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.
Something very similar was aimed at by Robert Louis Stevenson, and in Our Ancestors Calvino has a beautiful description of the Stevensonian romance: ‘To him, writing meant translating an invisible text containing the quintessential fascination of all adventures, all mysteries, all conflicts of will and passion scattered throughout the books of hundreds of writers; it meant translating them into his own precise and almost impalpable prose, into his own rhythm which was like that of dance-steps at once impetuous and controlled.’ Inevitably, we apply these words to Calvino himself. He remained basically a short-story writer, whose later works became increasingly literary and self-referential. He rewrote Marco Polo’s conversations with Kubla Khan in Invisible Cities, and, in If on a winter’s night a traveller, he produced a novel both containing and commenting on the first chapters of a whole series of imaginary novels. The character Ludmilla in this ‘novel’ – she is in some respects Calvino’s ideal reader – demands a sort of novel which has as its driving force only the desire to pile stories upon stories, without any connecting philosophy of life. Calvino describes himself in the same text as a chameleon-like writer of unstable reputation, an apocryphal author who changes radically from book to book. Numbers in the Dark, a posthumous mopping-up of unpublished, unfinished and fugitive pieces, is likely to strengthen that impression.
The book is introduced by the novelist’s widow, Esther Calvino, who stresses his prolific writing habits and what can only be called his opportunism. He began by writing anti-Fascist propaganda pieces, but later, having left the Communist Party in 1957, he accepted commissions from IBM and Suntori, the makers of Japanese whisky. (‘There was only one condition,’ Esther Calvino tells us: ‘that an alcoholic drink of some kind should be mentioned in the text.’ Needless to say, whisky is the drink mentioned.) He turned short stories into novels, and unfinished novels into short stories. He wrote a story for the OuLiPo, the Paris group to which Georges Perec and other avant-garde writers belonged, but was quite happy to have it published in Playboy instead.
If we connect the idea of ‘piling stories upon stories’ with a nostalgia for innocent, childhood reading experiences it may be because the official narratives of Western culture, like the Bible and Homer, tend to be historical and chronological rather than merely accumulative. Before the 20th century the influence of our greatest model of the heaped, embedded narrative – the Arabian Nights – was confined to popular culture. It is interesting to speculate about how many 19th-century accounts of childhood reading, from Wordsworth to Stevenson, could be traced back quite specifically to the experience of reading the Nights. Modern writers including Calvino have set out to combine the taste for romance (regarded variously as childish, Oriental and feminine) with more traditionally masculine forms of literary ambition.
The best of Calvino’s early stories are witty comedies in which the whimsical, unsatisfactory and often farcical lives of first-generation city workers become the vehicle of an implicit social criticism. His protagonists struggle to keep in touch with their country roots by poaching laboratory rabbits, raising hens within the factory gates and organising street mushroom hunts; the usual result is that everyone has to be rushed to hospital. Numbers in the Dark contains some episodes of this sort, as well as a story, ‘The Petrol Pump’, written at the time of the 1973 oil crisis when the Italian Government ordered all filling stations to close during the lunch hour. The story begins with the protagonist worrying about his empty tank, but by the end we have gone past the collapse of our civilisation to reach the day when the earth’s crust re-absorbs the cities and begins once again to lay down petroleum deposits – ‘on whose behalf,’ Calvino adds, ‘we do not know.’
James Joyce began his career as a social historian of ‘scrupulous meanness’, and ended up with Finnegans Wake, which is both an avatar of the Arabian Nights and a vast, impossibly prolix history of the world. Calvino, too, broadens out, his later work offering brief, elegant, apocryphal fragments of world history. Numbers in the Dark includes his 1968 story ‘World Memory’, whose paranoid protagonist believes himself to be in charge of a huge computer program dedicated to recording the history of everything, including (he has decided) the history of moments that cannot be recorded. The only way he can find to fulfil his task is by quietly and systematically falsifying the data. Lies are the real information that he has to pass on. This story is not one of Calvino’s more satisfying achievements, but it has the air of an artistic credo, especially when republished in Numbers in the Dark alongside other tiny shards and fragments of world memory such as imaginary interviews with Neanderthal Man, Montezuma and Henry Ford, a hitherto unknown extract from Casanova’s memoirs, and an account of Drake’s fleet becalmed in the Antilles, originally written as a satire on Italian politics.
The historical territory of which Calvino is indisputably the master is the imaginary beginning of history, as seen in his science fiction collections published in the Sixties, Cosmicomics and T-Zero. In these books, some more or less random episodes from cosmological and geological evolution are illustrated by the delightful reminiscences of Qfwfq, a garrulous old-stager who has seen and foresuffered all, from the moment of creation to the invention of the personal computer. Most of the stories start with a quotation from a popular science textbook, and the revolution in cosmology associated with Big Bang theory evidently inspired Calvino to add some new pieces to the sequence shortly before his death in 1985. Two of these are included in Numbers in the Dark.
The Big Bang causes intolerable, Shandean problems for old Qfwfq. According to the American physicist Alan Guth, the universe was created in a ‘second divided by a billion billion billions’. How can this possibly be narrated by the custodian of the world memory? Qfwfq remembers it, of course, or rather he remembers the point at which he began to remember things and found that there were things to remember, and he remembers his feeling that that time was different from what went before. The only rational thing would be to take it slowly, but to tell it at all he is going to have to go much too fast: ‘Let’s say that to tell everything that happened in the first second of the history of the universe, I should have to put together an account so long that the whole subsequent duration of the universe with its millions of centuries past and future would not be enough; whereas everything that came afterwards I could polish off in five minutes.’ Sour grapes, perhaps? We get the five-minute part, and we can explain this niggardly allowance of time by noting that, as usual with Qfwfq’s stories, what begins with an exultant boast of ‘I was there’ soon turns into the lugubrious record of one of his unrequited love-affairs. Not only was Qfwfq there, but an assortment of unattainable ladies – Ayl, Nugkta, Mrs Vhd Vhd and many others – are remembered as having been there, too. In the expanding universe, everyone starts out packed like sardines into the same space, but they end up removed to a vast distance or irremediably severed by the separation of planets, the division between matter and anti-matter, the evolution of amphibians into land or sea creatures or the condensation of the rocks. Beginning like Noah with all life gathered together on his Ark, Qfwfq is invariably left high and dry, like Orpheus searching for his Eurydice. All he can do, and all Calvino can do, is to tell us about it, but as it were from somewhere else, so that the fragments of world memory are like signs in the night sky coming to us from a different point in space-time. As the philosopher says in Invisible Cities, ‘Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.’