I’ve never read Calvino, in fact I never even heard of him until Radiolab devoted a special episode to the reading of his short story ‘The Distance Of The Moon’ and I immediately fell in love.
What strikes me the most – overall about Calvino – is is blending of science and fantasy. He begins his stories with a basis in scientific fact but then explores the mysteriousness of these findings through purely magical musings. For me this mix of fact and fiction is at the heart of what makes life interesting and I love that the beauty of science and math can be described so fantastically without being dry, boring, or full of footnotes and caveats.
One of my all time favorite films is Kaufman’s ‘The Right Stuff’ based on Tom Wolfe’s novel (which I have not read). In the film when John Glen makes his famous orbit, two of his fellow Mercury astronauts travel down to Australia to communicate with him on one of that country’s satellite dishes. As Glen is overhead that night, outside the Australian station is an aborigine who chants and sends up the sparks from a great fire in the heaven. The sparks mix with the stars and form a perfect blend of the mystical and the factual – the human condition of attempting to explain and understand a universe he’s only dimly aware of. That scene always stuck with me and now discovering Calvino I feel like I’ve been given an opportunity to explore that relationship even more.
As for this book in particular, there is a common theme of being trapped I found interesting. He begins talking about a single cell that suddenly multiplies into the void the cell had only been vaguely aware of previously. Other stories deal with our lives as being packets of information and light that are obliged to follow certain rules. Finally we are prisoners in a universe sized Château d’If where every point leads to every other point but never beyond the confines of the walls.
I was also impressed by the writing itself, Calvino was not a postmodern hack – he was very deliberate in his wording (albeit translated) and he was even playful with his endings and wordplay. He really thought through what he was writing and never allowed himself to get off the rails no matter how strange the subject matter. That more than anything else really impressed me because my previous experience with postmodern strangeness usually results in my detesting the author’s inability to just tell a damn story.
Finally I loved that everything on the page made me think. I’m not sure if what I was thinking was what he intended, but I appreciated being able to explore those distant, fuzzy ideas that we’re sometimes aware of but can never really put into words or even coherent waking thoughts. I found that to be a lot of fun.
I’m absolutely going to read more Calvino.