"Admirer of Science" or "Refined Chiseller"? Stanisław Lem Reads Italo Calvino



Italo Calvino, science fiction, postmodernism, late modernism, science and literature, metafiction, structuralism, comparative literature, reception of Italian literature in Poland


The focus of the present study is to examine selected aspects of Stanisław Lem's and Italo Calvino’s literary work and thought in comparative perspective. Although various parallels have been observed in their texts, these correspondences remain understudied in the scholarship both on Calvino’s and Lem’s oeuvre. The writers are undoubtedly united by a firm conviction about the moral duties of literature towards society, by using irony as a filter to address civilization’s contemporary challenges, and by the extraordinary erudition as well as by the predilection for the writings of Joseph Conrad and Jorge Luis Borges. On the other hand, issues deserving further investigation include the dialogue between science and literature in the fiction and non-fiction texts of both authors and the relationship of their works with the genre of science fiction and the aesthetics of postmodernism. The analysis starts by selecting Lem’s comments on Calvino’s books. The Polish author certainly knew Cosmicomics and If on a Winter's Night a Traveller and referred to Calvino's works in his essays on science fiction theory, interviews and correspondence, dated mainly from 1970s and 1980s. The Italian author is also quoted as a ‘refined engraver’, a Benvenuto Cellini's descendent in the world of contemporary literature, in A Perfect Vacuum [1971], Lem’s collection of reviews of non-existent books. Lem’s knowledge of Calvino’s oeuvre, definitely incomplete and superficial, was substantially based on the reception of the latter in the Anglophone area, especially by science fiction critics and fans. On various occasions, the Polish author expressed his limited enthusiasm for Calvino’s ‘excursions' in the science fiction field and for his literary work in general. Independently from his own creative practice, in which he applied experimental narrative techniques frequently, Lem declared himself a traditionalist and for this reason criticised Calvino’s textual experimentalism, accusing him of stylistic exaggerations and sterile formalism. Moreover, as an intransigent opponent of structuralism in literature and literary theory, he rejected Calvino’s idea of writing on the whole, trying to ignore the evident convergences with his own philosophy and narrative work. Paradoxically, already in the early 1970s Lem recognized Calvino as a valid figure of reference in world literature and as a part of the global canon.





Studies and Research