Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

The Christian Science Monitor, June 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985


By Adam Kirsch for Barnes and Noble Review.

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 ludid, 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 12 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. …

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