Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Myopic Eye: Calvino's Travels in the USA and the USSR

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Myopic Eye: Calvino's Travels in the USA and the USSR

Article excerpt


This article presents Italo Calvino's little-studied travel writing, concentrating on two texts: Diario americano 1959-60 and Taccuino di viaggio nell'Unione Sovietica, his accounts of journeys to the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Calvino's interests as a traveller are examined, in particular his close attention to the minutiae of daily life and his less satisfactory attempts to understand the bigger picture. A comparison of these texts with La forma del tempo and Palomar demonstrates how Calvino developed important themes from the earlier travelogues in his later work.

   Il problema di fondo e sempre quello della
   possibility o impossibility di conoscere il

   (Italo Calvino) (1)


Italo Calvino's life and work were a quest for knowledge about the world, a lengthy exploration of paths which might lead to that elusive goal. (2) One tried and tested method for knowing the world, in a literal sense, is by visiting it. Calvino made several prolonged sojourns abroad, travels which have left traces in much of his work. His love of cities, for example, finds expression in his fictional work, perhaps most obviously in Le citta invisibili (1972). (3) In Palomar (1983) (4) some of the protagonist's travels are fictional reworkings of Calvino's own (5). However, travel writing itself, the factual or autobiographical description of his own travels, is rare among Calvino's prolific literary output. The one travel book he did plan and write, to be titled Un ottimista in America, he rejected and had destroyed just before publication. (6) Nevertheless, like other Italian writers who travelled, such as Emilio Cecchi and Alberto Moravia, (7) Calvino did put some of his impressions into print, as articles for various journals and newspapers. The American travels of 1959-60 which provided the impetus for Un ottimista were originally the subject of articles, published in several journals and now available in the collected Saggi. (8) Also republished in Saggi are the articles Calvino wrote about the USSR for L'Unita, the daily newspaper of the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano), after a journey there at the beginning of the fifties, entitled Taccuino di viaggio nell'Unione Sovietica (1952). (9) More recently, Eremita a Parigi has also brought into print previously unpublished letters written by Calvino during his time in America, gathered under the title Diario americano 1959-7960, (10) which formed the basis for both the published articles and Un ottimista.

These two important journeys, to the USA and the USSR, both closely associated with Calvino's political ideologies and development as a writer, are the subject of this study. For this young Italian, the opportunity to visit two countries which cast long and opposing shadows over Europe and its intellectuals, to compare their cultural and political ideals in action, to be able to see and judge for himself these visions of a future world in the working mechanisms of daily life, was fundamental to his own intellectual development. Calvino made reference to the importance both countries held for him on a number of occasions. Shortly after his American trip, in the article 'La generazione degli anni difficili', he places them high on his list of political interests: 'Unione Sovietica e Stati Uniti sono come prima al centro del mio interesse e delle mie preoccupazioni, perche dall'una e dall'altra parte vengono le immagini the mi faccio del nostro futuro.' (11) The letters and articles he wrote during his travels document his experiences and reveal the evolution of his impressions.

Although these texts record significant moments in Calvino's life, they remain relatively unstudied. This is perhaps due to Calvino's own dissatisfaction with his American writings and because of the restrictions he travelled under in the USSR. On the subject of America, Paola Castellucci's Un modo di stare al mondo: Italo Calvino e l'America, (12) examines Calvino's relationship with that country, arguing that it had a strong influence on him throughout his career (p. …

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