Difficult Loves is a collection of short stories by Italo Calvino, published quite late in his life (1984, only a year or so before his death) but written quite early indeed, most of them in the 1940s and ’50s. This means that if you read them expecting the style of the Calvino most of us know — the Calvino of If on a winter’s night a traveler, or Invisible Cities, or The Baron in the Trees — you’ll be surprised. These stories date from earlier than that; they are mostly from his Italian neorealist period, and as such are far more concrete in form and content than the novels I mention. As time goes by, however, that tone begins to shift. The collection has a lot to offer — not only in terms of watching Calvino find his way toward what would increasingly be his voice as an author, but on its own merits.
The collection is divided into four sections. The first section, “Riviera Stories,” is almost not stories at all, but sketches: slivers of life, detailed portraits of people in certain social situations. (Though even here a sense of the fabulous peeks out, as in “Adam, One Afternoon,” in which a young man named Libereso pursues a young woman named Maria-nunziata (the Madonna’s name) with gifts of snakes, toads, roaches, ants, fish, and slugs. Ah yes, I see you, Calvino.) The second section, “Wartime Stories,” ought to be more serious — peasants and partisans against German and Italian Fascists — and it mostly is. Here we see famine and rifles, a boy who can’t miss his shot, urgent messages crossing the country. But even here, “Animal Woods,” in which a German finds himself in a part of the forest where the Italians have hidden their livestock, has the clear sense of a fairy tale.
The third section, “Postwar Stories,” is the most difficult to engage with for me. These stories are a blend of the burlesque and the baroque, and sometimes the grotesque (any more -que words? Maybe opaque?) Yet some of them are wonderful, like “Theft in a Pastry Shop,” about men performing a heist from… well, a pastry shop. This story starts out as your basic noir crime fiction: the leader “walks along in silence, through streets as empty as dry rivers, with the moon following them along the tramlines.” They are silent, grim types with a job to do. But two pages in:
It was then that he became aware of the smell; he took a deep breath and up through his nostrils wafted an aroma of freshly baked cakes. It gave him a feeling of shy excitement, of remote tenderness, rather than of actual greed.
Oh, what a lot of cakes there must be in here, he thought. It was years since he had eaten a proper piece of cake, not since before the war perhaps. He decided to search around until he found them.
And the story takes a completely different turn, more Fellini than Chandler, with a last line you’ll never forget.
The last section, “Stories of Love and Loneliness,” is the closest we come to seeing Calvino’s mature preoccupations and style. Five of the eight stories are about the blurred line between art and life, truth and fiction. My own favorite was “Adventure of a Reader,” about a man who can’t focus on his fling with a real-life woman because his book is so good (we’ve all been there, right?) But perhaps the most perfect story was “Adventure of a Photographer,” about a man who ends by being unable to photograph anything but other photographs, and who destroys his love affair in the process. This story was full of wonderful, twisty paragraphs:
The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow… The minute you start saying of something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.
I may have given the impression that I think Calvino’s fantastic and fabulous writing (in the literal sense of those terms), his chameleon nature that never does the same thing twice, his deep originality of form, are somehow unserious. This is far from the case. I am not the sort of person who believes, grouchily, after a magic show, that I’ve been had. Rather, I admire the craft, and believe in the magic, and look to see how it was done, and ask to see it again, again, again. Difficult Loves comes close to a look behind the scenes, and for that I am grateful.
Translated, beautifully and variously, by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright.