Friday, 31 July 2009

Unidentified Narrative Objects: Calvino’s La nuvola di smog

Extended thoughts on ‘liberated territory’ in Calvino.


UNOs appear in Wu Ming I’s identification of the New Italian Epic. A UNO is part of the ‘aberrant development’ of the latter, which:

‘…at times abandons the orbit of the novel and enters the atmosphere from unpredictable directions. ‘What’s that? Is it a bird? No, it’s a plane. No, wait a moment. It’s Superman!’ Absolutely not. It’s an Unidentified Narrative Object.

‘Fiction and non fiction, prose and poetry, diary and investigation, literature and science, mythology and comedy. In the last 15 years many Italian authors have written books which cannot be labelled or pigeon holed in any way because they contain almost everything […] It’s not just a matter of ‘intra-literary’ hybridisation, within the genres of which literature is made up but rather the utilization of whatever will serve its purpose.’
(Wu Ming I: New Italian Epic 2.0, 2008)

The inside flap of the 1965 edition of Calvino’s Racconti: hints at something similar. On the one hand, La nuvola di smog is ‘a short story tempted continually to turn into something different: either a sociological essay or else a private diary’. On the other, these temptations are regularly subverted by Calvino; this allows the text ‘to remain suspended within the environment that suits him best, between symbolic transfiguration, topicality drawn from what is true, bursts of humour and prose poetry.’

So this then is a precursor.

Another way to look not only at La nuvola but also at La formica argentina (its predecessor and not quite identical twin) is through the lens of anthropocentrism and at what the alternative to that might be.

‘Our society lives after the end of nature,’ according to Anthony Giddens. Along with Fukuyama he seems excited by the ending of some war. Between Man and Nature in this case. Apparently Man has won.

The ending of Kaputt involves a struggle against flies:

‘Oh here in Naples too we’ve struggled against the flies. Actually we’ve conducted an absolute war against the flies. For three years we have had a war against the flies.

'In which case how come there are quite so many flies here in Naples?

'Well that’s the thing. The flies won.’

(Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt)

Like Malaparte’s flies, Calvino’s ants and his smog ought to be in the background, mere phenomena, offering a quasi natural setting of some kind. But their activities, albeit compromised or potentiated by man, are what motivates the texts.

Wu Ming I comments as follows:

‘[A]nthropocentrism is alive and well, and it fights against us. Scientific discoveries, objective proofs, the crisis of the subject, the collapse of old ideologies… Nothing seems to have removed from humankind the absurd idea that we are at the centre of the universe.


‘Which is why the issue of looking at things obliquely is so vital and why (as Calvino had sensed) the literary ‘surrendering’ of viewpoints that are exterior to the human, that are non human, which can’t be identified with, will become even more so.’

(Wu Ming I: New Italian Epic 2.0, 2008)


Of course it’s true that Calvino’s protagonists are by no means always human. In, for example, Marcovaldo (II giardino dei gatti ostinati) or Cosmicomiche (notably Qfwfq). But this isn’t really the point. More relevant is his obliqueness. Hence this observation on the voice of the narrator in II visconte dimezzato:

‘[It’s] not the voice of a protagonist per se but rather that of a lateral or secondary character who has the role of narrator.’
(Gregory L. Lucente: An Interview with Italo Calvino; his translation, my italics)

Rather than a battle, some elemental struggle for supremacy or in the service of one viewpoint that’s supposedly more powerful than the others, there’s a rendering up to openness, a ‘surrender’.

And if that ‘surrender’ is important, which I think it is, then one clear example of it (albeit not from Calvino) would be the beginning of Genna’s Grande madre rossa, where the viewpoint (or perhaps the ‘gaze’) has become detached from whoever (or whatever) does the viewing.


One might, for example, creatively (mis)interpret the following:

‘Point of view and movement exclude one another.’
(Giuseppe Genna: Grande madre rossa, 2004)

The totalising stasis of historical achievement, of ‘truth’, of ideological hegemony (which all points of view have in common, even if only in embryo), of ending, is here set at odds with the endless dialectical process of which history is made up, as in Agamben’s view of time. (Benjamin hints at something similar in The Arcades Project when he draws an analogy between allegorical procedures and the relationship between commodity and price: ‘The allegorist rummages here and there for a particular piece, holds it next to some other piece and tests if they fit together … The result can never be known beforehand, for there is no natural mediation between the two. This is just how matters stand with commodity and price. How the price of goods in each case is arrived at can never quite be foreseen.')

In fact, this is the second of two quotations which preface Genna's book, from Ulrike Meinhof's final letter to her Hamburg comrades dated 13 April 1976. The German uses 'Standpunkt', point of view. However, up until this moment Meinhof had actually been using the more explicitly political compound, Klassenstandpunkt', 'class position'.

Meinhof insists that ‘this class position, with which you puff yourselves up [is] unbearable.’ (By 9 May she was dead.) The ‘class situation’ she perceives is within the ‘imperialist system, with its invasion of all relationships by the market and, as a given, the process of State control of society by the ideological and repressive State,’ outside of which ‘there is only illegality and liberated territory.’ (my italics)

The novel itself starts as follows:

‘The gaze is from 10,200 metres over Milan, inside the sky. It’s freezing blue and rarefied up here.

‘The gaze is towards on high, it sees the hemisphere of ozone and cobalt, going outwards from the planet. The luminous barrier of the atmosphere prevents the stars from passing through. The heavenly body absolute, ie the sun, is on the right, extremely white. The gaze swings free and circular in the pure blue void.’

(Giuseppe Genna: Grande madre rossa, 2004)

And one could go a lot further back. To this arresting paragraph from Deledda, for example:

‘A nightingale sang on the solitary tree, which was still suffused with mist. All the coolness of the evening, all the harmony of far away serenities, and the smile of the stars towards the flowers and of the flowers towards the stars, and the proud joy of the fine young shepherds and the closed in passion of the women with their red bodices, and all the melancholy of the poor who live waiting for what’s left over from the tables of the rich, and the sorrows far away and the hopes that are there, and the past, the lost fatherland, the love, the crime, the remorse, the prayer, the canticle of the pilgrim who goes further and still further and doesn’t know where he’ll spend the night but feels himself guided by God, and the green solitude of the smallholding down below, the voice of the river and of the alders down there, the smell of the euphorbias, the laughter and the weeping of Grixenda, the laughter and the weeping of Noemi, the laughter and the weeping of Efix, the laughter and the weeping of the entire world, trembled and vibrated in the notes of the nightingale above the solitary tree that seemed higher than the mountains, with its top scraping the heavens and the tip of its topmost leaf thrust inside a star.’
(Grazia Deledda: Canne al vento, 1913)

What happens here, albeit fleetingly, is exactly that sort of transfer of utterance to some ‘secondary’ voice to which Calvino later referred. The nightingale’s ‘sang’ is a sort of aorist. Not the imperfect of background information (‘cantava’) but the passato remoto (‘cantò’) of a discrete, protagonistic act. The nightingale isn’t subalternised into a soundscape for individualised human behaviours. Nor yet is she an echo. This isn’t pathetic fallacy. Rather the fact of her nightingalehood is extended and exceeded into something else. She becomes the owner of a positive act of her own, which (even though it has no purpose beyond itself) subsumes all human activity, present, past and future; all three are represented. And yet she too is exceeded. Whereas she sits on top of the tree (‘sull’albero’) her song rises above it (‘sopra l’albero’) like the tip of the topmost leaf as it pierces the heart of some star: her viewpoint has been surrendered to something-not-of-this-world.

So clearly there are precursors and successors.


Of course, the smog of Calvino’s La nuvola di smog (1958) is also a physical smog, a matter of grey particulates. The Argentine ants of La formica argentina (Linepithema Humile) do exist, and in Ligurian gardens. However, Calvino employs what he elsewhere called ‘the essayistic dimension’ to address irrationality with rationalistic precision. And it is this UNO disjuncture, this anomalousness, which enables Ovid and Lucretius (or maybe Cerveteri and Bensi, respectively the ‘poet’ and the ‘philosopher’ of La speculazione edilizia) to join together in his work.

Here, for example, is Gore Vidal on La formica:

‘[It is] as minatory and strange as anything by Kafka. It is also hideously funny. In some forty pages Calvino gives us […] the human condition today. Or the dilemma of modern man. Or the disrupted environment. Or nature's revenge. Or allegory of grace. Whatever…’
(Gore Vidal: Calvino’s Novels, NYRB 1974)

Now clearly there’s a link between, on the one hand, what Vidal calls ‘nature’s revenge’ and, on the other, what Wu Ming I says about displacing anthropocentrism. Yet equally clearly something else is going on: the anomalousness that Vidal conjures up with ‘whatever’ emerges from two directions. On the one hand the ants provide an unexpected challenge to the psyche from outside: perhaps they are going to win. On the other they are an extrusion of the psyche (some sort of over-reaction coming from within; some interior disposition) into that outer world:

‘We didn’t know then about the ants when we came to settle here. […] Thinking it over, perhaps Uncle Augusto had mentioned them once – You should see the ants down there, not like the ants we have here – but it was a sidetrack from talking about something else…’
(Calvino: La formica argentina)

Calvino’s ants are hardly Deledda’s nightingale and cannot be read as such. But they are perhaps the McGuffin. They allow him to ‘surrender’ control over the narrative just as the narrator in turn ‘surrenders’ to their effects. As a result the text becomes an early ‘game of combinations, following through the possibilities implicit in the material from which it has been made.’ (Una pietra sopra) Which means in turn that whether or not these ants are (for example) either the anxiety from which one hoped to get away or the challenge which one really hoped one didn’t have to face in the first place it scarcely matters any more. They could have been avoided, excluded or suppressed either way. Were it not for the exterminator, Signor Baudino (who has come to resemble an ant, and who acts a sort of untore, the paranoid interpretation, spreading the pestilence in order to benefit from it, or maybe as a sort of stand-in for Calvino, the postmodernist interpretation) it is possible that there might not even have been such a problem in the first place.

But the ants are there nonetheless. Not quite foregrounded but endlessly, self-replicatingly there: an existential emblem of subversion:

The great oak, the emperor’s pride and joy
is collapsing!
Who’d have thought it!
It wasn’t the river, nor yet did some hurricane rip
that magnificent trunk from its roots,
rather it was the ants, thousands of ants
organized, working together day by day
year after year!
(Dario Fo: La grande quercia)

Except that Calvino rejects all such programmatic engagement of that sort.


‘The artist manages to communicate only through the sort of isolation which a political or propagandistic type of engagement cannot affect.’
(This is Montale countering Gramsci in La solitudine dell'artista)

In his 1964 preface to Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, though clearly speaking with hindsight Calvino writes as follows. His point is a little different:

‘Today when one speaks of the ‘literature of commitment’ one generally gets it wrong, as though speaking of a literature that serves to illustrate a theme that’s already been defined, that’s independent of poetical expression. On the contrary, that which one called ‘engagement’, commitment, can be found at every level…’ (my italics)

There’s an example of one sort of level in La speculazione edilizia. The protagonist sits listening to a dispute between his two friends, Bensi and Cerveteri. He ‘really doesn’t know which side he ought to take’:

‘Bensi was seized by one of his nervous laughs … as though to express his own pained amusement at witnessing his interlocutor getting lost in a labyrinth from which he alone knew the way out.

'We have to proceed from the ideology to the dream, not from the dream to the ideology … Ideology runs through all your dreams rather as butterflies are pierced through by pins.

'Cerveteri looked at him, dumbfounded.

'Butterflies? Why did you say butterflies?’

(Calvino: La speculazione edilizia, 1957)

Finally here is Calvino, this time in propria persona, speaking about a moment in Palomar:

‘In that brief story of mine I don’t take sides but instead I limit myself to representing both positions.’
(Gregory L. Lucente: An Interview with Italo Calvino)

La formica and La nuvola instantiate ways of speaking. They turn on the sort of social constructivism in which meaning lies (in both senses) in the telling rather than in what the telling is about. The differences, though, are profound.

The narrator of La formica, has moved out from the town into the country. The narrator of La nuvola has travelled the other way. He arrives in the town (‘for someone who has just got off the train, the city is one big station’) as though entering into a holding formation. He takes ‘some sort of a room’:

‘I took my overcoat, my scarf and my great illusion
I left home
to go to where to where to where to where to where…
the cold ends,
to the start of another ghetto.’
(Antonello Venditti: Dove)

Here’s how the piece begins:

‘It was a time when nothing much mattered to me, when I came to settle in this town. Settle’s not quite the right word. I didn’t have any desire to settle down, what I wanted was that everything should stay fluid and provisional around me and only in that way did it seem I’d be settled inside, even though I wouldn’t have been able to explain what that meant.’
(Calvino: La nuvola di smog)


The narrative of La formica tells of a broken idyll: the idealised state is not to suffer from ants. The world was clean to begin with but is now revealed as infested, so the watchword must be ‘response’. Only one question remains: How should one react? With ill suppressed hysteria, like the wife of the narrator? By soldiering on, like Mr and Mrs Reginaudo, keeping cheerful along the lines of the peasant in Ho visto un re? With endless, ineffectual ingenuity, like Captain Brauni, a sort of Italian Heath Robinson? By grandly ignoring the problem, as does Madam Mauro (just as the Pintor sisters ignore their own decline in Canne al vento)? And so on.

This is, of course, the ‘allegory’, to pick up a term from Vidal: how to make a moral choice? Responses vary. Attitudes may be brought in a priori or may arise through experience. Whether the ants are something natural or have been humanly induced remains uncertain. However, the principle of ‘commitment’ to one’s own reactions or to some chosen point of view is never in any doubt.

Until, that is, the narrative of La nuvola turns all this around. The pivot is political. Calvino had published La formica back in 1952. La nuvola was written in the summer of ’58. In July ’57 Calvino had published La gran bonaccia delle antille, satirising the Stalinist stagnation of the Italian Communist Party under Togliatti and provoking a response (Stalin as Captain Ahab and so forth) from Maurizio Ferrara, Giuliano Ferrara’s father. He had resigned from the Party one month later.

A figurative smog is what its narrator wants, at least at first. It’s something not quite settled:

‘…it had to be entirely provisional and I wanted this to be clear to myself as well.’

The ants embody a constant, undefeatable energy, the restlessness of invasion. The smog is undefined. It’s a depression, lethargy. It subsists as a transience which perpetuates itself through always leaving traces, an elective but threatened pessimism to be set against both the failing optimism of La formica and, for example, the energetic intrusions of the narrator’s girlfriend, Claudia:

‘How could she ever have understood this unhappiness of mine? There are those who condemn themselves to the greyness of a life of increased mediocrity because they have had a grief, a misfortune; but there are also those who do it because they’ve experienced more good fortune than what they felt they could cope with.’

Unlike the world of La formica, whose supposedly ‘natural’ state is shown to have been corrupt through the original sin of having ants, La nuvola’s world is an already dirty, human infested place, one where ‘commitment’ (as it turns out) is also under threat, the commitment of performing a narrative that’s expected, which in this case is a narrative against pollution for a journal called Purification that’s owned by the same person (Cordà the engineer) who produces the pollution in the first place:

‘…it was he who wafted it without cessation over the town and APAUIC, the Agency for the Purification of the Atmosphere in Urban Industrial Centres, was a creation of the smog, born from a need to give to those who worked for the smog the hope of a life that would not be wholly smog but at the same time to celebrate its power.’

So obviously one could normalise this as an ‘allegory’ about following party lines, or indeed about the imprisonment of any ideology or orthodoxy whatsoever, about anything in which experience is greyed and reduced by being included in some sort of formulation.

But isn’t it in the nature of allegory that it resists such consistent readings?

Here is Benjamin, making precisely this point:

‘Where man is drawn towards the symbol, allegory emerges from the depths of being to intercept the intention, and to triumph over it […] If it is to hold its own against the tendency to absorption, the allegorical must constantly unfold in new and surprising ways. The symbol, on the other hand, … remains persistently the same.’
(Walter Benjamin: The Origin of German Tragic Drama)


In the symbolism of one-to-one correspondence, according to De Michele in Carmilla, ‘the symbol is already inscribed in an interpretative dimension made rigid through the pretence of objectivity.’ (my italics) Likewise metaphor ‘risks operating as a translation of sense within some pre-determined cognitive environment.’ (again the italics are mine, as is the touch of Sperber.) Whereas ‘the allegorical is autonomous with respect to the overall context of antinomy, an autonomy which the symbolic is denied.’

And since de Michele pillages Benjamin who in turn pillages Creuzer, here is Creuzer himself, explaining what he calls the ‘difference between symbolic and allegorical representation’:

‘The latter signifies merely a general concept, or an idea which differs from itself, whereas the former is the very incarnation and embodiment of the idea. In the former a process of substitution happens … In the latter the concept itself has descended into our physical world and we see it directly in the image.’
(G F Creuzer: Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, besonders der Griechen)

Which accounts for, say, allegorical objects such as the ice which tinkles in the glasses of the first class passengers travelling on de Gregori’s Titanic. Or for the complex relationship either between de Gregori’s mythical Titanic both with the (earlier) wreck of the Sirio and the fate of postwar Italy. Or the similarly complex relationship between the ‘wounded steinbock’, the historical Milanese fraudster Felice Riva and the issue of (failed) political violence in early ’70s Italy which Antonello Venditti explores in Lo stambecco ferito.


Allegory, ideology and memory are aspects of one another. Ideology is a sort of allegory reconfigured as memory. Thus the UK’s New Labour, freed from ideology, lost both its memory and its ability to envisage the future in the course of its coming to power: not just Agamben’s ‘means without ends’ but government by Alzheimer’s, reaching for absurd metaphorical fragments from elsewhere (Big Tent, New Deal etc) with which to remedy the lack.

For Calvino ideology presents a different problem. Here’s how he introduces it in La speculazione edilizia. First he describes the gloriously heterogeneous anomaly of a section of land owned by the protagonist’s mother. On it there’s a former chicken coop now doing service as a potting shed. It is said to have (Calvino’s parents were botanists and Calvino himself studied agriculture, albeit briefly) ‘a disharmonious aspect, between the agricultural, the scientific and the highly valued.’ It is, in short, a heterocosm. Some pages further on the protagonist’s two friends, Bensi and Cerveteri, decide to start a journal, although its title is still in doubt. According to Bensi:

‘…we have to let it be understood right from the very title that what we’re aiming for is a generalised phenomenology that brings back each separate form of knowledge into a single discourse.

‘It was on this point that the argument between Bensi and Cervetero started up … Since everything was to become part of a single discourse was the journal to bring in only what had already been incorporated into that general discourse or rather that which still lay outside?’


The key to La formica is the discovery of Inside. What happens when you find yourself on the inside of something else (or within an ideology) is that you lose a degree of autonomy: you live within a situation that persists beyond your control. The narrator visits the noble Madam Mauro in her house on the upper slopes. Is she troubled by ants? Is she external or internal to the situation, in other words? ‘We chase them away with a broom,’ is her response. But unfortunately:

‘at that very moment her expression of studied impassivity was traversed by something like a physical distress, and we saw that whilst remaining seated she shifted her weight quite firmly to one side, bending herself at the waist. If it hadn’t been inconsistent with the assurances that were issuing from her mouth I would have sworn that an Argentine ant, having got under her clothes, had nipped at her…’

The narrator and his wife go to the sea, which ought to be a figure of Outside, but find instead a sort of reprise of the ants. Whilst it appears as another idyll beneath the idyllic ‘calm’ of the surface there is an endless, minute activity:

‘The waters were calm, with just a continuous swapping about of colours, blue and black, getting denser as they got further away. I thought of the water stretching out in the distance like that, of the infinite, tiny grains of sand down at the bottom, where the current deposits the white husks of shells that have been polished by the waves.’


The key to La nuvola is the converse: the discovery of Outside. The narrator’s view of his landlady is a negative one. But though her kitchen is in chaos she maintains her public rooms like a ‘private work of art’, created through, as it were, subtraction or withdrawal of some ‘liberated territory’, producing an outside within. The cheery decisiveness of the narrator’s girlfriend, Claudia, is an intrusion into melancholia from outside. And so on.

The narrator brings Claudia to a lookout point in order to show her the view. But his own viewpoint is broken and ‘surrendered’ through what happens then. He shows her the whitish peaks of the Alps which emerge ‘from the sky’ but loses control of the narrative in a sort of Calvino sublime. He has the names but cannot name them because he doesn’t know which is which. ‘A sense of vastness had seized me. I don’t know if it was Claudia’s hat and her dress that did this or whether it was the view’:

‘We were there, looking out over the low wall. I was squeezing her waist. I was looking at countryside in all its multiple aspects, struck immediately by a need for analysis, already dissatisfied with myself because I didn’t have at my disposal an adequate nomenclature for places and for natural phenomena. She, on the other hand, was ready to transform these sensations into unexpected humorous impulses, effusions, into things she said that had nothing to do with it. And it was then that I saw that thing.’


‘That thing’ is actually the smog, at least as seen from outside. Whereas the ants’ greatest reality comes with the discomfort, actual or imagined, of Madam Mauro (La formica bids for totality, either the totality of solution or the unstoppable taking over of the ants) La nuvola works by limitation. Such as, in this instance, through conceiving the smog as a cloud. The narrator describes it as such, and this is the point of its greatest un-reality. But what Claudia either sees or chooses to see instead is a flock of birds.

‘And I remained there, looking out and watching for the first time from the outside the cloud that surrounded me all the time, that cloud I lived in, that lived in me and I knew that of all the variousness of the world with which I was surrounded this was the only thing that mattered to me.’

In the restaurant just below where he lives the narrator shares a table with a worker. They read separate papers. The narrator, in David Riesman’s terms, is other directed: ‘mine was the one that everybody read, the most important paper in town; I certainly had no reason to get myself noticed as someone set apart from other people by reading a different paper.’ Whereas his paper is stylish but conformist, the worker’s paper is ‘grey, incredibly dense, monotonous’ but at the same time also critical:

‘[His] was so to speak the converse of mine, not just because the ideas it put forward were the opposite but because it concerned itself with things that for my one didn’t even exist: employees given the sack, machine workers who ended up with a hand trapped in the gears…’
(my italics; Dolce’s Inchiesta a Palermo was published in 1956)

The narrator’s conception of the worker is a negative one. He projects his own lack of openness onto his interlocutor:

‘I tried to give [my impression of his paper] to my tablemate … endeavouring at the same time (since he seemed to me to be the sort who didn’t care for criticism …) to play down my judgement’s more negative aspects.’

However, he is wrong in his assessment of the other’s supposed loyalty. Indeed he perceives his being wrong as the other’s resistance to his own judgemental hegemony, whereas:

‘[i]nstead [the worker] seemed to follow his own train of thought, in which my appraisal of his paper must have seemed superfluous, out of place.

‘You know, he said, there hasn’t yet been a paper that’s been put together as it should have been put together. Not as I would like to see it done.’

The worker has formed a study group ‘amongst the young people in our business’. (Montaldi founded the Gruppo di Unità Proletaria in 1957):

‘I didn’t follow what he was saying any more. I thought that someone like [him] wasn’t at all trying to escape from the smoky greyness around us but to transform it into a moral value, into an internal norm.

'The smog, I said.

'The smog? Yes, I know that Cordà wants to play the modern industrialist … To purify the atmosphere … Let him go and tell his workers that. Certainly it won’t be him that does the purifying. It’s a matter of social structure … If we do manage to change it, we’ll also solve the smog problem. Us, that is. Not them.'


The sea at the end of La formica is another attempt at the natural, freed of pollution or entailments.

Towards the end La nuvola the narrator spots a side road. There’s a mule loaded up with laundry. He comes to see the process of laundry exchange (soiled for clean) as something festive, as a different and restorative human event:

‘Between the meadows, the hedges and the poplars my gaze continued to trace the water troughs, the words Steam Laundry written on certain low buildings … the fields where the women passed by with baskets as though they were harvesting grapes to take down the dry clothes from the line … It wasn’t much. But for me, who sought no more than images to keep in view, perhaps it was enough.’

Which is how the story ends.

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