Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985

On any list of writers who should have won the Nobel Prize but didn't, Italo Calvino would have to figure near the top, along with Nabokov and Borges. Calvino, who was born in 1923 and died in 1985, became famous in America mainly as the author of ludic, postmodernist works like Invisible Cities -- a reworking of Marco Polo's travels, with a buried mathematical structure -- and If on a winter's night a traveler, a classic work of metafiction that continually stops and restarts itself while addressing the reader.

But in his comparatively short life, Calvino played many roles in the literature of Italy and the world. Before he was a postmodernist, associated with the experiments of the Oulipo in Paris, he was a realist whose first successes were Hemingwayesque tales drawn from his own experience as a partisan fighter in Italy during World War II. He was also, starting with his partisan period, a Communist, striving to reconcile his intensely individual genius with the imperatives of the class struggle. When that proved impossible, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Calvino resigned from the Party, but he always considered himself a man of the Left.

And from the very beginning of his career to the very end, he was also a publisher, associated with the leading Italian house of Einaudi. His work brought him into contact with just about every major Italian writer and cultural figure of the postwar period; many of them were his friends and collaborators, from Cesare Pavese and Carlo Levi to Michelangelo Antonioni and Pierpaolo Pasolini.

This intense activity, this committed and versatile service to letters, is the main impression that the reader takes away from Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985. A big book at nearly 600 pages, it still represents just a fraction of the correspondence published in Italian, and there are large areas of Calvino's life that go uncovered -- this is not one of those books of letters that can double as a biography. There are no love letters included, for instance, nor anything to his parents or relatives; indeed, just about anything "personal" is left out. At the same time, Calvino writes in such granular detail about postwar Italian literature, with references to the titles, authors, characters, and plots of hundreds of works, that anyone who is not a specialist in that literature will probably feel a little adrift. (The notes, while numerous, are not nearly full enough for the general reader's purposes -- an adequately annotated edition would probably be twice as long.)

Yet this austerity feels only appropriate for a man whose ideal way of life, he confides in one letter, would be to spend twelve hours a day reading. Several times in the Letters, we hear Calvino dissuading people from trying to interview him or write his biography, on the grounds that -- as Barthes was saying around the same time -- the very idea of an "author" was dead, or should be: "To be able to study a writer, he must be dead, that is -- if he is alive -- he must be killed… Furthermore, already the existence of the work is a sign that the author is dead, happily dead if the work is worthwhile; the work is the negation of the writer as empirical living being."

Rather than an individual genius, Calvino wanted to be thought of as a member of a culture and a collective. "Life and works?" he writes to an Englishman proposing to devote a study to him. "I'm afraid I don't think I really have a life on which something can be written. All I have is a series of works that form part of the general context of literary works in our time. I am more and more convinced that literature is made up of works, genres, schools, discussions, problems, collective work in order to solve certain problems… If a critic writes about a problem and makes reference to one (or more) of my works in relation to that problem, this gives me the sense that my work is not pointless. Whereas the prospect of my bust crowned with laurel appearing along with the other busts in the hall of famous writers gives me no joy at all."

This emphasis on the collective was more than a conceit; as the Letters show, it describes how Calvino really led his life. This becomes clear from the very beginning, when we hear Calvino as a high-spirited teenage student, dreaming of a literary career with his friend Eugenio Scalfari (who would go on to become one of Italy's leading journalists). Even at eighteen, he was convinced that "italocalvino will die and won't serve any purpose any more," but the works he managed to leave behind "will remain and will provide good seed."

And he is already deeply interested in plans for journals, conferences, and literary collaborations. The careful criticisms he offers of Scalfari's poems are the first in what will become a running dialogue with virtually all the great writers of postwar Italy, in which he gives (and, more remarkably, accepts) criticism in a generous and humble spirit. " 'Among Women Only' is a novel that I immediately decided I would not like," he writes candidly to Pavese in 1949. "I'm still of that opinion even though I read it with great interest and enjoyment."

Rare, it seems, was the critic writing about Calvino who did not get a letter of thanks from the man himself, explaining where he agreed and disagreed with the critic's points: "I can't tell you how much pleasure your article gave me," he writes to one friend in 1963. "Not only for the things you say about my story…but because it marks a point of contact between your work and mine, between our trajectories."

Ideologically, Calvino's insistence on collaboration and literary community owed a great deal to his experience as a Communist. No letters survive from Calvino's months as a partisan in the last phase of World War II, but in the immediate aftermath we hear him explaining that the experience of fighting fascism is what made him as a man and a writer. "My life in this last year has been a whirlwind of adventures," he tells Scalfari in June 1945. "I've been a partisan all this time, I've been through an unspeakable series of dangers and discomforts; I've experienced prison and escape, been several times on the point of dying…. I'm a Communist, fully convinced and dedicated to my cause."

Calvino always enjoyed polemics and debates in his correspondence, and in an essay-letter of 1950 he makes clear that his Communism was no simple-minded belief that the revolution would bring paradise on earth. On the contrary, he wrote to Mario Motta, "The 'paradise' to be reached (with its little angels, or its sausage-tree: it's all the same) is the wrong way of posing the problem of man." The way Calvino defined Communism was, simply, the application of intelligence to human problems: "moments when interests in all aspects of life, communication with others, and ability and intelligence all increase in each of us…the satisfaction of seeing things gradually starting to go the right way, feeling in a better position for solving problems as they emerge."

Calvino, in other words, comes across less as an ideological thinker than a man of the Enlightenment -- a disciplined, disillusioned rationalist. Inevitably, this meant he would have to break with the Communist Party, which he did in 1957, more in sorrow than in anger. But even in his later years, when he grows more interested in the abstractions of structuralism than the immediacy of politics, Calvino retains a curious, pragmatic approach to literature and society. That is why he is both fascinated and repelled by the rise of the New Left, which he witnessed firsthand living in Paris in May 1968. In a fascinating letter to Gianni Celati, he compares the New Left to Bakhtin's notion of the "carnivalesque," a sort of licensed overturning of conventional society: "periods of subversion, waste, cultural revolution, and comic-expressionist-demystifying literature."

The best way to read Calvino's Letters would be in tandem with a close study of his works, and they will be invaluable to specialists. He offers close analyses of many of his books, especially the earlier ones that are less well known in America. But even the general reader will come away from the Letters admiring this skeptical, loyal, generous, industrious man, who gave the life of letters the dignity it so often seems to lack.

 



FOOTNOTES

Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography

By David S. Shields

 

Eighty percent of the movies made during the silent era have vanished. To evoke that lost world, David S. Shields gathers 150 evocative photographs produced for publicity purposes by the Hollywood studios in the years 1908–28, in Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography (Chicago).

 



The Modern American Military

By David M. Kennedy


In the absence of a draft, most Americans never see the world of the armed forces close up. In The Modern American Military (Oxford), edited by David M. Kennedy, a group of experts examine various facets of the military today, from its political culture to its treatment of soldiers' psychiatric problems.

 



Totally Unofficial

By Raphael Lemkin

 

Raphael Lemkin was a pioneer of human rights law, coining the word genocide and helping the postwar UN draft the convention against genocide. Though he died in obscurity, he left behind an autobiography, Totally Unofficial (Yale), which is now published for the first time, detailing his experience as an advocate and Holocaust survivor.

 

About the Columnist
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

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