I came upon Italo Calvino late. It was a foggy November day and I was in Portland, Oregon, on a short work trip. It was my first (and only) visit to Portland, and naturally I made time for the legendary Powell’s Books. There, as I meandered the shelves, The Baron in the Trees caught my eye. I purchased it and six other books. When I sat down to read it, the twelve-year-old Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò seized my heart and never let go. I well remember the pleasure reading of his adventures in the treetops of his 18-century Italian village.
Italo Calvino’s focus is the universal experience of being human, which he treats with whimsy and pleasureful melancholy. Growth, energy, frailty, lust, squabbling, and regret. His themes are uncomplicated, and profound. He understands children better than most, on a level with Harper Lee, whom we owe for our beloved Scout.
Difficult Loves is a collection of Calvino’s short stories. The first part, “Riviera Stories,” contains enchanting stories about the hardy and zestful inhabitants of the Italian Riviera. They were written in the 1940s, when Calvino was in his twenties and thirties and not yet famous.
Reading these stories is like sipping fizzy lemonade on a hot Italian summer day, watching the sun sparkle over the deep turquoise waters of the Ligurian Sea. They’re a lark. Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a place, an effervescent era you never experienced? That’s the magic of these stories.
Here, the place is Liguria, with its fishing villages, tidal pools, craggy cliffs, and stone pine trees jutting out over the sea. The era is one untouched by technology, globalism, war. The whole world is the mountainous countryside; the only politics are the power struggles between the rival gangs of 12 year-old boys.
In the story “Big Fish, Little Fish,” the young son of a fisherman shows his prowess impaling sea creatures underwater with his spear. The boy’s love for the sea is tantalizingly conveyed:
A sea bed seems beautiful the first time, when you discover it; but, as with all things, the really beautiful part comes later, when you learn everything, stroke by stroke. You feel as if you were drinking them in, the aquatic trails: you go on and on and never want to stop. The glass of the mask is an enormous, single eye for swallowing colors and shadows. Now the dark ended, and he was beyond that sea of rock. On the sand of the bottom, fine wrinkles could be discerned, traced by the movement of the sea. The sun’s rays penetrated all the way down, winking and flashing, and there was the glint of schools of hook-chasers, those tiny fish that swim in a very straight line, then suddenly, all of them together, make a sharp right turn.
In another story, a fearless and violent-minded girl pulls one over on a local gang of boys in “A Ship Loaded with Crabs.” The dialog and herd mentality of the young adolescents is rendered in vivid comic tones:
The water was calm but not clear, a dense blue with harsh green glints. Gian Maria, known as Mariassa, climbed to the top of a high rock and blew his nose against his thumb, a boxer’s gesture he had.
“Come on,” he said. He pressed his hands together, held them out in front of himself, and plunged headlong. He surfaced a few yards farther out, spouting water, then playing dead.
“Cold?” they asked him.
“Boiling,” he yelled and started making furious strokes to keep from freezing.
“Hey, gang! Follow me!” said Cicin, who considered himself the chief, though nobody ever paid any attention to him.
They all dived in: Pier Lingera made a somersault, Bombolo took a belly-whopper, then Paulo, Carruba, and, last of all, Menin, who was scared to death of the water and jumped in feet first, pinching his nose with his fingers.
Once in the water. Pier Lingera, who was the strongest, ducked the others one by one; then they all ganged up and ducked Pier Lingera.
The unmarred fantasy of these stories suggests the magical realism of Marquez and others. (Calvino and Marquez were contemporaries, albeit separated by language and an ocean.)
The New York Review of Books, reviewing the English translations in 1984, said that the stories “shift delicately between realism and fantasy; a major pleasure in reading them is to watch the way Calvino maintains a light but perfect control as he allows the material to veer slightly to one side of the line and then to the other.”
Read it: “Riviera Stories” in Difficult Loves, by Italo Calvino (trans. William Weaver)