Difficult Loves is a collection of short stories by the Italian writer Italo Calvino. They were written over a period of time ranging from 1945 to 1958 and roughly cover pre-, during, and post-war experiences of life in Italy, mostly from a rural and lower or working class perspective. However, what I found most striking was the poeticism of Calvino's writing. Most of the stories were only a few pages in length, and communicated the feeling of an experience more than following a plot. He doesn't tell the story of a one-night love affair, but shows us the thoughts of the man the next morning as he takes the train to his office. In a complementary story, a man takes an overnight train to visit his girlfriend, and we get to experience and enjoy the anticipation of their meeting so thoroughly, it doesn't matter that we do not actually see that meeting. The thoughts leading up to an action are shown more often than the action itself. And in many cases, the thought patterns are familiar.
Several of the stories resemble fables or folktales. In one story, a young gardener woos a servant girl with colorful insects, snakes, and toads, learning much about her qualities or lack thereof from her reaction to these gifts. An inept farmer tries to protect his cow from raiding soldiers but is faced at every turn with the livestock of other villagers to save as well. And two children seem to stumble their way into a magic garden, but we sense that they're trespassers on the edge of an even larger story which we are not shown. These stories tend to contain more plot than the others, but it seems we aren't meant to take them as literally either.
In all, the stories in this collection feel like snippets of various lives, caught in more or less interesting circumstances. They do not have a conflict and resolution style plot, but are closer to character pieces. One could interpret the collection in light of the final story about an amateur photographer who believes that the art can only be perfected by capturing an image of the world at each moment, or else something will be omitted and the truth of the images will be lost. However, I read that story more as a cautionary tale of the potential obsessiveness inherent in any art that purports to exhibit the world and reveal its truths. Calvino's stories are a beautiful, and often gripping, view of common life experiences through a range of lenses, and I happily recommend it as such.
Review written April 2002.
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