Where to start with...

Where to start reading Italo Calvino’s books

The best books to begin with, from one of literature’s most compelling and idiosyncratic minds.

Ulf Andersen/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

“I always feel the need to alternate one type of writing with another, completely different,” said Italo Calvino, “to begin writing again as if I had never written anything before.”

The playful Italian polymath was born 100 years ago this month [on 15 October], so it’s a good time to celebrate the range of his brilliance, from stories and novels to memoirs and essays, fairy tales to folk tales. And although, as he said above, he never repeated himself, two qualities unite all of his writing.

First, he had a hunger to learn about everything – from science to books to animals to war – which he then passed on to the reader. Second, he loved to play games in his books, building stories within stories, constructing a novel from a Tarot pack, or winking to the reader about what it’s like to read an Italo Calvino book.

With 24 titles to choose from, the only question is: where to begin? Here’s our guide to scratching the surface of Calvino’s genius, so that you can see why Salman Rushdie once said, “I can think of no finer writer to have beside me while Italy explodes, while Britain burns, while the world ends.”

Calvino’s 1979 novel is justly famous: an intricate story made of other stories, which is structured around the idea of reading this very book. It begins, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought…” The format of stories nested within one another, which unite in a surprising love story, inspired David Mitchell to write Cloud Atlas. Sorry David, we love you, but the original is better than the cover version. And yes, that weird title does eventually make sense.

This new collection of early Calvino tales gathers together the stories in Adam, One Afternoon and adds some never before published in the UK. It gives us, as the New York Times put it, “the man behind the magician.” These are charming, moreish tales of rural life, where adults pass wisdom to children who don’t listen, teenage boys get bitten by ants to impress girls, and war is just over the horizon. The title story, where a sharp-shooting boy chases a soldier, is tense and touching at once.

The most Calvino-ish of all Calvino’s books, this is a string of short descriptions of imagined cities, as told by the explorer Marco Polo. There’s Armilla, the city that is either unfinished or half-demolished (nobody is quite sure); there’s Sophronia, where half the city is regularly folded up and put away like a travelling fairground; or there’s Leonia, which throws out so much rubbish every day “a fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds [it], dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains.” It’s original, imaginative, philosophical and fun.

Mr Palomar (1983)

The last novel Calvino published in his lifetime shows him at the height of his ingenuity. It describes 27 moments in the life of Mr Palomar, who overthinks everything: he passes a sunbathing woman so often in order to find the best way to avoid looking at her breasts, that she takes offence and covers up. This is a book about paying attention to everything, but only saying what is necessary. Mr Palomar, disgusted by people constantly spouting opinions, decides to speak only when he is certain of something, and as a result “spends whole weeks, months in silence.” We could all learn from him.

Cosmicomics (1965)

Calvino, always interested in science, turned his hand to science fiction in these stories. Narrated by a being with the unpronounceable name of Qfwfq, they cast fanciful fiction from scientific theories. In one story, the moon starts off so close to Earth you can prop a ladder against it, but then lovers are parted when it moves further away. In another, set before the Big Bang, everything exists at one point, so living conditions for Qfwfq and his family are rather cramped. This is classic Calvino, making you think and laugh at the same time.

In these personal essays, Calvino dives into his memory and childhood with great warmth, exhibiting what the novelist Clive Sinclair called “the scientific precision of his imagination and his carnivalesque delight in irony and absurdity”. He writes about his teenage love of Hollywood films, about taking out the rubbish (Calvino’s only domestic talent, according to him), and about his relationship with his father, who wanted him to take over control of the family land. We should be glad – with dozens of brilliant books written as a result – that Calvino did not heed the call.

To show that stories can be found anywhere, Calvino determined to write a book out of a set of Tarot cards, following the story as the turn of the cards dictated. The settings are a castle and a tavern, where people who have been struck mute tell their lives by displaying cards – the tale of the doomed bride, or of the alchemist who sold his soul – and so the book shows us how we each interpret the same signs differently. “I publish this book to be free of it,” wrote Calvino. “It has obsessed me for years.”

Our Ancestors (1960)

The novel and two novellas in this collection were written after Calvino gave up trying to write realistic fiction and instead “conjured up the sort of book I myself would like to read.” So we get The Cloven Viscount who is bisected by a cannonball, and finds his two halves living separate lives; or The Baron in the Trees, where a stubborn 12-year-old boy climbs a tree and stays there for the rest of his life. Calvino’s fables, in the words of one critic, “patrol the limits of the unthinkable.”

There are almost as many essay collections by Calvino as works of fiction, and this is a great place to start. Calvino knows a lot, but he prefers joking to showing off: classics, he says, “are those books about which you usually hear people say, ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’” This book gives a master’s guidance on everything from the ancient Greeks to Ernest Hemingway, proving that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” This timeless description applies to Calvino’s own books too.

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