Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino

Some writers earn my respect. Other writers I merely enjoy. There are writers with whom I become intimate over the course of a long relationship. Some I read and abandon forever. But there are some writers who grab me and promise me a lifetime of reading pleasure and I believe them.

Italo Calvino is that last sort of writer. As soon as I started his collection of short stories, months and months ago, I believed his promises. I still do.

I like reading collections of short stories slowly. Generally, I read no more than a story a day, sometimes only a story a week. This both prolongs the experience, if it is good, and gives me time to digest a story before moving to the next. Of course, at first, I gulped this one. The first stories are so short. Not until the fourth does a story need more than one page, front and back, to finish.

These short shorts are grippingly original. The first section is subtitled “Fables and Stories, 1943-1958” and the stories do read as fables. The very first story is “The Man Who Shouted Teresa“:

I stepped off the pavement, walked backwards a few paces looking up, and, from the middle of the street, broght my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone and shouted towards the top stories of the block: “Teresa!”

My shadow took fright at the moon and huddled between my feet.

Someone walked by. Again I shouted: “Teresa!” The man came up to me and said: “if you don’t shout louder she won’t hear you. Let’s both try. So: count to three, on three we shout together.” And he said: “One, two, three.” And we both yelled, “Tereeeesaaa!”

Before long, there is a large crowd helping the narrator, the man who shouted Teresa. They organize, squabble, and are “beginning to get it right” before someone finally starts asking why they are shouting. The narrator explains he doesn’t even know who lives in the apartment to which they are shouting:

“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we can call another name, or try somewhere else. It’s no big deal.”

The others were a bit annoyed.

But everyone is too embarrassed to be angry or to simply go away. They decide to call one last time and then leave.

So we did it again. “One two three Teresa!” but it didn’t come out very well. Then people headed off home, some one way, some the other.

I’d already turned into the square, when I thought I heard a voice still calling: “Tee-reee-sa!”

Someone must have stayed on to shout. Someone stubborn.

I found the story hilarious. I was hooked. In the next story, the narrator has a moment when he understands nothing, the next is about a town where everything was forbidden. They are too short to be tedious, too well written to be dismissed. Most of these early works are apolitical.

The stories become slightly less fantastical and more political deeper into the book. At first, their target is primarily the military, such as in “The Lost Regiment” where “[a] regiment in a powerful army was supposed to be parading through the city streets” but gets lost and in “The General in the Library” involving a general sent to examine the books in a library after “a suspicion crpet into the minds of top officials: that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige.” But soon Calvino’s flirtation with communism and socialism become quite evident.

Like Dos Passos, Calvino has a fascination with and compassion for working people. His more political stories are often concerned with issues of class and power. In fact, it was the abuse of power, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, that ended Calvino’s association with communism. Many of his stories lampoon the bureacracies and resulting oppressions that spring up under communism and socialism. In other words, Calvino’s primary concern is with respect for the average human, not with an explicitly political goal. In this way, even his explicitly political stories maintain some vitality, though politics have largely passed them by.

The second half of the book is subtitled “Tales and Dialogues 1968-84”. Some of these stories are sci-fi in nature, such as “World Memory” in which every fact in the world is being fed into a computer. This is not a humorous story, but a suspenseful one with an excellent payoff. “Beheading the Heads” is quite political and, perhaps, reveals the anarchism to which Calvino was exposed as a child in addition to his frustrations with political systems generally.

The preface to the book provides some interesting background. For instance, “The Burning of the Abominable House”, a murder mystery in short form, was written in response to “a somewhat vague request from IBM: how far was it possible to write a story using the computer?” The 1973 story is excellent and reveals Calvino’s logical and mathematical rigor.

Finally, late in the collection, Calvino’s fascination with physics and science comes to the fore. Calvino’s parents were scientists and Calvino himself studied the ideas of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Planck. The final two stories are each inspired by scientific articles. One about black holes and the other about the beginning of the universe. These stories both manage to relate abstruse scientific concepts to intensely personal struggles. “Implosion” is concerned with time and everyone’s inability to truly escape its ravages. Even implosion, the narrator finds, does not provide a sanctuary. “Nothing and Not Much” examines the void and dealing with the void. The story was inspired by a Washington Post article discussing a scientists calculations which “suggest[ed] that the universe was created literally from nothing”. It is a very existential piece.

While Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories is only one short story collection, and not Italo Calvino’s most highly regarded, I am infatuated. I want more. I am going to read a novel next, probably If on a winter’s night a traveler. I highly recommend this collection. I cannot say whether it is the best entry point to Calvino’s work, but it was, for me, a thoroughly seductive introduction.

*To dip before jumping in, you can find links to Italo Calvino stories available on the web and other information about the writer at the Italo Calvino website.

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12 Responses to Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino

  1. anokatony says:

    Kerry,
    One might say that Italo Calvino is a fantastic writer in more ways than one. Your review makes me want to return to this writer in 2010 which I very well might.

  2. Kerry says:

    That is a very good shorthand description. And there is not a much better compliment than yours. Thank you.

  3. adevotedreader says:

    I love Calvino, and as I haven’t read him in ages am plannign to read If on a winter’s night a taveller and Invisible cities in the new year. I agree he’s a very seductive writer, I think because of the playfulness with language and ideas.

  4. Kerry says:

    I am looking forward to a long relationship with Calvino. You are absolutely right about his playfulness being the draw. Even when he is a little off (there is a story about global cooling, that big 60s worry), his playfulness carries him through. Thanks for the dropping in!

  5. Biblibio says:

    I’ve been meaning to read something (anything, really) by Calvino for some months. The rather eclectic-sounding nature of this book particularly appeals to me, though I originally intended to read “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”. Yet this sounds quite up my alley, what with the science and all…

    Your description of falling in with an author, meanwhile, is spot on. Very well said.

  6. Kerry says:

    While I have not read anything else by Calvino, this does seem like a fairly good introduction. At the least, it is an enjoyable collection. Plus, most of the stories are very short, so there is hardly any time to get bored (not that I could really imagine that with this collection, even if some of the stories are a little more miss than hit) Anyway, if you do try it, I will be looking forward to your thoughts, whether posted here or your blog (or both).

    Thank you for the compliment.

    Kerry

  7. That does sound a lot of fun, and perhaps an easier in than Invisible Cities. I’ll have to give this one more thought. A nice review Kerry.

    Interesting that he touches on sf, a writer with breadth clearly.

  8. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Max. It is a fun and painless in. He does have some breadth. Some of his stories are very idea driven, others do demonstrate an ability to reach character. All in all, a very good collection. I hope you do try it and review it.

  9. Sarah says:

    Having read your review I was looking forward to my new copy of Invisible Cities with increased enthusiasm. Until Max, all unwitting, burst the bubble!

  10. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Well, maybe you’ll have to get this one too!

  11. Lisa Hill says:

    Thanks for this, Kerry, If on A Winter’s Night A Traveller is on my TBR to read this year and I have bookmarked the links you’ve suggested:)
    Lisa

  12. Kerry says:

    Excellent, Lisa. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is on my TBR for this year too. I look forward to exchanging thoughts.

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