Issue 124, Fall 1992
Italo Calvino and I shared the same landscape: the Italian Riviera from Genoa to Menton, on the French border. We shared the rocks falling sheerly to the sea, hills covered with pine and olive trees, winter clumps of mimosa, the first fruits of the truck gardens and the blooms of the nurseries, crabs, the Easter cake—and then, just behind the olive trees, the sterile clay flats and the mysterious Apennines. And as soon as one passed through the town’s gates, there were the fasce, the small strips on the stony, arid hills on which the peasants (retired sea captains and sailors, old boatswains but also lawyers repatriated from Argentina) built small, dry stone walls, obtained water from who-knows-what source, and then, as a hobby, grew a few tomatoes, string beans and pumpkins. Everything was small, limited, obtained from the minimal, with an ingenuity sharpened by the lack of resources.
Both Calvino and I owned several of these strips—his, I suppose, were larger—and many, many times, when we were young, we talked about that corner of Liguria with the love one has for one’s home. It is impossible to understand Calvino without this mental landscape, this love for small forms. They were his true wealth. Gradually, as the years passed, he grew increasingly to love the short story, the prose poem, the moral parable, the metaphysical tale, the caprice, the miniature, the exvoto. Perhaps these “small forms”—from Petrarch to Leopardi’s Operette Morali—constitute the essence of Italian genius: sharply limned, concentrated, abstract, realized with the greatest economy of means and an extreme wealth of resonant implication. Like the great Persian poets, who constructed immense poems by fitting together small, invisible tales, Calvino had learned the art of the interlaced plot and its reflection: these “small forms” illuminated each other, suggesting allusions and perspectives and labile, infinite architectures. I do not know what he would have written in the lost future, but I have always imagined that with his ductile and ingenious hands, using his little colored stones, he would have composed cosmogonies and cosmologies.