The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, by Italo Calvino

This is Calvino’s first novel, and one which for a long time after writing it he disowned. I was assuming this was because it was written in the post-Second World War Italian neo-realist tradition, which Calvino also disowned – or at least, diverged from immediately after (the stories in his next book, Our Ancestors, are a long, long way from neo-realism) but apparently not: he disowned it for its contemptible lack of authenticity.

The novel is about a boy (a teenager) growing up in Italy (San Remo) during the Second World War, and follows him as he becomes increasingly involved in the Italian resistance against the Germans, drifting through the war-time landscape in a manner very reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See. Its most successful parts I found to be the early parts of the narrative: of the boy who comes from the lowest rung of society, looked down upon by all, whose upbringing has made him too grown-up to belong among other boys but not yet either accepted in adult society. Strangely – or perhaps not so, considering Calvino’s later writing – this is also the element most divergent from Calvino’s own life: it is when the boy meets the resistance that the novel becomes less striking. Calvino’s own basic complaint about this book is that he felt he did a grave disservice to the comrades he fought alongside in the resistance, making them for literary reasons merely caricatured versions of themselves; and in so doing, he sees his novel as a failed attempt to express the Italian experience of this particular part of the war. He recommends instead reading Beppe Fenoglio’s A Private Matter, a book which I have indeed read but remember almost nothing about (a man perhaps takes his own private revenge over something, while at the same time fighting for Italy?).

Calvino’s criticisms are true enough, but it serves for a passable yarn.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino

How could a book comprising the beginning of lots of different books possibly not appeal to someone like me, who finds himself reading so many books eagerly for the first fifty pages … but then feels no greater desire than to stop and read instead the first fifty pages of some other book? There’s one point in this book when a character – I think it was the writer, Silas Flannery – suggests (in a meta-fictional way) that perhaps a book of mere beginnings is enough, since in his own reading that’s generally all he needs to understand the book in its entirety – the rest is just wasted verbiage, a tiresome and unenlightening struggle. (As you might see by the increasing list of books on the left sidebar, it is a struggle I am much familiar with at the moment). And yet, it is to Calvino’s credit that actually, many of the beginnings to books he sets down here I would have liked to have gone on; there were intriguing enough; they each had a good idea behind them – or at least I believe I would; though equally, if they had been continued, maybe I would have become bogged down in them.

Yes, it all works nicely, this novel. At first seemingly an unconnected series of narratives, interspersed with a connected meta-fictional narrative, it all builds up and becomes more complex, as these two narratives intertwine – until you could almost end up considering it a coherent novel in its entirety – which perhaps it is, if you look into the question closely enough; but I, as usual, find I’m not that much inclined; I’ll let the greater complexities of the work pass me over. For the most part I was entranced: a novel of such disparate elements, you expect some to be a let down; but I only was perhaps with the later bits set in a [South American?] dictatorship, where Calvino started to become just a little too Kafkaesque in his tedious relating of political structures.

Once again, meta-fiction works when it is not po-faced; – when, rather than bring attention to its cleverness (if this kind of reflexivity can be considered cleverness in the first place), it only seeks to laugh at it – to pile absurdity on complexity. Is Calvino making profound points about the nature of fiction and its relation to the reader? Or is he just throwing up paradoxical ideas which catch our fancy? I think probably the latter – there feels nothing, after all, of systematic thought in all this; which is not something I am in any way disparaging Calvino for; I am not one who believes fiction’s main purpose is to examine the philosophical underpinnings either of society or of itself. I was thinking of this and Borges, and I felt maybe there was a kind of similarity between the two in that, rather than a story for them (as it may be for other writers) being a mere vehicle in which to put forward their philosophical view of life, they use a particular philosophical vision of life as a mere vehicle in which to frame their story. That is to say, it is the story which is important, and not the philosophy. At least, I did feel at times, amidst all the meta-fictionalness here, that Calvino at heart was really defending the idea of pure story-telling; that he hadn’t any time for his own clever tricks. Which takes us back again to the fact that the stories he tells, when he does tell them, are themselves pure pieces of story-telling, beautifully constructed to draw us in; and the reader – that is, the character of the reader in the novel – is continually frustrated by anything that gets in the way of them.