This collection appears on the heels of Calvino's relentlessly modernist If on a winter's night a traveler, a labyrinth of novels within novels. That book contains chapters from ten different novels, where, with perfect pitch and great comic effect, Calvino mimes every literary form from the detective story to the Japanese erotic romance, from the European novel of despair to the South American thriller of torture and terrorism. The true protagonists of the book are the two people who read these ten fragments (just as we do) and fall in love as they try to put the pieces together. Through this device, Calvino makes the reader a participant and the book's real hero. If on a winter's night stands realism on its head. To Calvino, the novel is not a mirror of reality; it is reality, the reality of our minds.
As great as the contrast may seem between his late work and the early fiction represented in Difficult Loves, Calvino's neorealist period was not a youthful aberration. Calvino was close to the Communist Party for many years and continued to admire Italy's neorealist masters Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini long after he left the genre behind. The particular value of Difficult Loves is that it permits us to see as gradual and organic the transformation from Calvino's somewhat awkward early stories to his subtle, introspective and funny later writing, suggested by the tales that close the collection.
The book contains twenty-eight brief stories and is divided into four sections. In the first group, "Riviera Stories," the pieces are both lyrical evocations of country life and understated descriptions of social tension. In one, two poor children explore the grounds of a lavish estate; they run away after spotting a little boy who lives there. In another the presence of a young goatherd at lunch disturbs the son of a well-to-do family, who is troubled by his inability to talk with the rustic.
If the stories are not particularly satisfying, it may be because Calvino tries to get around the typical neorealist subject matter of open injustice, pathos and the nobility of peasant life. As neorealist stories they are very nearly failures but, in their quiet way, they try to do something different. They concern themselves with nonevents, moments of mutual incomprehension and noncommunication. And they give occasional glimpses of the mature Calvino: the melancholy tone, the interest in the interal world of the mind and in the indecipherability of the external world.
The story "One of the Three Is Still Alive," which appears in the second section, "Wartime Stories," is something of a breakthrough; Calvino successfully transforms an action-filled war story into an inner voyage. A group of resistance fighters capture three Nazi soldiers, throw them in a ditch and start to shoot. One of the soldiers escapes the massacre through a tunnel leading out of the ditch. The bleeding man crawls through wet and slimy caverns and emerges, at the story's end, naked in wild and deserted parts, [where] the nearest human beings were enemies who would pursue him with pitchforks and guns as soon as they saw him. . . . Life, thought the naked man, was a hell, with rare moments recalling some ancient paradise.
What's especially interesting about this story is that it appears to turn itself inside out. Beginning as an acutely realistic tale of flesh, dirt and blood, it then focuses on the internal state of the surviving soldier. As the man creeps through the underground passage, the story moves from the world of realism to the fantastic, cavernous and solipsistic world of the mind, Calvino's true domain.
In an essay written twenty-five years ago, Calvino made it clear that there was a definite bridge between his neorealist war stories and his later novels. He wrote that he no longer found realism interesting when reality itself ceased to be interesting:
The reality around me no longer gave me those energetic images that I like to express. I am among the writers who have moved away from the literature of the resistance, but I didn't want to give up its epic and adventurous charge of physical and moral energy. Because the images of contemporary life no longer met this need, I transferred this energy into fantastic stories, outside of time and beyond reality.
In the third section of Difficult Loves, "Postwar Stories," Calvino tries to energize prosaic postwar reality by injecting an element of comic distortion. In "Theft in a Pastry Shop," one of the robbers becomes so obsessed with eating pastries that he forgets the cash register and is oblivious to the approach of the police. The policemen in turn catch his obsession, begin nibbling away and fail to see the thief sneak from the store with a shirtful of pastries for his girlfriend. In "Dollars and the Demimondaine," a group of American sailors, famished for sex, encircle a woman in a bar. Her timid husband, unable to rescue her, tries another approach: he rounds up all the prostitutes in town and rushes them back to the bar in a convoy of taxicabs. In each of these stories Calvino describes an ordinary scene and animates it to a feverish pitch until it leaves realism behind.
The final section, "Stories of Love and Loneliness," contains the real gems of the collection. In "The Adventure of a Soldier," a soldier on a train tries to seduce a handsome widow. He begins an elaborate set of advances and retreats but cannot tell if her placidity is encouragement or obliviousness. Calvino involves us in this intense yet comic mental drama without a single word of dialogue and without telling us what, if anything, has really passed between the characters.
As Calvino has moved toward the fantastic, he has not stopped writing realistic stories. In fact, the stories in a new book, published in Italian in 1983 and expected out in English next year, resemble the last stories in Difficult Loves. He has sought, instead, the fantastic in the mundane, transforming it through comic exaggeration. This collection allows us to see that process evolving from one story to the next.