By an Unknown Writer

Patrick Parrinder

  • Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino, translated by Tim Parks
    Cape, 276 pp, £15.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 224 03732 3

Italo Calvino was born in 1923 and came to prominence in post-war Italy as a writer of neo-realist and politically committed short stories, some of them published in the Communist paper L’Unità. A major social-problem novel set in contemporary Italy was naturally expected of him, but he found himself unable to write it. Instead, as he subsequently explained, he ‘conjured up’ the sort of books he himself would have liked to read – ‘the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic’. He began with stories strongly suggestive of traditional romance, and later published in a volume called Our Ancestors: ‘The Cloven Viscount’, in which both halves of the viscount chopped neatly in two by a Turkish cannon-ball return home separately to haunt one another, and the novel-length ‘Baron in the Trees’, where a 12-year-old aristocrat decides never again to set foot on the ground after a family row in which he refuses to eat up his plateful of snails. This fantasy of an 18th-century Tarzan is a form of modern pastoral, a highly sophisticated reminder of primitive and innocent reading experiences.

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