In the beginning, before the Big Bang, all the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single point. Qfwfq can tell you about it: He was there. “Naturally, we were all there—where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time, either: What use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?”
Qfwfq has been a mammoth, a dinosaur, and a single cell. He made the first sign in space, and analyzed it, too, getting the drop on Roland Barthes by a few billion years. He remembers the Earth when it had no atmosphere, the sun when it was a cold, dark nebula. He recalls how good it felt to be a mollusk, with all of evolution still before him; and what happened to old U(h) and the first bird; and how his sister G’d(w)n got lost when the sun formed and turned up in Canberra in 1912.
With their avuncular narrator and their wild leaps of semi-scientific fantasy, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics are some of the most dazzling and joyous literary fiction of the 20th century. Calvino (1923–1985) began writing the Cosmicomics in the 1960s under the influence of Oulipo, the endearingly goofy, mostly French experimental literary group that included Harry Mathews and Georges Perec. One of the Oulipians’ tenets was that, in order to represent its time, fiction should address physics and mathematics, though their approach to science was more imaginative than analytic. (Embracing mathematical restrictions, Perec famously wrote a novel without using the letter “e.”) Calvino drew inspiration from astronomy and evolution on one hand and Italian folk tales, comic books, myth, and movies on the other. The combination yields stories full of poetry and wonder, in prose that swoops like some rainbow-feathered prehistoric bird between the colloquial and the sublime. Through the eyes of Qfwfq and his family, we see space and time on a human scale, while human emotion—playful, boisterous, wistful—expands to fill the universe.
The new Penguin Classics Complete Cosmicomics collects in one volume almost all of Calvino’s Cosmicomic stories: the original Cosmicomics, published in Italy in 1965 (in English, 1968); a second volume, t zero (1967; in English, 1969); and 11 other stories, seven of which had never been translated into English. (Three were published in the U.S. earlier this year, two in Harper’s and one in The New Yorker.) Cosmicomics and t zero are in gorgeous English versions by William Weaver; the other translations, almost as good, are by Tim Parks and Martin McLaughlin. For now, because of rights issues, the complete version is available only in the U.K., but it’s easily ordered from Amazon.co.uk, and the beautiful cover alone is worth the extra postage.
There’s nothing dated about the Cosmicomic stories, and nothing unexamined. Calvino did not take much in his writing for granted. The son of leftist botanists, he went to agricultural school, joined a Communist partisan group during World War II, but then abandoned agriculture for literature (his thesis was on Joseph Conrad). In 1947, he published a socialist-realist war novel called The Path to the Nest of Spiders, only to conclude that realism suited him no better than agriculture. In the 1950s, he translated his rebellion against convention into the Enlightenment yarns The Cloven Viscount and The Baron in the Trees. He also assembled an edition of Italian folk tales, joining other experimental writers (Robert Coover, Angela Carter) who have used folk tales as a jumping-off place.
But it was science that answered his need for a large philosophical canvas. In his later collection Mr. Palomar, Calvino wrote, “The discrepancy between human behavior and the rest of the universe has always been a source of anguish.” To resolve his dread, the autobiographical Mr. Palomar “tries in vain to escape subjectivity by taking refuge among the celestial bodies.” In the Cosmicomics, Calvino instead transforms anguish into comedy, and dread into a gentle, funny awe. Calvino’s literary descendants are writers excited rather than frightened by the world’s possibilities—writers like Carter, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, Michael Chabon, and David Mitchell, who take their fantasy seriously and put formal experiment at the service of pleasure.
Over the course of the Complete Cosmicomics, you can see Calvino playing with the form, trying to see what it can do. The stories “t zero” and “The Night Driver” are abstract mathematical games, and too dry (though “The Night Driver” is apparently an homage to Godard’s Weekend). The newly translated stories are more accessible and show an even greater range of styles. “The Mushroom Moon” is inspired by comic books. “World Memory” is a philosophical murder mystery. “Solar Storm” is an odd literary pastiche, referencing Conrad, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley. There are three different tales based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; he kept retouching it, adding more layers of paint, though I’m not sure he managed to improve it.
Many of these later Cosmicomics are more melancholy, like the conservationist parable “The Daughters of the Moon,” in which objects on Earth are constantly being discarded and replaced with newer models, so that Manhattan’s skyscrapers gleam “like the nylon bristles of a brand-new toothbrush.” Meanwhile, the moon, NASA’s grail—and, in the Cosmicomic stories, always a mirror image of our own planet—is now thought to be used-up and is thrown on the scrap heap.
Human emotion is the one constant in the Cosmicomics: jealousy, irritation, pride, generosity, and love. The most beautiful of all the stories may be that one quoted at the start, “All at One Point,” in which people are “packed in like sardines,” along with their furniture, their laundry, “all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe.” They are stuck there until one of them, Mrs. Ph(i)nk0, exclaims, “Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some tagliatelle for you boys!” At that moment, Qfwfq and the others begin to picture “the space that her round arms would occupy,” the space for the dough, the flour, the wheat for the flour, the sun on the wheat, the galaxy to harbor the sun . . .
In the act of making pasta, the universe can be imagined—and, in that moment of generosity, imagination, and love, Calvino says, our world and all of us were born.