Notes: Calvino and the Oulipo: An Italian Ghost in the Combinatory Machine?
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Calvino and the Oulipo:
An Italian Ghost in the Combinatory Machine?

In June 1990, when the Italian literary magazine Wimbledon put on trial both Calvino and his oeuvre, prosecutors and defendants alike agreed on at least one point: what is commonly known as “the last Calvino”—usually the works starting with Cosmicomiche (Cosmicomics) (from 1965 to the author’s death)—is greatly inferior to “the first and the middle Calvino.” In short, the ten Italian critics called on for this auspicious occasion cast a blanket rejection on all narratives written during the period when Calvino resided in Paris. One of the most strident critiques comes from Franco Fortini, “il suo implacabile interlocutore antitetico” (“his implacable antithetical interlocutor”) as Calvino himself once defined him (Eremita a Parigi 188). 1 Fortini rejects all the works written after La giornata di uno scrutatore (The Watcher) (1963) and denounces what he sees as a hedonistic involution in Calvino’s last works. He writes: “Tutto il lavoro alla Queneau e Perec mi sembra micidiale, distruttivo. Fu avvelenato dalla produzione francese di quel periodo parigino” (Wimbledon 2). 2 Carlo Laurenzi, another voice among the dissenters, writes: “Ho ammirato Calvino fino a quando è stato uno scrittore tradizionale. Quando è andato in Francia, imbarcando i vari Queneau e Perec (che con il suo talento lo sovrastava), è diventato uno scrittore sperimentale” (3). 3 Even his defenders do not think highly of Calvino’s “French period.” Gian Carlo Roscioni, for instance, writes that, “quello che aderisce all’ Oulipo non è il vero Calvino: il vero Calvino è il grande narratore” (4), meaning the writer of I nostri antenati [End Page 81] (Our Ancestors). 4 The Italian critics are no more lenient towards Six Memos for the Next Millenium, the series of Harvard lectures left unfinished by Calvino at his death and first published in English in the States. Fortini dismisses Six Memos as “una serie di banalità a uso degli stranieri, presentate con il sistema molto americano delle schede, fatte per gente che non ha familiarità con la nostra cultura e in totale disprezzo della dimensione storica”(2). 5

The Wimbledon articles are, of course, a typical example of “stroncatura” (“harsh criticism”), an art in which Italian critics often indulge (especially in periodical publications), more for sake of polemics than for the purpose of constructive criticism. Nonetheless, they do voice an uneasiness frequently shared by Italian critics vis-à-vis Calvino’s final period of literary production, which they seem to view as a betrayal of his “italianità.” The period roughly coincides with the years when Calvino lived in Paris and achieved a worldwide reputation. His interest in narratology and structural semantics led Calvino to attend Roland Barthes’s famous seminar on Balzac’s Sarrasine and A. J. Greimas’s courses at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. As is well known, the novels Il castello dei destini incrociati (The Castle of the Crossed Destinies) and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a winter’s night a traveler) are marked by such interests. Yet the most lasting influence on Calvino’s writing during the “French period” came from the Oulipo, a group of Parisian literati and mathematicians who experimented with language and the relations between literature and science. That group, which Brunella Eruli has referred to as a “colonia di spiriti studiosi e ludici seguaci di una riformata regola monastica all’insegna del gioca e lavora” (3), 6 invited Calvino to join them as “foreign member” in February of 1973. After that time, Calvino regularly attended their monthly meetings, often presenting his own projects as well as participating in collective activities (such as the Atlas de littérature potentielle and the Bibliothèque oulipienne). As Marcel Bénabou (one of the founding members of the Oulipo) explained in a recent article, Calvino’s official membership came as the acknowledgment of the affinity (“armonia prestabilita”) which already existed between the group and the Italian writer (Eruli 21). Having joined, the Oulipo’s “affettuosa complicità” gave Calvino a forum which catalyzed his own literary experiments. As Bénabou comments:

Per lui [Calvino] . . . le sedute dell’Oulipo e gli scambi, assolutamente imprevedibili, che esse provocano, servono prima di tutto da laboratorio di idee...