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.)

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.