The sudden death of Italo Calvino, scarcely into his sixties, deprives the world of one of its few master artists, a constantly inventive and experimental writer who nevertheless brought to his work a traditional elegance, polish and completeness of design. Twenty years ago, he was little known in the United States; it was John Barth, himself an avant-garde writer with a strong admixture of aesthetic conservatism, who first mentioned him to me, as someone urged upon him by his own writing students. These students had met him, primarily, in the science fiction of Cosmicomics and t zero. I began to read Calvino, with wonder and delight, and had the pleasure of reviewing at length his beautiful Invisible Cities, which was published in English in 1972. What struck me, along with the rigour of the book’s intricate scheme and the inventiveness that filled out the scheme with a playful shimmering plenitude, was the tenderness of the civic concern that showed in his fantasy of many cities. The modern writer has often taken a mordant and hostile attitude towards human institutions; Calvino by contrast was a respectful sociologist, an amused and willing student of things as they are.
He was willing, in his basic reverence towards the human honeycomb, to submerge himself for years in his massive anthology Italian Folktales, whose pattern of numerous interwoven tales influenced the form of The Castle of Crossed Destinies and, to a lesser extent, that of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Plurality became the method of his fiction, most recently reflected in the twenty-seven symmetrical facets of Mr Palomar. This taste for complex patterns of little tales perhaps prevented his acceptance by that large public which likes the long and involving sweep of the novel, and which took Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to its bosom. But nevertheless within the last twenty years Calvino had become, at least in American academic circles, the best-known living Italian writer, whose name, along with those of Nabokov and Borges and Günter Grass, figured in the inventories of any who tried to compile the ‘post-modernist’ masters. Post-modernism, if it can be said to exist at all, had in Calvino its most seductive showman – an artist in whom the intellectual and revolutionary passions of the modernists had been transmuted to a marvellously knowing if relatively detached meditation upon the oddities and bemusements of the post-war world.