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.
The Count of Monte Cristo
What I imagined going on in this final story of the book was Calvino’s attempt to explain the universe itself.
We’re all trapped in the Château d’If and no matter how hard we try, no matter what knowledge Abbé Faria discovers or imparts on us, we’ll never leave an ever expanding universe – unless it contracts, time flows backwards and we all meet ourselves on the dock.
The Chase, The Night Driver
These two stories are about communication and information. Calvino could very well be describing how information moves around in a computer, but he’s also talking about modern life. The first story is information overload, the second is the mixed signals of life and the loneliness and confusion that arise from it.
The Night Driver is my next favorite story in this book.
The wordplay in this section is wonderful : petrified means not only frozen in time but also the fear of being eaten by a lion.
What’s more interesting is that Calvino isn’t just telling the story of what happens in one petrified moment in time, but he’s telling the story of an electron – of never inhabiting one place and time – and what that really means.
I love how repeated readings open up new interpretations; I wonder what I might think after a few more? These past three stories are about interconnections and harmony and how the small things manage the large. It’s a wonder to think about, and even in death the continuation of life is remarkable.
Mitosis & Meiosis
There was a moment I had when reading these two connected chapters when I suddenly became aware how amazing it is that all the different parts and mechanisms that make up an individual (the ‘I’) can work together well enough to keep the individual individual. How the whole thing doesn’t collapse under complexity or chemical argument is supremely incredible.
Calvino’s endings are the best too.
So far this is my favorite story in the book. Calvino imagines that the primordial sea we once swam in as primitive microbes is now the sea within us: our own blood.
What a beautiful idea of 4 characters in a VW bug, speeding dangerously along a coastal highway, the passengers lusting for each other, the blood hot and red and desirous and ancient and tragic.
Qjwfq, the man, hoped that as the earth cooled after it formed from the swirling mass of gas orbiting the sun that it would become one, giant, uniform crystal. Vug, the girl, however, wanted variety and was okay with imperfections.
I enjoyed how the story flipped back between primordial earth and modern New Jersey even if the explanation between the sexes was a bit too nail on the head.
The Origin of the Birds
I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out some way to explain why I think Calvino chose to describe the actions in this story as if he were describing the panels in a comic strip. He’s too good of a writer to just arbitrarily use such a device, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out.
Maybe I just don’t ‘get’ the math but I like the merging of the known and the possible worlds.
The Soft Moon
I never heard of Calvino until Radiolab’s recent reading of his story ‘The Distance of the Moon’; I immediately fell in love.
This is another story of the moon, only here it appears as sort of a gooey, rogue ‘planet’ that is captured by the earth’s gravity and begins to melt out of the sky and destroys an ancient, but more advanced civilization than our own.
Trippy, organic, weird & very cool.