Collection of Sand was published in Italian as Collezione di sabbia in October 1984. It was the last organic volume of new work put together by Italo Calvino in his lifetime (the only book to appear after it and before the author’s death in 1985 was the final anthology of cosmicomic stories which largely reproduced previously published tales and included only two new pieces). Collection of Sand was the second substantial collection of non-fiction that the author had  published. The previous book of essays entitled Una pietra sopra (Moving On) had appeared in 1980 and had contained writings on politics, society and literature. Calvino chose that first title – Una pietra sopra means literally ‘putting a stone over something’, in other words drawing a line under something – because by 1980 he considered that a certain phase of his life, that of the committed left-wing intellectual, had by now come to an end and that the world was too complex to be changed by the kind of attitudes that had sustained him in his youth and maturity. His early aspirations to write literature that would somehow lead to a new society foundered as it became clear that the intellectual had very little power to influence events in the 1960s and 1970s (the latter decade in Italy had been characterised by unparalleled levels of political terrorism, culminating in the Red Brigades’ capture and killing of the Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978 and the neo-Fascist bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980).

Critics have noted how Calvino’s fascination with mineral imagery is reflected in the Italian titles of these two substantial essay collections (stone, sand), and there is no doubt that the image of rocks eventually turning to sand, emblematic of the slow passing of geological eras, is a cosmic theme apparent in the writer’s other works. However, the differences between the two volumes are even more significant. The unitary stone of the first title has given way to the granules of sand in the second, the latter image reflecting the author’s own fragmentation and perplexity in the face of an ever more rapidly changing world. In Collection of Sand the committed intellectual of the first volume of essays, who had written on society and literature, has disappeared to be replaced by someone who is quite removed from the Italian sociopolitical-literary scene: he is now a reviewer of exhibitions, an observer of art works and art books, and a traveller in non-European countries (Japan, Mexico, Iran). Calvino here claims to write as a dilettante (he is not an art historian nor an experienced travel-writer), yet, as he says in the blurb to the first edition of the collection, what is on display in these essays is his encyclopedic curiosity and his appetite for meticulous observation in trying to understand what he calls “the truth of the world”. One implicit message here is that the discreet observer of art and of other countries can perhaps offer as much as the committed intellectual to the reader trying to understand societies and cultures.

What unites each of the thirty-eight essays thematically is Calvino’s fascination with all aspects of the visual universe and of seeing – and how we then interpret what we have seen.”

The volume is divided into four main parts. First, there is a section entitled ‘Exhibitions – Explorations’, containing ten reviews, mostly of exhibitions Calvino had seen in Paris in 1980–84. The second part, ‘The Eye’s Ray’, consists of eight pieces from the same period, devoted to aspects of the visual, from an essay on Roland Barthes’s book on photography, and a virtuoso ekphrasis of Trajan’s Column, to a review of a book on the history of optics and of ideas on how the eye sees. Section III, ‘Accounts of the Fantastic’, also from the early 1980s, moves to the imaginary world, and comprises five book reviews, ranging from a seventeenth-century Scottish treatise on the geography of fairies to works by remarkable contemporary artists of visual fantasy such as Donald Evans and Luigi Serafini. The fourth and final section, ‘The Shape of Time’, consists of fifteen travelogues, nine devoted to Japan and three each to Mexico and Iran, the Japanese and Mexican pieces being written in 1976 and the Iranian ones in 1975. As the final section’s title suggests, these are not just accounts of journeys crossing geographical space but also speculations on larger questions of time and history. What unites each of the thirty-eight essays thematically is Calvino’s fascination with all aspects of the visual universe and of seeing: not just what we see but how we see and how we then interpret what we have seen. In terms of genre, most of these descriptions of art works and sites are examples of ekphrasis, verbal portraits of works of art, but it soon becomes clear that at the same time as being a volume of ekphrastic essays, this book is also the work of Calvino the narrator: many of the reviews of exhibitions or art works shift into engaging narratives (as in the pieces on Trajan’s Column, on Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and so on). If an ekphrasis was in origin a description of a work of art designed to provide a contrastive digression from a main story (the first one in Western literature was Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad), Calvino offers us here a whole series of ekphrases, but all of them spill over into narrative, and many of them highlight his capacities as a writer of tales. These are visual stories as well as essays on sight.

The components of Collection of Sand might be regarded as examples of ‘late Calvino’ (he was to die in September 1985, under a year from the publication of this book), but they are all concerned with quintessentially Calvinian themes that figure in different parts of his oeuvre. His fascination with the visual is apparent in all his works: talking of the genesis of the trilogy Our Ancestors he claimed that all his narratives started out from a visual image in his head. In these essays the image is offered to his imagination by an exhibition, a book or a place, but they lead to elegant, thoughtful narratives  here too: as he says in one essay, “the brain begins in the eye”. They are particularly reminiscent of the short pieces that make up Mr Palomar, Calvino’s fictional work of 1983 (and a number of them were written at exactly the same time), each of which – in the words of Seamus Heaney – feels like a single inspiration being caught just as it rises and being played to explore its maximum potential. Like Mr Palomar, here too the author manifests his concerns with waste, entropy and looming catastrophe. Unsurprisingly, many of the essays are also about writing, about when script first emerged, about using other semiotic systems such as knots, about how writers turn to drawings in dissatisfaction with the written word, ideas explored throughout Calvino’s oeuvre.

These are essays that embrace both the world and the word. But as well as the thematics of stone and sand implicit in the title and evident in many essays, the author’s preoccupation with the world of nature, and in particular trees, stands out. Calvino’s agronomist father Mario had lived in Mexico and Cuba in the early years of the century, advising the inhabitants on agriculture and plant-growing: indeed he was in Cuba when the young Italo was born there in 1923. Trees and plants figure regularly in Calvino’s fiction: the author’s great hymn to the arboreal world is to be found in The Baron in the Trees, especially chapter 10, with its precise description of the leaves and bark of the different kinds of trees that made up the hero’s habitat. But here in the genre of non-fiction we find trees everywhere, often accompanied by similarly meticulous descriptions: they appear in the essay on the New World, in the section in ‘The Traveller in the Map’ on the precise number of trees in French forests, in the attempt at classifying the trees represented on Trajan’s Column, in the loving descriptions of the maple and ginkgo trees in Japan, and at the end of the volume in the detailed description of the enormous ‘Tule Tree’ in Mexico. This luxuriant arboreal theme stands in clear contrast to the mineral imagery of stone and dust.

Collection of Sand brings together many motifs that resonate elsewhere in Calvino’s work. The detail of the weapons that have changed sides in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is one that fascinated the writer, since he had experienced it at first hand in his partisan days, had read about it in his beloved Ariosto, and wrote about it in his first novel. His enthusiasm for the Enlightenment, which had surfaced in narrative form in The Baron in the Trees, is present here too in the many mentions of the eighteenth century and its achievements. Similarly the moon, one of his favourite images, surfaces here in several pieces, often with echoes of Leopardi (especially in ‘The Moon Chasing the Moon’). But Calvino is not just fascinated by his own times and the recent past. His interests in classical art and archaeology in the essays on Trajan’s Column and on the dig at Settefinestre chime with the author’s return to the Graeco-Roman classics in other seminal essays of the late 1970s and early 80s, notably those contained in Why Read the Classics? However, the fictional works that are most often evoked by these essays are Invisible Cities and Mr Palomar. There are several mentions of Venice, discussions of ideal and imaginary cities and paradoxical statements reminiscent of the rewriting of Marco Polo’s travels: as when the descriptions of the bare and unadorned imperial palaces in Japan make the author presume that these can exist only because there are other houses in the country “chock-full of people and tools and junk and rubbish, with the smell of frying, sweat, sleep, houses full of bad moods, people rushing, places where people shelled peas, sliced fish, darned socks, washed sheets, emptied bed-pans” (‘The Obverse of the Sublime’, 1976). In fact, the visit to Japan seems to have been an extremely fertile trip in creative terms as one particular moment inspired two totally different kinds of writing: the description of  the ginkgo tree’s leaves falling on the ground is present in one of  the travelogues here (‘The Obverse of the Sublime’), but a few  year’s later in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller the same scenario of falling ginkgo leaves resurfaces as the opening of the sensual Japanese micro-novel in that 1979 work (also inspired by the brief essay here on Japanese erotic prints). Observation of a detail of nature can spark the author’s imagination into either fictional or non-fictional creativity.

Under_the_Jaguar_SunThe three countries that form the subject of the final section of this book – Japan, Mexico, Iran – are the three countries visited by the eponymous ‘hero’ in a central section of Mr Palomar: once more, the reader can compare the description of the sand-garden of the Ryoanji temple here with its counterpart in that fictional work and contrast the two different ways in which the narratives develop. Similarly, the description of the Aztec temple being overgrown by the forest in this volume of essays is echoed in narrative terms both in the Mexico story in Mr Palomar and in the title story of Under the Jaguar Sun. Calvino’s fascination with the cultures of these three non-Western countries is partly explained by the fact that he was haunted by the notion that literature and culture must avoid limits, hence his interest during the 1970s and 80s both in systems of thought that were not those of the European West, and in every aspect of the visual universe. In short, these are essays on what is termed in Mr Palomar the inexhaustible surface of things.

Collection of Sand is a book of variety but also unity, and it resembles a verbal tour of exhibitions, art works and countries in the company of a stimulating commentator.”

One of the great pleasures of this collection is enjoying Calvino’s inimitable style as an essayist. He was always a passionate advocate of stylistic brevitas, and he loves to begin essays with a brief, limpid sentence. There are some outstanding examples here of short, one- clause opening sentences: “There is a person who collects sand”; “Their first attribute is lightness”; “In the beginning was language.” However, on other occasions, by way of contrast, he opens with a lengthy sentence, which is never gratuitous but usually reflects the subject matter, as for instance the first sentence describing the Mihrab, or the one introducing the Mexican temple smothered by the jungle: “In Palenque the soaring temples built on steps stand out from the background of the forest that rises above them with dense trees that are even higher than the temples: ficus trees with multiple trunks that look like roots, aguacetes with their shiny leaves, cascades of creepers, dangling plants and lianas” (‘The Forest and the Gods’).

Calvino is a master of the closing sentence too: good examples are the final words of the essay on Delacroix (“After a number of other vicissitudes, under the Third Republic, the work entered the Louvre, and after that into universal glory”), or the one on archaeology (“The archaeologist’s spade and trowel try to reconstruct the continuity of history through the long intervals of darkness”). Elsewhere than in the opening and closing sentences we find plenty of instances of his mastery of prose style, such as his love of paradoxes (see the passage on the “crowded solitude” of Japanese pachinko or pinball arcades) and his fondness for images of lightness, for instance his summing up of Donald Evans’s stamps project, which is described as “a ritual of private celebrations, commemorations of minimal encounters, consecrations of things that are unique and irreplaceable: basil, a butterfly, an olive”. These striking images conjure up the author’s cult of lightness, as expressed in the first Harvard lecture on the subject, in the posthumous Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Invisible Cities Vintage Classics edition, 2009

The essays in Collection of Sand may seem occasional and heterogeneous but they all share thematic concerns around sight and writing, and there are many links between individual essays. The motif of sand which appears in the first piece resurfaces in the dust into which Trajan’s Column is disintegrating, reappears in one of the essays towards the end about the lunar sand in a Japanese Zen garden, and makes a last appearance in the final essay on the stone sculptures in Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rustam in Iran. Similarly the Japanese and Aztec civilisations which dominate the final section of the volume appear as early as the third essay, ‘The Traveller in the Map’. One final overarching motif is that of photography, which crops up in several pieces, from the photographs of crimes in the essay on the popular press, to the reflections on photography in the article on Barthes to the description of camera-happy Japanese tourists in Mexico, in one of the final pieces in the volume.

Calvino was a prolific essayist and reviewer. His output in non-fiction matches his voluminous output in fiction, but so far in English only four collections have appeared: The Literature Machine, which appeared in Calvino’s lifetime (1982), contained a small number of essays from Una pietra sopra plus other essays from a range of different sources; the other non-fiction works in English were the three posthumous collections of essays, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), Why Read the Classics? (1999), and the autobiographical Hermit in Paris (2003). Collection of Sand is the first translation in English of a substantial volume of essays put together in a specific order by the author himself during his own lifetime. It is a book of variety but also unity, as we have seen, and it resembles a verbal tour of exhibitions, art works and countries in the company of a stimulating commentator.

Collection of Sand is, appropriately enough, a granular book, the individual pieces being like grains of sand in a collection. In fact Calvino chose the first essay as the title essay of the whole volume because it was for him a manifesto piece. Like the opening story in Mr Palomar (‘Reading a Wave’), it was deliberately placed first in the book since its ideas range way beyond the object observed in an attempt to encompass the universe. Indeed the occasion for the writing of the title essay here was a slightly vertiginous exhibition, a collection of collections, but the one that fascinated the author in that exhibition was the collection of sand. In this potentially eccentric hobby Calvino sees something much more profound and significant, something that records what remains of the world after centuries-long erosions, something that is “both the ultimate substance of the world and the negation of its luxuriant and multiform appearance”. However, in addition to this cosmic dimension, he sees in the collection of sand something more personal, a metaphor for the author’s oeuvre, as he asks himself “what is expressed in that sand of written words which I have strung together throughout my life, that sand that now seems to me to be so far away from the beaches and deserts of living”. The final essay on the stone sculptures of the Achaemenid and Sassanid kings in Iran is deliberately placed in a position of closure, as it speculates on how to escape time and develops a thoughtful contrast between the permanence of those imperial reliefs and the seasonal wanderings of the nomads who inhabit those regions. It is no accident that one of the words that recurs most frequently in these essays, dust, reappears in this final essay to mark a contrast between the rulers immortalised in stone and the nomads: “For centuries the nomads have criss-crossed these arid terrains between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea without leaving any trace of themselves behind apart from their footprints in the dust.” The problem for powerful rulers, whether they are Trajan or Darius or Shapur I, is that their proud monuments will all turn to dust. The writer’s sense of how to construct and end a collection is apparent here, just as it is in his fictional works. Reading Collection of Sand, the English reader will discover that Calvino the essayist is every bit as intriguing and satisfying as Calvino the novelist.

© Martin McLaughlin from his introduction to Collection of Sand, published in Penguin Modern Classics.


Martin McLaughlin is Agnelli-Serena Professor of Italian at Oxford. He is the author of a monograph on Italo Calvino (1998) and the translator of Calvino’s Why Read the Classics? (1999), which won the John Florio Prize for translation, Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings (2003), The Complete Cosmicomics (2009), Into the War (2011) and Collection of Sand (2013). He has also translated Umberto Eco’s On Literature (2005).