Perusing around a lovely used book store in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore last week, The Book Escape, I stumbled upon an Italo Calvino volume I’d not read, Difficult Loves. In a sort of unexpected Calvino spree, I’d read Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveller in the past year, and Difficult Loves was one of the few tomes I picked up that afternoon that passed the used book store test.* A sort of compendium of Calvino’s short stories,** it has proved wonderful reading, and proved more than ever that—as Salmon Rushie wrote in the London Review of Books— Calvino has a “protean, metamorphic genius for never doing the same thing twice.”
This sort of chameleon effect is evident throughout Difficult Loves, which is like a mini-master class in the short story. The first stories in the collection, including “Adam, One Afternoon,” are small Italian fables, while later stories like “The Adventures of a Soldier” and “The Adventures of a Bather,” are astute psychological explorations of singular moments.
“Adam” explores the adolescent infatuation between two poor Italian workers, one a girl cleaning dishes and the other a boy who works in the gardens. What makes this fabular element of Calvino’s work so interesting is that “Adam,” like “The Enchanted Garden,” are fables without morals—but also without any ghastly German darkness, either. If anything, they are perhaps too slight; but when Calvino takes his storytelling abilities to more serious territory (say, World War II or its aftermath) this issue is remedied.
The stunning “The Crow Comes Last” is one such example of a story where fable meets realist tragedy, and stands out as one of the most memorable stories in Difficult Loves. Much as the soldier who eventually dies, the reader in “Crow” is hooked into the conceit of the story, a boy who is such a good shot he cannot miss, and we forget, among the amazement of such things—among things that seem that they could not possibly be true—that death (the ultimate and most unrealistic of things?) is always prepared. If there is a more perfect wartime short story (outside of Tim O’Brien and Hemingway) I’ve not read it.
What’s truly astonishing about Calvino, though, as Rushdie noted, is that he can transition to a postwar story like “The Adventures of a Soldier” with such aplomb. “Soldier” is a miniature examination of a moment, where Private Tomagra attempts to interpret the silent advances of a widow on a train, seeing how far and how much he can touch her. Private Tomagra still sees things in military terms (“The point he had now reached admitted no hesitation: he could only advance”) and knows that he is being ridiculous (“He was behaving absurdly; he realized that”). Yet he cannot stop attempt to establish this contact with his “small and plump” hand. It’s not sexual delight, per se, but the weird moment of transition, from war back to life, which Calvino captures here.
Perhaps I was drawn to Calvino in this instance because my reading, of late—as evidenced by a rather frenetic search through The Book Escape—has been a bit restless. I’ve had trouble getting into the other books I’m reading/reviewing at the moment, and Difficult Loves presented something into which my wandering mood could dive: a book that never presents the same thing twice. Now, after having seen all the colors of Calvino (or, at least, a good bit of variety) I feel better able to step back into a more monochromatic novel.