In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

By an Unknown WriterPatrick Parrinder
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories 
by Italo Calvino, translated by Tim Parks.
Cape, 276 pp., £15.99, November 1995, 0 224 03732 3
Show More
Show More

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.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.