More Ideas, Less Personality

Italo Calvino: Master of his craft 

Replying to a biographer in 1968, Italo Calvino remarked: “I’m afraid I don’t think I really have a life on which something can be written.” Two years earlier (anticipating Roland Barthes by a year), Calvino had given a polemical lecture, Cybernetics and Ghosts, in which he insisted on the death of the author, on the irrelevance of biography to critical engagement with literary work. This edited edition of his letters, about one third of the total collated by Luca Baranelli in the Lettere (2000), reinforces Calvino’s scrupulous personal adherence to this principle in that details of his life as partisan, Communist and ex-Communist, scholar, publisher and traveller are wilfully, and sometimes frustratingly, absent. Ideas are what concern Calvino, and to read his letters is to apprehend the extent to which lucid and purposeful discussion of the craft of literature has been superseded by the “personality cult” of the author which Calvino himself so despised.

From the enraptured confidence of the student correspondence, each letter an intoxicated shore leave before another plunge into the ocean of culture, to the last in this volume, written to Primo Levi in 1985 and featuring a discussion of Leviticus, Dante and the physicist Erwin Schrodinger, the urgency of Calvino’s intellectual inquiry never abates. Perhaps it is only possible to derive some sense of the man within the writer by tracing these currents of thought back and forth across the years. Thus the early Calvino is possessed by artistic ambition, yet fearful of his own inability to realise it, that he might remain “only one of those people” who are goaded by literary urges without ever being able to fulfil them, while his later acute grief at the suicide of his friend Cesare Pavese is coloured by his own experience of the depression of the writer who sees his work unachieved.

Calvino has that innate Italian ability to make an English reader feel pathetically uncool — so effortlessly multilingual, so imbued with stylish sprezzatura, so it’s reassuring that the fearless dexterity of his intellectual juggling sometimes gets the better of him. One wonders what Pier Paolo Pasolini made of this particular critique: “You people are bringing back into fashion a taste for difficult writing which is not the evanescent taste of the Hermetics because there is in fact an effort to be precise, but behind it lies a Contini-style university game of Germanic origin.” Yet elsewhere he is keen to parody his own earnestness, presenting himself as a literary acolyte draping garlands on works such as I Love the Tripartite Pact More Than My Aunt!. Initially a committed Communist, Calvino was never blind to the dreariness of proscriptive literature-“a witty Communist is . . . a rare thing” — and though he resigned from the Party in 1957, he continued to define himself as a “militant intellectual”, a stance which evolves with wry sincerity throughout the letters. “The worse things get in the world, the better one writes. Hurrah!” he advises one correspondent, before adding gleefully that he means only that there will be nothing else to do but write: “Literature is dead.”

The editor of this selection might have considered that readers might not be necessarily au fait with the personalities of the mid-century Italian publishing world and provided a summary, both of the people to whom Calvino is writing, to prevent constant recourse to the end notes, and of his activities during the five-year blocks into which the letters are divided.

Calvino does break his own biographical rule to comment on the events of the student revolt in Paris in 1968, but it is difficult for the reader to work out from the letters alone why he was living there in the first place. Craft, and only craft, is Calvino’s concern, but impressions of his nonexistent life can sometimes be teased out. He writes nothing directly here of his experiences during the Second World War, but much later, in 1966, observes: “The whole life of a partisan is lived through an amplification of sound, a detailed recognition of noises and silences, especially at night and in ambushes and reprisals.” Suddenly his intense concern with acoustics in his own work, prefigured by a discussion on silence with Antonioni, achieves biographical resonance.  

Nonetheless, readers looking to bask juicily in tidbits of literary dolce vita should avoid Calvino’s letters. Beyond the weary editor dealing with the perennial whingeing of authors over the treatment of their books, there is nothing to see here beyond the life of their writer’s mind. Yet for lovers of Calvino’s work the voyage through that mind is both challenging and deeply rewarding. To his French editor in 1961 Calvino indulges in a bit of authorial angst of his own: regarding the translation of The Non-Existent Knight he complains that the translator has used irréel (unreal) as opposed to n’existe pas (non-existent). “I never say that the knight is unreal. I say that he does not exist. That is very different.” To consider Calvino’s meticulously calibrated opinions on his own imaginative universe is to be reminded of his own maxim, that fidelity to the literal (or the biographical) “can sometimes turn out to the detriment of a more profound fidelity

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