Italo Calvino for beginners
Jonathan Lethem in The New York Times (registration required):
Calvino […] had managed effortlessly what no author in English could quite claim: his novels and stories and fables were both classically modernist and giddily postmodern, embracing both experiment and tradition, at once conceptual and humane, intimate and mythic. Calvino, with his frequent references to comics and folktales and film, and his droll probing of contemporary scientific and philosophical theories, had encompassed motifs associated with brows both high and low in an internationally lucid style, one wholly his own. As comfortable mingling with the Oulipo group in Paris (Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, Raymond Queneau and others, who spliced the DNA of literature with overt surrealist games) as he was explicating his love for and debt to Hemingway, Stevenson and the Brothers Grimm, Calvino seemed never to have compromised in his elegant explorations of whatever made him curious in nature, art or his own sensory or intellectual life. His prose was ambassadorial, his work a living bridge between Pliny the Elder, Franz Kafka and Italian neorealist cinema. And – I intuited then, I’ve heard since – he was a kind and generous person to meet, as colleague or student or friend.[…]I worry a little about the state of Calvino’s shelf, 20 years later. Not that any of his books are out of print; precisely the opposite. Calvino’s two primary publishers have been reverential in presenting nearly all of his many titles in elegant trade paperback editions, the bulk in an appealing uniform sequence from Harcourt Brace.[…]I speak as both a lifelong completist and a former bookstore clerk, one who watched and sometimes guided readers as they attempted to choose a book. Ennoble an author’s shelf with too many uniformly enticing editions, and the problem becomes one of luck in the reader’s selection.[…]
Italo Calvino never wrote a bad book. Yet an author of such diffusion, without a single, encompassing magnum opus to embrace (some readers will argue for "Invisible Cities," but that ineffably lovely book shows too narrow a range of Calvino’s effects, too little of his omnivorous exuberance) needs a beginner’s entry point, as well, perhaps, as a compendium to point toward posterity.