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The Dreams of Italo Calvino

Letters, 1941–1985

by Italo Calvino, selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood and translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin
Princeton University Press, 619 pp., $39.50
galassi_1-062013.jpg
Dominique Nabokov
Italo Calvino, New York City, 1983

If you don’t count Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino (1923–1985) is the postwar Italian prose writer who has had the largest and most enduring impact outside his own country. (As a sign of this, it’s worth noting that this is the tenth consideration of his work to appear in these pages since 1970.) Calvino’s refined, gently pessimistic, humane irony rode the wave of the deconstruction of realistic fiction the way the more programmatic French nouveau roman and OULIPO writers could not, gently unmasking narratorial trade secrets and reminding readers of the self-reflexive nature of the fictional game, while continuing to deliver appetizing fabulist delights.

Postwar Italian fiction offered an embarrassment of riches as substantial as that of any other European country, starting with Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s magisterial, posthumously published The Leopard (1958)—though it might arguably be considered the last great novel of the old school. Before the war, Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese had been greatly influenced by Hemingway and American realism; they were followed by a generation that included Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia and his wife Elsa Morante, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Leonardo Sciascia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Primo Levi, to name only the most prominent—most of whom make appearances in this consistently absorbing and suggestive selection of Calvino’s letters, chosen by Michael Wood from the several thousand pages of his literary correspondence published in Italy.1

These writers portrayed a still near-feudal society emerging into industrialization; their various achievements were inflected by cold war politics in an American client state with an independent, competent, and popular Communist Party in active opposition to the ruling Christian Democratic coalition, where left- and right-wing values competed day in and day out on every front. In his own way, Calvino exemplified these tensions in Italian cultural life, even perhaps in his nonideological response to them.

Calvino was born in Cuba, where his botanist parents were working at an experimental station outside Havana, but he grew up in San Remo on the Italian Riviera. He set out to be an agronomist, and his early letters to his boyhood friend Eugenio Scalfari, later one of Italy’s most important newspapermen, are alive with youthful enthusiasm for literature, philosophy, and girls. But after fighting with the partisans in the civil war that followed the fall of Mussolini, an experience that provided the material for his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; translated as The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956), Calvino emerged as a committed Communist at the end of the war. He resigned from the Party in 1957 in protest against its hard-line conformism, writing that he “had hoped that the Italian Communist Party would put itself at the head of an international renewal of Communism, condemning ways of exercising power which have been shown to be a failure and deeply unpopular.” Still, he came to feel that Italian Communists had displayed “a little bit more intelligence here than in other countries,” and, as he wrote the editor of The New York Review, he remained faithful to an idea of the Italian Party as “a very disciplined and efficient organization vitally interested in the defense and development of democracy.”

Authentic solidarity with workers was not all that easy, for him, however—an ambition perhaps more than an achieved reality. In 1950 we find him writing that “for four days I managed to feel very closely tied up with and in a certain sense essential to the working-class struggle, something that has not happened for some time now.” In 1951, he protests, perhaps a bit too much, to a fellow writer that “the writer is someone who tears himself to pieces in order to liberate his neighbor.”

But Calvino was not a joiner or a follower by nature. Like so many intellectuals, his “true direction,” he wrote in 1958, was “the crisis of the bourgeois intellectual seen critically from the inside.” “The problem is that one cannot totally identify with any movement,” he lamented, in the midst of the left- and right-wing extremism of the violent Anni di Piombo, or Years of Lead, that characterized the late 1960s and 1970s: “The only possibility is the position of the spectator at a distance.” (One can imagine how he would have reacted to Bettino Craxi’s Tangentopoli—Kickback City—scandal involving widespread public bribery in the 1990s and Berlusconi’s Age of Bunga Bunga.)

It may have been Calvino’s desire for connection to the vernacular wellsprings of literature that led him to compile the magisterial anthology Italian Folktales (1956),2 in which, like a modern-day Grimm, he gathered, codified, and translated from the various Italian dialects the enormous wealth of folk stories that he asserts in his introduction is as rich as that of any tradition. He wrote that in the time he spent compiling and translating the book he

lived in woodlands and enchanted castles, torn between contemplation and action…. And during these two years the world about me gradually took on the attributes of fairyland, where everything that happened was a spell or metamorphosis.

Indeed, his immersion in folk literature eventually inspired the forms of his most successful work. The young disciple of Vittorini and Pavese, for whom Hemingway was “the absolute god,” eventually evolved from an uncomfortable realist into the most sophisticated and suggestive of postmodern fabulists, second only to the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Writing to one of his critics in 1967, however—it is notable how many of these letters are responses, either approving or argumentative, to critics of his work—Calvino claimed that “in the portrait I had on my wall, my Hemingway already had some of the features of Borges who was unknown at the time.” Calvino did eventually own up to his “Borgesism,” but he was always careful to emphasize his differences from the Argentine writer, “which stem from our distant points of departure.”

In his attempts to codify and disseminate popular literature, he found a comrade and interlocutor in the young Friulian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose Canzoniere italiano: Antologia della poesia popolare (Italian Songbook: Anthology of Popular Poetry, 1955) offered a revolutionary exposition and analysis of the breadth and depth of the popular poetic traditions in the living dialects of Italy’s regions, in many ways a comparable achievement to Calvino’s. He and Pasolini were fellow travelers in literature and politics for a while; Calvino was inspired and disturbed by the anguished, eloquent civic poetry of Pasolini’s Le ceneri di Gramsci (The Ashes of Gramsci, 1957). “This is the poetry we need,” he tells a correspondent, “a poetry we can discuss, that touches on the contradictions of the world we move in, that gives us new worries to think about, that gets on our nerves!” He sent Pasolini a highly enthusiastic letter about his second novel, Una vita violenta (A Violent Life, 1959), though he never thought much of his talent as a moviemaker, asking him in 1964, “When are you going to stop making films?”

In reality, the two writers were on essentially divergent tracks, Calvino moving farther and farther away from both realism and engagement with politics, while Pasolini’s immersion in the crisis of the actual became ever more despairingly radical. In Poesia in forma di rosa (Poetry in the Form of a Rose, 1964), he was already attacking Calvino and Francesco Leonetti for “systematizing the sign systems/and goodnight to the dialects”—that is, for taking an “anthropological,” detached approach to the working class with whom Pasolini passionately identified. In many ways, the growing divergence between the two writers exemplified a primal split in postwar Italian culture.3 In a letter of 1973 Calvino responds to Pasolini’s accusation, in an admiring review of Invisible Cities, that Calvino had distanced himself from him, declaring that “my reservations and allergies toward the new politics are stronger than the urge to oppose the old politics,” and adding, “What you say about my image starting to turn yellow and fade matches precisely my intentions.”

Calvino had become allergic to Pasolini’s willful estrangement from and repudiation of the world around him, but even more to the increasing stridency of his public pronouncements (“Your use of words has shifted to communicating a presence traumatically as though projecting it on big screens”). In 1976, not long after his friend’s murder, Calvino, writing to the poet Andrea Zanzotto, called Pasolini “the only D’Annunzio figure of our times, as the ideologizer of eros and the eroticizer of ideology.”

The depicting of the actual was never Calvino’s forte. Even in his first, most realistic novel, inspired by his partisan experience, the young hero undergoes rites of passage perhaps more proper to the realm of the fairy tale. Fantasy allowed him a kind of detachment, a freedom from self that he aspired to in writing, and “a burst of energy, action, optimism…which contemporary reality does not inspire in me.” He rejected as “decadent” “autobiography, introspection, egocentrism, all things that I have always hated and fought against”—though he acknowledged the inevitable solipsism in his portrayal of the melancholy dreamer in Marcovaldo (1963): “I started to feel like Marcovaldo only after writing the book. When I was writing it I thought he was a character who was a bit funny, a bit sad, but very different from me. But instead with the passing of time…”

The emphases of Calvino’s mature writing would lie elsewhere. He complained to a friend in 1970 about “working in fits and starts, fragmentarily” while dreaming “of composing encyclopaedic works, universal histories, theogonies, maps of the terraqueous globe and of the firmament, utopias…”—the very beguiling confections, half potted science or philosophy and half fantasy, that are the glories of Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities. These fictions are examples of what for Calvino became “the only kind of literature that is possible today: a literature that is both critical and creative.” For if, as he suggests in Italian Folktales, “folktales are real…the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women [that] encompasses everything,” they are also critiques—not mere evocations of the reality we actually know but refinements, ameliorations, alternatives, replacements.

Fantasy had helped Calvino to develop an idiosyncratic and ironic form of social criticism of his own. As he wrote from Paris in 1974, where he had moved in 1967:

The state of my ideas today leads me to prefer not the essay—and that amount of peremptoriness that it allows—but the dialog genre, a real dialog, in other words discussing with a non-fictional interlocutor, but at the same time still a fictitious dialog, in other words written while pretending that it is spoken.

This dialectical approach found its fictional apotheosis in what is arguably Calvino’s greatest literary achievement, the diaphanous Le città invisibili (1972; translated as Invisible Cities, 1974), in which Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan the fantastical cities of the world that Polo has seen, which the Khan eventually recognizes are actually versions of Polo’s Venice. (A 1960 letter to the film producer Suso Cecchi d’Amico reveals that one of the sources for the book was an abortive script for a movie based on Polo’s Il milione.)

  1. 1

    Italo Calvino, Lettere 1940–1985, edited by Luca Baranelli (Milan: Mondadori, 2000), contains almost a thousand letters. A six-hundred-plus-page selection of Calvino’s editorial correspondence at Einaudi, I libri degli altri: Lettere, 1947–1981, edited by Giovanni Tesio, was published by the house in 1991. In addition, numerous other letters of Calvino’s have been published in Italy over the last twenty-five years. 

  2. 2

    Italian Folktales, selected and retold by Italo Calvino, translated by George Martin, with an introduction translated by Catherine Hill (Harcourt, 1980). 

  3. 3

    In a tendentious critical attack, Pasolini contro Calvino (Bollati Boringhieri, 1998), Carla Benedetti accuses Calvino of having removed himself from reality, that is, becoming politically unengaged, and because of it absorbed into official Italian culture, which institutionalized Calvino and excluded Pasolini. 

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