Review: Collection of Sand, By Italo Calvino

Glimpses into the mind of a great writer

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The Independent Culture

In 1974, Italo Calvino, talking of Paris, remarked how the city "invites you to make collections of everything, because it accumulates and classifies and redistributes, where you can search as in an archeological excavation.

"The collector's experience can ... be an existential adventure, a search for the self through objects, an exploration of the world which is at the same time a realisation of the self," he said in an interview with Swiss-Italian TV.

Now, in Collection of Sand, a book of newly translated essays and other short pieces by Calvino, we get, among other things, a fuller idea of his thoughts on collectors, the act of collecting and the meaning of collections: the book's title is from a piece about a Paris exhibition about bizarre collections – collections of cowbells, bingo games, bottle tops, terracotta whistles, train-tickets, spinning-tops, toilet-paper packaging, embalmed frogs. "The fascination of a collection lies just as much in what it reveals as in what it conceals of the secret urge that led to its creation," Calvino writes in the piece published in 1974, the same year as the TV interview.

In another piece, a travelogue bears a clue about the roots of one of Calvino's best-known works, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, the wonderful Postmodernist novel. In the book, a micro-novel set in Japan begins with an image of ginkgo leaves that, Calvino wrote, "fell like fine rain from the boughs and dotted the lawn with yellow ... as the number of leaves spinning in air increases further, the sensations corresponding to each of them are summed up, creating a general sensation like that of a silent rain."

That was in 1979, a few years after a trip to Japan that yielded some short pieces of travel writing. Among them was "The Obverse of the Sublime", included here. Calvino writes: "The leaves of the ginkgo tree are yellow, a very sharp and luminous yellow, and they fall like rain from the highest branches like flower petals: infinite numbers of little leaves the shape of fans, a constant light rain that turns the surface of the little lake yellow."

This is the pleasure of Collection of Sand: for English-speakers, the newly translated compilation offers new glimpses into the mind of the great writer while also reminding us of Calvino's insatiable curiosity.