A world aglow in Calvino's passionate gaze

Difficult Loves, by Italo Calvino. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. 290 pp. $14.95 How would you feel if you were a rather plump Italian matron, a ``very simple, domestic person,'' who discovers she has lost the bottom of her two-piece bathing suit while swimming at a crowded public beach?

If you have read Italo Calvino's wonderful collection of 28 short stories, you would know. You would also know what it is like to be homeless after World War II, to sleep on the floors of Italian railroad stations, pressed against the bodies of other vagabonds for warmth and solace. And you would know the exquisite pleasure of being swept away by thick 19th-century novels, and having to choose between a fling with another vacationer and simply remaining stretched out with your book under the scorching Italian sun. You would know all these states of being from the inside, with an intensity bordering on obsession, and always with a relish for the immediate that Calvino makes us understand to be happiness.

Not that the half-naked lady, dog-paddling desperately offshore, is happy. But when she is rescued, her sensation of security is so strong it bathes the familiar objects before her in a beauty and tenderness they never had before. Understanding happiness like this is what most of the book is about.

These stories, written in the '40s and '50s (and expertly translated by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright), are divided into four sections. Only one of these, ``Wartime Stories,'' focuses on darker themes, such as fear, survival, cruelty, and death. The remaining sections -- ``Riviera Stories,'' ``Postwar Stories,'' and ``Stories of Love and Loneliness'' -- are concerned with people so intent on what lies before their eyes that the world fairly glows in the light of their passionate gaze.

And perhaps it is this very passion that stretches Calvino's stories to just beyond the ``realistic,'' to a dimension where a teen-age boy can regale the kitchen maid he fancies with a menagerie of toads, lizards, snakes, and snails: symbols of the squirming, pulsing ardor of his feelings. In Calvino's stories, a person's inner life is where he really lives. And this inward, personal intensity creates worlds that are just a little more bizarre, a little more beautiful, than the so-called ``real'' world.

In ``Riviera Stories,'' the first section of the book, six of the eight tales are concerned with children or teen-agers. Calvino grew up in San Remo, on the Italian Riviera, and he paints the sun-drenched joys of young people in that setting as warmly as would C'ezanne or Matisse.

Happiness is clearly at the center of his delightful ``Big Fish, Little Fish,'' in which a small boy, Zeffirino, encounters untold joys in the vivid, limpid waters where he snorkels and fishes to his heart's content. But he also encounters a fat woman, lying on the rocks and weeping in a steady stream of tears that ``ran down her cheeks one after another and dropped into the sea.'' How Zeffirino and his father finally get the signorina to stop crying is a lovely illustration of an unusual way to confer happiness.

The ``Wartime Stories'' also draw from Calvino's own experience. At 22, with his 16-year-old brother, he fought with the partisans of the ``Garibaldi'' brigade in the Maritime Alps, rather than joining the Fascist Italian Army. His wartime stories are sinister, suspenseful, even frightening. Partisan warfare in Italy -- when small groups hid in remote mountain crevasses and engaged in deadly confrontations with German troops and Italian Fascists -- was so cruel as to be decidedly unromantic. Only one of these stories, ``Animal Woods,'' has any of the humor and fantasy of Calvino's usual style.

Then in the postwar years, Italy seems to have gone a bit crazy. Judging from the elements of his five postwar stories -- food, sex, sleep, clothing, and shelter! -- the most basic components of human happiness had to be scrambled for in those days, and their enjoyment, when secured, was highly problematic.

But with his ``Stories of Love and Loneliness,'' Calvino delves into the exploration of happiness in some of its most intimate and illusive forms, with: a soldier, a bather (our desperate domestic friend), a clerk, a photographer, a traveler, a reader (the indecisive seducer), a nearsighted man, and a poet.

The clerk is steeped in happiness: the euphoria of a self-effacing man who has just spent the night with a beautiful woman far beyond his reach. In the buoyant morning hours of a spring day, he wraps himself in the memories of his extraordinary escapade, perfectly content for his happiness to exist only in the past -- until the memory itself begins to bleach out in the bland monotony of his life.

The traveler takes his happiness from the future: from the certainty that the train he's riding is speeding him to his love. Every detail of the journey -- from the discomfort of the worn plush seats to the feel of the telephone token in his pocket -- is a talisman of happiness. Surely the actual presence of his darling Cinzia cannot bring him any more joy than this train-ride of anticipation.

Perhaps the most poignant look at happiness is the ``Adventure of a Nearsighted Man.'' Amilcare Carruga's problem is that without his new glasses he cannot see anything or anyone clearly. The world has lost its sparkle and its joy. But when he returns to his hometown in search of the woman he loves, he finds that none of his old friends recognize him with the glasses on. When he can see, he is invisible, cut off from happiness. But the world holds no joy for him when he cannot see.

In this book, Calvino shows us a great deal about happiness: that it results from a passionate involvement in something we love; that it is conscious self-knowledge; and that it happens, rather than being bought, planned, schemed for, or conjured up. Most of all, with these surreal stories, he shows us that happiness is real. And we believe him.

Monitor staff writer Kristin Helmore has lived in Italy.

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