To me, there’s virtually no doubt that Italo Calvino is a literary genius. Each one of his works create either a beautiful compendium of light and airy magical fables or tricky Borgesian fictional puzzles. I read the first collection of Cosmicomics earlier in the year and was blown away; the lucidity of his prose and the wit of his storytelling are something that very few writers can match. Signore Calvino’s follow up Cosmicomics collection, Time and the Hunter, is characteristically imaginative.
The book is broken up into three parts. The first carries on where the previous collection left off, following the celestial being Qfwfq’s adventures throughout space and time. The lighthearted and witty prose of the first four stories are a perfect addition to the previous Cosmicomics. In particular I loved the story The Origin of Birds in which Qfwfq describes his encounter with the first ever feathered creatures (a sort of avian love story) through a prose representation of a comic strip:
Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other… To begin with, you can read a lot of exclamation marks and question marks spurting from our heads, and these mean we were looking at the bird full of amazement – festive amazement, with the desire on our part also to sing, to imitate that first warbling, and to jump, to see the bird rise in flight…
Here we can see the exercises in style that Calvino will become renowned for in his later works Invisible Cities and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. The utilisation of the comic strip form reminds me of Alan Moore’s famously long winded comic book scripts in which he outlines, down to the last detail, every aspect of the page that the illustrator will have to draw. There was definitely no coincidence that these stories were entitled Cosmi-comics. Both in the humourous sense and in Calvino’s admiration for the comic book format.
The second section I didn’t enjoy quite as much. It describes Qfwfq’s love of a being named Priscilla through a rather dense storied explanation of a singled celled organism’s journey through Mitosis, Meiosis, and Death. Although this part is still extremely clever, especially the beginning descriptions of a being with no knowledge of the concept of ‘Other’ suddenly urging to become two beings, I feel it lacked some of the magic that Calvino showed in the earlier tales.
The final section abandons Qfwfq as a narrator and takes us through a journey of extremely Borgesian stories that focus on the infinite divisibility of space and time. I took these stories to be a modern fictional rendition of Zeno’s paradoxes. In particular t zero representing Zeno’s ‘Arrow’, and The Chase representing ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’. However, the more dense academic style of some of these stories have caused other commentators such as literary critic, and huge Calvino fan, Gore Vidal, to mention that this closing section focuses too much on it’s ‘literariness’ over the magical elements that made the first collection so brilliant:
In Cosmicomics Calvino makes it possible for the reader to inhabit a meson, a mollusk, a dinosaur; makes him for the first time see light ending a dark universe. Since this is a unique gift, I find all the more alarming the “literariness” of Time and the Hunter. I was particularly put off by the central story “t zero,” which could have been written (and rather better) by Borges.
And to me some of the stories seemed to read more like an analytic philosophy paper than a work fiction (a criticism that is common of Borges as well – a;though I personally don’t see it). Take this line from the first paragraph of t zero for example:
… the arrow A suspended in midair at about a third of its trajectory, and, a bit further on, also suspended in midair, and also at about a third of his trajectory, the lion L in the act of leaping upon me, jaws agape and claws extended. In a second I’ll know if the arrow’s trajectory and the lion’s will or will not coincide at a point X crossed both by L and by A at the same second tx…
However, in The Night Driver Calvino is back to his best, and with an air of melancholy that is unusual to find in such a fun and lighthearted collection. It describes the never ending chase of a broken hearted man trying to find his estranged lover but, in an almost Kierkegaardian sense, being infinitely resigned to the idea of never reaching her due to the infinite divisibility of the space he will have to cross from point A to point B to do so.
In conclusion, I will always be mesmerised by Calvino, and I still thoroughly enjoyed Time and the Hunter although it became a little bit more of a slog for me that the first collection had been. Calvino, much like his predecessor Jorge Luis Borges, has the ability to play with logic and fiction in a way that most storytellers can only dream of. I’ll give the last word to Gore Vidal who thought of Calvino as a perhaps the most inventive and brilliant writer of the 20th century, describing him as ‘the only great writer of my time’, and if it were not for my admiration for Borges who came before him, I may have to agree.
During the last quarter century Italo Calvino has advanced far beyond his American and English contemporaries. As they continue to look for the place where the spiders make their nests, Calvino has not only found that special place but learned how himself to make fantastic webs of prose to which all things adhere. In fact, reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.