“Collection of Sand” by Italo Calvino – Book Review

by Randy Bosch                     December 3, 2014

“Collection of Sand”, essays translated by Martin McLaughtin, Mariner Books – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston – New York.  First published in Italian as “Collezione di Sabbia”, October 1984.

This collection of 38 non-fiction stories by one of Italy’s most acclaimed 20th Century storytellers is described as the “…last organic volume of new work put together by Italo Calvino in his lifetime.”

Collection of Sand by Italo Calvinor

Collection of Sand by Italo Calvinor

Translator McLaughtin was not a newcomer to working with Calvino.  His post-mortem rendition here, at the behest of the Estate of Italo Calvino, is informed by decades of earlier work with the living author, debating intent, meaning and language with the author as earlier works were translated.  It represents a most faithful view by a most trusted translator of the words of a man he knew better than most.

McLaughtin states in his forward, “…the image of rocks eventually turning to sand, emblematic of the slow passing of geological eras, is a cosmic theme in the writer’s other works.”   “He (Calvino)claims to write as a dilettante (neither a trained art historian nor a travel writer).  He displays encyclopedic curiosity and uses meticulous observation to attempt to understand what he calls ‘the truth of the world.’”  “One implicit message here is that the discreet observer of art and other countries “(for example) “can perhaps offer as much as the committed intellectual to the reader trying to understand societies and cultures.”

Calvino organized his stories in four sections:

  1. “Exhibitions – Explorations” deliberating ten different exhibitions in Paris in 1980 and 1984;
  2. “The Eye’s Ray” exploring aspects of the visual on our lives in eight compositions, 1980 to 1984;
  3. “Accounts of the Fantastic” with five book reviews of works about fantasy in the early 1980’s;
  4. “The Shape of Time” with fifteen travelogues from visits to Japan, Mexico and Iran in 1975-76.

Calvino’s travelogues are “…not just accounts of journeys crossing geographical space but also speculations on larger questions of time and history.”

All of the stories are stated to be ekphrasis – verbal portraits of works of art or places – yet all smoothly cross the line into compelling narratives.

The title, “Collection of Sand”, is not only of the intentional first piece in the book, but establishes the connection between all of the sections and stories, granular tales set in a collection of cultures and time.

Translator McLaughtin is entranced by the first and last sentences employed by Calvino in his stories, not only in “Collection of Sand” but in other works as well.  I found them to be deeply formative, exquisitely crafted verbal parentheses around the stories that help to retain memory of their import.

Of those thirty-eight parenthetical sets – word preludes and postludes – two follow:

From “Collection of Sand” :

α :           “There is a person who collects sand.”

∞:          Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.”

From “How New the New World Was” :

α:            “Discovering the New World was a very difficult enterprise, as we have all been taught.”

∞:          “There is no longer a Europe that can look down on America from the height of its past, its knowledge and its sensibilities: Europe now contains within itself so much of America – just as America carries within itself so much of Europe – that the interest in looking at each other, which is just as strong and never disappoints – resembles more and more what one feels when looking into a mirror: a mirror that is able to reveal something of the past or future to us.”

Whether or not you have read other works by Calvino (To date, I have only read “The Baron in the Trees” and “Invisible Cities”, both tours de force worthy of your time and reflection), I strongly recommend “Collection of Sand” as a thought-provoking excursion into cultures, people and time, into perception, language and meaning.  The stories can be read one at a time and in any order of your choosing without disturbing their individual – and eventually  collective – view into the layers of sand deposited by the passage of man.

Italo Calvino’s stories capture not only his observations of people, images and impressions limited by his brief encounters.  He dusts off artifacts and uncovers layers of remembrance and meaning in place,  history and culture during their slow progression from “dust to dust”.  They remind us of and link disparate elements of the human walk on this earth, its path, progress and product.   They consider that entropy and stasis are not the experience and outcome of that walk, but a return to that basic foundation of sand, from dust back to dust.

Calvino’s stories also remind me of the truth that Joseph Brodsky had thrust upon him over many, many winter sojourns in Venice, wearing down the stones, the truth that

“Dust is the flesh of time”



About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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