There are those books we go to not to escape this world, but to experience the truth of a mysteriously attributed quote, “There is another world, and it is this one.” That is to say that the worlds we find in certain novels are no less filled with dread, ambiguity, and moral freight than our own. But these sorts of stories offer new maps for reality. They may at first be those of the Protestant theology and Victorian morality of C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia books (available in a free audio format here) rather literally give us another world in this one.
But we may soon find ourselves catapulted into the neurotic nightmares of Kafka, the sci-fi paranoia of Philip K. Dick, the postindustrial ennui of J.G. Ballard, the scholastic labyrinths of Borges, and…. Well, what are we to call the work of Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler author Italo Calvino? Jonathan Galassi identifies Calvino as a postmodern folklorist, drawn into the mature idiom of his best-known books by his sustained engagement in “the magisterial anthology Italian Folktales” in 1956, a task that made him into “a modern-day Grimm.”
Calvino’s facility with the light magic of folklore infuses his work with a fleet-footedness and brevity that can mask its high seriousness. Two years after compiling his anthology, he wrote that his “true direction” was “the crisis of the bourgeois intellectual seen critically from the inside.” This accounts both for the theoretical sophistication of his prose and the experimental form. Calvino bests even Borges as an experimentalist, writing large parts of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler in the imperious second person, and pulling it off brilliantly.
However, Calvino will often break into the novel to remind us of the artifice, and at one point declare his desire “to follow the mental models through which we live our human events.” Those models, Calvino suggests, are not organized and systematic. They are as meandering and episodic as fairy tales, filled with irrelevant detail that we pick up in fascination then quickly forget. It’s a discomfiting idea for rationalists. But for those who know that life is lived in stories, it rings perfectly true.
In the two animated videos here, we see Calvino’s genius for conjuring irrational fables. At the top John Turturro reads Calvino’s “The False Grandmother” from his folklore anthology, a version of the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. And in the (subtitled) Hebrew-language animation above (perfectly scored by Erik Satie), we see an adaptation of Calvino’s “The Distance from the Moon” from Cosmicomics, a collection whose fictions, writes Ted Gioia, “are absurd and incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text.”
They are also filled with scientific ideas: “Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise.” Like many a critical humanist before him, from Michel de Montaigne to Jonathan Swift, Calvino seems to wonder if our best intellectual efforts, even the sciences, fall subject to “the foibles and fancies of humans,” and to the askew narrative logic of folklore.