Watch Animations of Two Italo Calvino Stories: “The False Grandmother” and “The Distance from the Moon”

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ita­lo Calvi­no Offers 14 Rea­sons We Should Read the Clas­sics

Hear Ita­lo Calvi­no Read Selec­tions From Invis­i­ble Cities, Mr. Palo­mar & Oth­er Enchant­i­ng Fic­tions

Invis­i­ble Cities Illus­trat­ed: Three Artists Paint Every City in Ita­lo Calvino’s Clas­sic Nov­el

Expe­ri­ence Invis­i­ble Cities, an Inno­v­a­tive, Ita­lo Calvi­no-Inspired Opera Staged in LA’s Union Sta­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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