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The Dreams of Italo Calvino

Drawing by Edward Lear

It’s tempting to read the prose poetry of Invisible Cities as utopian, despite its highly colored evocations of the full, terrible range of human experience. Polo says of the elusive ideal city he has used every skill at his disposal to suggest: “If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” The recognition of “the inferno where we live every day” is in effect a challenge to recognize “who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” Like Polo’s magic cities, which in the end all turn out to be Venice, fantasy finally refers us back to reality and the challenge of everyday social engagement.

Many of the most astute letters here are drawn from Calvino’s professional correspondence as an editorial consultant for thirty years at the distinguished, impecunious, left-leaning Turin publishing house of Giulio Einaudi, whose father, Luigi, had been the second president of the postwar Italian Republic. Calvino called the publisher “the navel of the world, which faithfully reflects the crisis—if not of everyday Italy, at least of intellectual Italy.” It is refreshing in today’s publishing climate to eavesdrop on the inner workings of a house that employed writers like Pavese, Vittorini, Ginzburg, and Calvino on its editorial staff, and where “what enthuses and amuses us…is…[the] establishing of perspectives that do not coincide with the most obvious ones.”

Indeed, Calvino saw the editorial function as militant; he wrote to a would-be writer: “I am someone who works (apart from on my own books) in order that the culture of my time can move in one direction rather than another.” Wood quotes “a casual, generous remark” of Calvino to the effect that “I have spent more time with other people’s books than with my own,” to which he added, “I do not regret it.” He was to continue his association with Einaudi until his death, staying true to his view of his publishing work, “which I do badly and [which] takes up my time,” as “something serious and that is why I always say I am going to leave it but I never do.”

Calvino was a crisp and direct, if general, editorial intervener, even with writer friends like Eco (whom he did not publish). He had an eye for knotty plot problems and no reluctance to be critical—as when he expresses reservations to Primo Levi, who is arranging The Periodic Table, about placing the story “Argon” at the beginning of the book (it remained there). On occasion his editorial relationships extended over decades. He loved analyzing the twisted story lines in the literary mysteries of the great Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, whose Todo modo (1974), with its “infernal vision,” Calvino calls “the novel we needed to explain what Christian Democrat Italy has been and still is and no one has been able to do this before you.”

Calvino considered his editorial letters to his friend, written over twenty-three years, “almost a complete guide to Sciascia.” His broad experience with other people’s books was what allowed him to bemoan “the flattening out of the last decade or two in literature” and to observe, in a discussion of the trials of publishing translations, that “sensitivity to style is becoming rare and rarer,” mourning likewise to Zanzotto “a lowering of the level of poetic language” starting from when “Montale started writing poems with a pencil” in his less rhetorical later work. He was also a cold-eyed observer of artistic fashion, writing of an unsuccessful attempt at collaborating with Luciano Berio that “his idea of theater is confused and stuck in the avant-garde movement of twenty years ago.”

Michael Wood, in his introduction, comments on Calvino’s intellectual range, and his hard-won freedom from ideology—this in spite of his attraction to the major fads of his time, from communism to deconstruction. In 1971, at the height of the structuralist moment, he writes to Paolo Valesio: “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 being the negation of the writer as empirical living being.”

Calvino portrays himself as more an observer than a combatant in the critical wars—though he clearly was attracted to the ideas of his friend Roland Barthes (“perhaps the contemporary critic I admire the most,” he writes in 1965). He told Pasolini in 1973, arguably a bit disingenuously:

I quickly realized that I had no place in actuality and I stayed on the sidelines…. It is no accident that I’ve gone to live in a big city where I know nobody and nobody knows I exist. In this way I’ve been able to realize a kind of existence which was at least one of the many existences I had always dreamt of: I spend twelve hours a day reading, on most days of the year.

Maybe so, but the boy who vowed he would never go near Paris ended up moving there in time to catch the heady wave of theory, and it had an undeniable effect—who knows how salutary?—on his approach to storytelling.

Martin McLaughlin’s translation, while vigorous, is not always up to his writer’s finesse, and his annotations don’t always dig deeply enough into the issues they are meant to clarify. Wood makes much of the fact that the book, dealing as it does with an antiautobiographical writer, is only minimally reflective of the events of his life (though it is arranged chronologically and not thematically). Unfortunately, therefore, only the occasional personal detail crops up in what, with a little astute editorial intervention, could easily have been announced as what it in fact is: the chronicle not only of Calvino’s intellectual development but of postwar Italy’s. When did Calvino meet the Argentine Esther Singer, whom we learn he marries on a trip to Cuba in 1964? How did his life intersect with the signal events of his time? Why did the Calvinos move to Paris? Why did they leave Paris for Rome? One feels justified in wondering these things without feeling the slightest bit prurient.

Wood says that the letters show us not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity,” and imbibe his faith in literature as “a tool of knowledge.” Calvino confesses to Guido Almansi in reference to Isaiah Berlin’s division of thinkers into foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing, that he is a fox: “I change my method and field of reference from book to book because I can never believe in the same thing two times running,” repeating that his approach to his own work is “always unsystematic, empirical,” and “proceeds by trial and error.” He was delighted, however, that Gore Vidal, writing in these pages in 1974, discerned a Platonic hedgehog lurking under his fox’s pelt. “Reading Calvino,” Vidal wrote, “I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written,” and that in his work “writer and reader become one, or One.”4

Still, a level of sardonic detachment, a dispassion, always preserves Calvino’s antisystemic approach to things:

It is clear to me more than before that imagining the world as “system,” as a negative, hostile system (a symptom that is typical of schizophrenia) prevents any opposition to it except in an irrational, self-destructive raptus; whereas it is a correct principle of method to deny that what one is fighting can be a system, in order to distinguish its components, contradictions, loopholes, and to defeat it bit by bit.

At heart he was an empiricist, who came to see knowledge as “successive approximations and corrections of mistakes.”

A man who defined himself as pessimistic and “laconic,” both “out of moral conviction” and because “I am continuing the heritage of my Ligurian ancestors, who are a people more contemptuous of effusiveness than any others,” Calvino also complained of being a “chronic depressive” and suffered from enduring periods of writer’s block. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Peter Schneider tells us that the writer admired the “intelligenza leggera,” the buoyant or light intelligence, of his friend the architect Renzo Piano, and “lightness” is the first of the qualities he extols in the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he had planned to deliver at Harvard before his death:

My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.5

For Calvino “perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape…the dense net of private and public constrictions that enfolds us.” The letters in this book deal with great subtlety, sophistication, and wit, and occasionally even a certain cynicism, with challenges that might have overburdened a less mercurial, multifarious, essentially sane spirit. In Il barone rampante (The Baron in the Trees, 1957), the book that arguably established Calvino’s fame, his twelve-year-old hero, the young Count Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, leaves his reactionary father’s table after refusing to eat snails, climbs into a tree in the family garden, and vows never to come down—and remains there until his death in his sixties. Cosimo has a full lifetime of adventures, amorous, intellectual, military, political—this is the Age of Enlightenment, after all—yet remains always literally in touch with the family garden.

Calvino calls him “a committed man…who takes a profound part in history and the development of society, but who knows he has to travel roads that are different from ones the others take.” Yet one is tempted to see Cosimo, and his creator, who after all was the son of gardeners, in another light. He ventured far, intellectually and artistically, but remained fundamentally rooted, loyal to a cultural and intellectual tradition that he playfully, exasperatedly, lovingly tested but did not feel the need—or is it the capacity?—to reject. Hence the geniality and melancholy charm of his work, the disarming buoyancy that enabled its creator to stay afloat on the turbulent seas of his era as few of his contemporaries managed to.

  1. 4

    The author is grateful to Domenico Scarpa for pointing this out, and for other trenchant contributions to this review. 

  2. 5

    Published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium, translated by Patrick Creagh (Harvard University Press, 1988). The other lectures were on “Quickness,” “Exactitude, “Visibility,” and “Multiplicity”; the sixth, “Consistency,” was never written. 

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