal list of masterpieces side by side with The Master and Margarita, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Seeing, but then The Cloven Viscount and The Non-existent Knight, although written in the same style, lack its imagination and richness of incident and character. If on a winter’s night a traveller is an uneven novel: one half is composed of lovely chapters addressed at the reader, the other half of unconvincing literary pastiches. The first volume of Cosmicomics was indeed comical, and whimsical, but the sequel, T Zero, seemed redundant. In The Castle of Crossed Destinies the author used a Tarot card to compose the narrative, but the execution left much to be desired. I’ve forgotten everything about The Watcher, but perhaps it wasn’t a bad novella. The Argentine Ant and Smog, in any event, are very, very good, the first one being something of a comical horror story. Invisible Cities is a brilliant masterpiece and still one of the most unusual books of my life. Mr. Palomar and Marcovaldo are interesting at first but then become repetitive and formulaic. Some of the stories in Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories are very good, others not so much. The same can be said about Under the Jaguar Sun. Regarding his compilation of Italian folktales, I only managed to finish the first volume - there’s only so much patience for three books where the story is always about a poor but goodhearted boy who helps a disguised fairy who grants him magical powers, which the boy then uses to vanquish evil and pass tests in order to marry a princess. Why Read the Classics? is one of the best collections of literary essays I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, up there with anything by Jorge Luis Borges or Milan Kundera. So, dear reader, I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve given Italo Calvino lots of chances.

And I continue to read him. Recently I finished reading The Road to San Giovanni, a short collection of autobiographical writings. When I have so many other writers I know I love waiting to be read, I can’t explain what attracts me to him. Perhaps it’s because, in spite of the disappointments, I know he’s a great writer and peerless imaginer. His best short-stories are on the level of the best by Borges, Dino Buzzati, Horacio Quiroga and G. K. Chesterton. He’s written at least three of the best novels of the 20th century. But when I don’t like him, I don’t just dislike him, his writing seems like the worst in the world. If the reader is wondering if there’s a reason for all this masochism, why I bother so much, it’s because the rewards of books like Invisible Cities, The Baron in the Trees, The Argentine Ant and If on a winter’s night a traveller have made all the disappointments worth it.

Sadly I’m running out of fiction to read. I only have A Plunge into Real Estate, Difficult Loves, and The Path to the Spiders' Nests left to read, I think. That means it’s time to branch out into his non-fiction. I wonder what treasures I’ll find there. Perhaps his book about fairy-tales, Sulla Fiaba, will be better than his compilation of the same. Perhaps Six Memos for the Next Millennium is the greatest collection of lectures about books ever written. Perhaps his account of living in Paris - Hermit in Paris – is the literary autobiography to end them all, although competition is fierce. Perhaps, I’m not holding my breath. The Road to San Giovanni didn’t leave me very optimistic.

The books collects five loose articles written between 1963 and 1977, these “exercises in memory” are autobiographical accounts lifted from the several magazines they were originally published in, articles that most likely were never meant to be put together, probably a book quickly edited to life by Esther Calvino after she ransacked her dead husband’s writing desk and cabinet files to make a quick buck. And what else are literary widows supposed to do? Throw out their husbands’ writings? That’s just too cruel to imagine. It is necessary that everything a writer writes be published, nothing must be left out, how else can academe survive?

Calvino’s father, his childhood love for cinema, the Italian resistance, Parisian garbage, and an impenetrable reflection about the “opaque,” those are the five topics of this little book.

The exercise I liked the most was the first article, about Calvino’s father, a scientist, botanist and farmer. The article is by no means a love letter to him, although it’s not a cynical or detached look at a troubled relationship either. Calvino’s father was a man in love with nature, a scientist who used agriculture as a means to give stability and order to his life. He lived for the field, the harvest, the plants and crops . Calvino, on the other hand, was from an early age in love with the city, its lights, its smells and colors, its people. The road to San Giovanni was the road that lead to his father’s field, where he pilgrimaged to every morning, and sometimes Calvino and his brother had to go too to help bring back the produce. Calvino went listlessly, anxious to return and go to the beach or to the movies. “I didn’t recognize neither a plant nor a bird. Things were mute for me,” he explains.

Calvino’s house was situated between two worlds. Downwards there was ‘the city with sidewalks window-shops cinema posters newspaper kiosks, and the Colombo Piazza just one step away, and the marina (…)” But if he left through the kitchen door, into the stream running in the back of the house, he’d enter another world. “That was the door my father, dressed as a hunter, gaiters on, always went out, and you could hear the step of the boots on the stream, and the dog’s tin whistling, and the creaking of the gate overlooking the San Pietro road. For my father, the world started up there, and the world’s other part, the one down here, was just an appendix, sometimes necessary because of matters at hand, but strange and insignificant, to cross in large strides, almost on the run, without turning his eyes around him.”

This Robinson Crusoe-like man was in love with plants and his passion was growing them, a passion he regrets he didn’t pass onto his children, who had already been corrupted by the pleasures of the city. It was a means, Calvino says, of ‘giving an end to the endless universe,’ a way of finding certainty, stability, order. But his children showed him that that stability would die with him. Young Calvino was trying to make sense of the world with other means, namely literature.

“Speaking one to another was difficult. Naturally verbose both of us, possessed by a sea of words, together we were mute, we walked in silence side by side on the way of San Giovanni. For my father words had to serve as a confirmation of things, and as a sign of possession; for me they were predictions of still badly seen things, unclaimed, assumed.”

I sympathise with Calvino’s isolation – I too get mute around my father, who is a highly intelligent man who nevertheless sees books as unpractical, pointless things; finding topics of conversation that interests both of us is a challenge.

After this fascinating reconstruction of his childhood we move into his love for cinema. From 1936 to the beginning of World War II, Calvino writes that he was a daily movie-goer, and a big lover of American cinema, up until fascism forbade most American cinema to promote national productions, and after 1941 forbade it completely it because they had become enemies. It’s a curious reminiscence about silent cinema era, but the uninitiated may have some time caring about the dozens of names of titles and actors he lists. Silent cinema was never my forte, I’m more mid-sixties onwards, with a particular fondness for the seventies.

Next Calvino briefly describes a morning when he was fighting in the Italian resistance. I think it’s the shortest of the articles, and it’s a sober and un-heroic in tone. It left me wondering if he ever wrote about his wartime experience again: I think that would bee very interesting to read in detail.

His living to Paris becomes the basis of an article about Parisian garbage – yes, really. “Of the domestic tasks, the only I perform with some competence and satisfaction is taking the garbage out.” He describes the methods, the rituals of taking the garbage out, the history of Parisian garbage collecting, filled with dates and names, and even makes sociological observations about garbage that are very pertinent and whimsical. He makes a connection between Italy’s inability to manage garbage collecting and its Christian mentality, as a consequence of its disinterest in the material world, but I think he forgets to add garbage disposal is such a tricky thing in Italy because it’s in the hands of the Mafia which uses it as political leverage.

This was my second favourite of the articles. I never expected an article about trash could be interesting, but Calvino really makes a convincing argument that this mundane ritual is more magical and wondrous than we take t for granted.

The final article absolutely made no sense to me, it was a very elaborate and impenetrable attempt at talking about the opaque, and the style manages to be as dense as the theme. Other than that cute gag, there’s nothing to recommend about it.

The Road to San Giovanni isn’t spectacular reading, it’s not even obligatory reading. Italo Calvino has greater books and there’s no reason to read this one before Invisible Cities of The Baron in the Trees. We must consider priorities.

I read this for the European Reading Challenge.


  1. Huh - I read through almost everything available of Calvino's 20 years ago, and though some of my memories are dusty, I believe I came to almost identical conclusions. I must rank if on a winter's night... a bit higher. I obviously need to reread The Argentine Ant, since I can't remember a thing about it.

    Reading your post was weird from the first paragraph and kept getting weirder.

    The autobiographical stuff was not available back then - or I never found it if it was - so that side of Calvino I do not know.

    I suppose part of the issue is he was such a strongly conceptual writer that we are always judging the concept along with the execution, and some of the concepts turn out to be less fruitful than others. Although then why is t zero so much paler than Cosmicomics?

    1. Tom:

      Reading your post was weird from the first paragraph and kept getting weirder.

      Ha ha, I'll take that as a compliment.

      Autobiography and non-fiction tend to be the last stuff to be translated, after all the goodies are out. For me it's always somewhat dreadful when I realize I've run out of fiction. Autobiography can be interesting sometimes, but it has to take a second seat to it.

      I think part of it is the execution; he had a great imagination, that Calvino, but sometimes I think he just failed to bring his big concepts to life. More importantly, I think sometimes he was focused and obsessed, he smothered all life out of them, case in point Mr. Palomar and T zero. He couldn't live things, he had to take them to their extreme logics, and sometimes the narratives became repetitive and dull. For me Calvino is a novelist who tends to start well, but there's a clear loss of vitality, a sense of fizzling out, as the narrative marches on.

  2. I've never read anything from this author but have been curious for some time now, thanks for the titles recommendation. But I've read some of Cormac Mccarthy's books and would like to now the one you've read and when will you comment on it on your blog (:

    1. Toujour;

      I last read McCarthy in 2010. Like I said, I have no regrets. But slowly I'm becoming curious about Blood Meridian. I've been told that the two novels I read were his worst ones, hm, so perhaps I need to give him a final chance. And BM sounds so wonderfully violent and over-the-top I might actually like it.

    2. That's was my first Cormac McCarthy work I've read. It was the first book I've read twice in a six month period, you're in for a hell(some pun intended) of a ride, you'll never see the wild west with the same eyes (:

    3. Well, I'm hoping it's every bit as violent and demented as they say it is.

  3. I'll read The Baron in the Trees if you read Blood Meridian or Child of God or Outer Dark!

  4. How did this come up? McCarthy and Calvino are about as unlike each other as I can imagine. As soon as I wrote that, I began thinking of writers even more unlike Cormac McCarthy, so forget that part.

    Still - it is a strange trade!

  5. interpolations:

    It's a deal then. I'll read Blood Meridian next year.


    Literature works in mysterious ways.

  6. What an interesting relation you have with Calvino's writings, Miguel! I have to admit that although I too loved The Baron in the Trees, I have twice stalled out with Italo's more highly-regarded If on a winter's night a traveller.... I haven't given up on the book yet by any means, but I may use your experience with the writer as a roadmap when I'm ready to give him another try. P.S. Glad to see your mention of Quiroga--he's seriously underappreciated outside of South America in my opinion.

    1. Richard, Quiroga is a great writer! I just I could read more by him.

  7. Confession first, I am a fan of Calvino, adore If on a winter's Night. If a book can be really smart & still make me fall of my chair with laughter it has my heart almost unconditionally I've read & enjoyed 6 memos so give it a go. As to McCarthy, try The Sunset Ltd it's a drama with 2 characters & was turned into a film.

    1. Parrish Lantern, thanks for the suggestions. If on a winter's Night a Traveller is a great novel, even if I only like half of it, but it's an amazing half!

    2. I would advise to stay away from The Sunset Limited, especially since you disliked his recent novelistic output. It is sub-standard McCarthy by any means and cannot compete with his novels in any way. It is mainly interesting for fans and even most of them would agree with my assessment. He is a novel writer by profession. His dramas are just side projects.

      Blood Meridian is a classic for sure, but very very peculiar. From what I know of your literary tastes from reading your blog I guess you could be put off by the monotony of the 'plot'. Do not get me wrong, the language is beautiful beyond comparison, and also the way it is written is perfect as it is. He drives home his point perfectly. But I am not sure if it is something for you.

      My suggestion would be that if you want to give him another chance to try out Suttree instead. The language is on par with Blood Meridian (though very much different) but the book is much more varied. And there is a lot of humor in the book, too.

    3. Anonymou, hello, and thank you for your suggestion. Suttree is also on my list, but I think I'll continue with Blood Meridian. The plot can be boring so long as the language is interesting. And I'm very curious to discover the infamous Judge.