New Spaces in Space:
Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
The author of such dazzling fictional inventions as Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italian writer Italo Calvino has often been cited as one of the first true postmodernists. Like nearly all the postmodernists of the 1960s—Thomas Pynchon, Cynthia Ozick, Gabriel García Márquez, etc.—Calvino was profoundly influenced by the new fictional forms created by the Argentinian short-story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges, but of all these writers, Calvino followed this new thread of genre-bending to the farthest extremes and spun his literary pursuits into the most fantastical and fabulous fictional webs.
Calvino began his literary career in the 1940s as a realist, with World War II and its political backdrop as his main subject and influence, but he eventually grew disillusioned with the limits of conventional narrative, which didn’t allow him to express his true artistic talents and desires. In the 1950s he published The Cloven Viscount and The Baron in the Trees, both of which were marked steps into a stranger and more warped fictional territory, and by the 1960s his works were mapping their own unique terrain around themselves and exploring the limits of fiction by exploring the limits of our collective ability to explore. While all this exploration would culminate in 1979, just a few years before his death, with the brilliantly exhaustive meta-fiction If on a winter’s night a traveler, in 1965 Calvino set his sights on the universe itself with his short-story collection Cosmicomics.
Cited as a breakthrough influence by the American postmodernist John Barth—who writes that when he discovered Calvino he was “much under the spell” of Borges—Cosmicomics takes on the farthest reaches of humanity’s knowledge of the universe and spins a series of twelve stories that each riff off of a different aspect of how our cosmos seems to be composed. While all the stories shape themselves around scientific concepts that in 1965 were held to be more-or-less factual, they’re also fantastically inhabited by living beings and consciousnesses that try to understand themselves and their environment—with a sentient and ever-changing being named Qfwfq narrating most of the stories (a clear reference to Kafka, and to Borges’ reference to Kafka in his story “The Library of Babel”)—and it’s the relationship between scientific understanding and living experience that gives these stories their poignancy and purpose.
In “The Aquatic Uncle” Qfwfq recalls the generational differences that sprang up when most of his family moved from the seas to the mainland. His great-uncle N’ba N’ga chose to stay in the water rather than make the shift from amphibian to reptile, and although Calvino’s anthropomorphization of this choice is scientifically spurious, when the interests and allegiances of Qfwfq’s girlfriend Lll come into play, the story resounds with the sadness and yearning that we all recognize when faced with diverging life-paths. Similarly, in “The Form of Space” Qfwfq falls endlessly through the empty cosmos alongside both a beautiful woman named Ursula H’x and his rival for Ursula, Lieutenant Fenimore, the story playing on the inner machinations and feelings of isolation that can arise when paralysis allows a simple love triangle to become infinitely complex. Qfwfq dreams of a universe coming into existence that will somehow impose a new form on space and bring him into contact with Ursula—and into probable conflict with the Lieutenant—but in the meantime he must continue falling and waiting and thinking, possibly forever.
A few years after the publication of Cosmicomics Calvino would befriend French semiotician Roland Barthes (not to be confused with John Barth, who took great exception to Barthes’ conception of “the death of the author”), and two of the stories in Cosmicomics play on the idea of signs in a way that correlates to some of the postmodern theory that Barthes and other French theoreticians were exploring at the time. In “A Sign in Space” Qfwfq leaves a sign in a specific point in his revolving galaxy to mark where he was and to serve as a reference point for all other spaces. When the galaxy turns full circle again and again, however, he finds his sign missing, or altered, or effaced, or copied, or mimicked, so that he loses his bearings in a universe where significance is elusive and relationships are relative to the point of meaninglessness. Like much of the theory it reflects, this story is little more than a self-conscious word game, but it bends the space that a short story can inhabit and enlarges the form in exciting and novel ways.
In the collection’s more successful story about signs, “The Light Years,” an unnamed narrator looks through his telescope and sees a sign that says, “I SAW YOU.” Calculating the time that it would take for the light to get to him from the sign’s location, he then calculates back and discovers in his diary that whoever posted the sign saw him on the very day that he’d done something that he didn’t want anyone to know about. This inaugurates a campaign of signs between the narrator and a universe full of observers and interlocutors who all have something to say about the subject. The narrator’s sense of shame and fear of being observed recalls some of Kafka’s most memorable characters, and as in “A Sign in Space,” the story’s compulsive thoroughness weaves a Kafka-like web of nightmare that its isolated narrator can’t escape.
Any comparison to Kafka and Borges in no way diminishes Calvino’s accomplishments, but instead points out his power to expand upon their innovations and to create new spaces for himself, which is no mean feat among such company. Like Borges especially, Calvino has the ability to run with a theme and expand upon it to seemingly infinite degrees. In his 1972 novel of interrelated sketches, Invisible Cities, he would take the theme-and-variation technique to his highest and most personal level, with each of the book’s city-states perhaps signifying a concurrent version of his beloved Venice, the book standing alongside If on a winter’s night a traveler in both innovation and fully realized achievement. Cosmicomics may not succeed to such a marvelous extent as Calvino’s later works, which are dizzying, but as with humanity’s understanding of the universe, this book’s reach exceeds its grasp in ways that profoundly compel and that lead to self-discovery for its readers and its writer alike.