How Difficult Is Love?

Difficult Loves By Italo Calvino Harcourt Brace Jovanovich pp. $14 95

LAST summer I bought a pair at big black framed sunglasses that make the all others look semi cool at best and for medical reason. I always had an excuse to wear them.

On a sunny Friday last month, looking good in my shades. I ran right into Christina, the unattainable object of my freshman dreams whom I hadn't seen for seven or eight months and now even more unattainable since she moved off campus.

Her expression showed that she did not recognize me, not that she ever paid much attention to me anyway I mumbled an quick. "He" and beat it.

One or two days later, while I was leafing through a collection of short stories, the following passage stood out. He selected a part of black plastic frames an much thick, with hinged corner that stuck out from the cheek bones like a horse's blinders, pieces heavy enough to bend the ear. They were a kind of mask that hid half his face..."

Later on in the story, this entirely fictional percent sees, after a long while, the unattainable desire of his youth: "He understood all of a sudden that... everything, in his life and everything in the world was only because of Isa Maria Bietti; and now finally he saw her again their eyes met and Isa Maria Bietti didn't recognize him...the eyeglasses that made the rest of the world visible to him, those eyeglasses in their enormous black frames, made him invisible."


Far from an autobiography, the passage was but one of dozens of literature verity moments in Italo Calvino's Difficult Loves.

Calvino is the master trickster of modern literature, an author who builds an imaginary stage of words around the reader, until the reader becomes the protagonist. His most recent novel. If on a winter's night a traveler... is written in the second person, describing how "you," the reader, search for the lost ending of the novel If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino. More than any other novelist since Nabokov, Calvino breaks down the barriers between the novel and real life, not by making the story seem realistic, but by making reality seem like a book.

Calvino did not start his literary career as the Rod Serling of the novel. His first major work, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, was part of the Italian neo-realist movement that emerged from the wreckage of Fascist Italy. Two thirds of the stories in Difficult Loves comes from this period from 1945 to 1949.

This grouping of eight 'Riviera stories' is seemingly a series of unsophisticated vignettes of rural Italian childhood and adolescence. Two playmates discover "The Enchanted Garden," the unused private playground of a sickly, lonely boy. The son of a landowner must confront the social discomfort of "A Goatherd at Luncheon." Two gangs fight on the wreckage of a mysterious "Ship Loaded with Crabs." The stories are linked by a single theme, the confrontation of youthful opposites in the magical richness of the Mediterranean.

The seven "Wartime Stories" are fatalistic evocations of the unglamorous and sometimes deadly aspects of life during wartime: foraging for food, crossing a minefield, running messages for the Resistance. The worst shot in a village hunts a German soldier in "The Animal Woods," a zoological Times Square of distracting animals. This neo-folktale is an early sign of the interest that led Calvino to compile the "Italian Folktales," the greatest collection of folklore since the Brothers Grim.

The final five fables from the World War II period are lifted from the underbelly of a renascent Italy. The brilliantly translated "Dollars and the Demimondaine" is typical of the lot. A black-market moneychanger and his wife go looking for business in a bar frequented by Americans, but the women is mistaken for a prostitute. Unable to explain what he really wants and afraid of Yankee cuckoldry, the hapless Italian runs out and gets every hooker in town to distract the soldiers. The result is party Pi Eta style.

The remaining third of Difficult Loves was written in the fifties, when Calvino began to break from realism for the richer depths of philosophy, myth and fantasy. These stores are all similarly titled "Adventure of a...", and explore similar ideas, the brief moments of universal comprehension and ignorance arising from everyday life.

"The Adventure of A Bather" describes a modest sunseeker's loss of her bikini bottom while she swims. Blocked from land by embarrassment, she certainly cannot turn to a male swimmer for aid, and yet:

in her disappointed fantasies, the people to whom she had hoped to turn had always been men. She hadn't thought of women, and yet with them everything should have been more simple; a kind of female solidarity would certainly have gone into action in this serious crisis, in this anxiety that only a fellow woman could completely understand. But possibilities of communication with members of her own sex were rarer and more uncertain, unlike the perilous ease of encounters with men: and a distrust--reciprocal this time--blocked such communication.

Out at sea the Bather confronts the social and personal isolation of her sex; other authors would resort to hell, assassinations and plagues to illustrate such existential loneliness. Her plight, both sartorial and emotional, are relieved by a simple, silent act of kindness that shows how much can be communicated when nothing can be said.

In another tale of the beach, the book-loving Amadeo drags some vacation reading to a beautiful, solitary cape and espies a beautiful, solitary sunbather, beginning "The Adventure of the Reader." The summertime pas de deus between the two would be a textbook Harlequin romance, except Amadeo is reading a different book, one more interesting than the pedestrian sexual encounter that his beach mate wants to create with him.

THE "Adventure of a Photographer", a maniacal tale of two-dimensional artistic obsession, is one of the finest short stories Calvino has written, certainly superior to Julio Cortazar's celebrated photo story "Blow-Up." In the latter, a photographer tries to piece together the reality behind a photograph, but Calvino's protagonist goes one better, trying to discover the reality to photograph. The coldest, funniest, and only perfect story in this volume, "Photographer" is fast climbing on my Hot 100 of the Twentieth Century.

From an adolescent earth-child a-courting with gifts of toads and earthworms, to a modest clerk fresh from a one night stand, the characters of Difficult Loves scurry about their lives searching for human communication. Not a surprising theme for an author who has long been fascinated by the semiotic side of life. Like fellow Italian Umberto Eco, Calvino is as interested in how we mean something as in what we mean. In Calvino's world, a ship can show the truth like a book, and a pair of glasses can block recognition better than a wall.