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Raising Lazarus : Talent and a sense of magic--but, no masterpieces--in a collection of uncovered writings by Italo Calvino : NUMBERS IN THE DARK And Other Stories, By Italo Calvino . Translated from the Italian by Tim Parks (Pantheon Books: $24; 288 pp.)

November 26, 1995|RICHARD EDER

Does publishing the bits and pieces left behind after a great writer dies add to the immortality? Or does it nibble at it? The etymology of "posthumous" is "post humus"--after the earth has done its covering. Dig up to add more to the remains or leave as is? These are questions for literary heirs and executors.

Not that there is anything wrong with publishing addenda and footnotes in a scholarly way. But when these are brought out in trade form, soliciting a public captured by the great works and hoping for more, a question is raised. Lazarus, according to tradition, was weary at being brought back, and not in the best of shape.

It is a fine line, and the answer depends on the quality of what is discovered. It need not be major work nor even finished work, so long as it contains a spark of the author's unique vitality, a hint of growth, even, and does more, in any case, than simply remind us of the particular style and traits.

The recent publication of Albert Camus' Algerian memoir ("The Last Man"), unfinished and imperfect in form, was a triumph, so fresh was it with currents that he was still trying to channel. On the other hand, a group of miscellaneous stories and short plays by Vladimir Nabokov brought out a half-dozen years ago allowed readers to think "this is indeed Nabokov" but not necessarily to remember why they might care. Last month's publication of a group of his short stories, some previously uncollected, was more of a mixed success.

In this new collection of stories by Italo Calvino, who died in 1985, there is a great deal that is scrappy and without much life to it by now. It is divided in two sections; the first consists of some dozen pieces written when he was in his early 20s, most of them never published. These are followed by others written a decade later and published in Italian periodicals and an early book. As for the second section, it is a miscellany of pieces written in his 50s and 60s and mostly uncollected.

Curiously--or perhaps not, if you think about it--it is the juvenilia that is most interesting. The curious quirks that would shape Calvino's eccentric orbit can be descried, along with the exuberant talent and sense of magic that would make that orbit a flaming one. There are no undiscovered masterpieces here, but there are things of real value.

Most of the later pieces, on the other hand, have a worn air: They display the machinery of Calvino's art but not much of the art itself. This is not surprising, even though he was doing some of his best work at the time. Simply: Unlike when he was young and his talent was still ignored, Calvino here was at the height of his fame. Anything of value was almost certain to be published; what remained was a sketch, a draft, an exercise.

Among the later pieces, there are two rather tired examples of the intellectual gothic. In one, the director of a project designed to sum up in encapsulated form all of human memory manipulates it to put himself in a better light. In another, an insurance agent hires a computer expert to unravel the different possible causes of a quadruple homicide. The villain, it turns out, is the agent himself.

In a piece commissioned by a Japanese liquor company, a man fetches ice for the drink of a woman he is about to make love to, only to find that an iceberg has sprouted in his living room. The lovers--this is rather nice--can only stare at each other through a frozen divide.

One of the better pieces in the later section comes from a book, "Imaginary Interviews." The Aztec Emperor Montezuma touchingly explains why he did not resist the Spaniards more effectively. He wanted not to kill them but "to conceive them. . . . If I could have made of them--inconceivable as they were--something my mind could dwell on and grasp, then, and only then, would I have been able to have them as my allies or enemies, to recognize them as persecutors or victims."

The earliest work, written when Calvino was barely 20, is in the form of fables. In the first--it has the gleam of a new star--the narrator stands on a street corner at night calling "Teresa!" up to a darkened window. Another man comes by and, to help, calls out too. Soon two dozen people are shouting the name. Eventually one asks the first man if he has no key; he does, he says, but he lives across town. So who does live there? He really wouldn't know, he says and, perceiving annoyance, adds: "As far as I'm concerned, we can call another name, or try somewhere else. It's no big deal." They all take it pretty well, give one last shout and disperse. Leaving, though, the narrator hears a voice calling "Tee-reee-sa." He concludes: "Someone must have stayed on to shout. Someone stubborn."

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