Italo Calvino: Letters 1941–1985
Italo Calvino, Michael Wood (editor), Martin McLaughlin (translator)
Princeton University Press, $39.50 (cloth)

Paul Valéry once said that whenever he opened a novel and found that it began with a standard formula such as “The Countess went out at five,” he immediately shut the book. There is much to be said for patient readers, and much for impatient ones; much to recommend time-honored tropes and traditions, and still more to recommend novelty and innovation.

Italo Calvino’s most famous novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), includes just such a formula in its title but does not begin with it. Its first lines are: “You’re beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Relax. Take it in. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” A few pages later the voice addressing you walks you back through how you came to find yourself in this position: “You went to the bookstore and bought it. You did the right thing.” This voice then turns back the clock still earlier, telling you of your past experience with books, of the other books in the bookstore and the many categories into which they fall, “Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to intimidate you,” and which are not to get you down because

you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written.

This voice soon returns you to your home—or, at least, a home—sees to it that you are—or a character with whom you are to identify is—comfortable and ready to begin doing what you have been doing: reading. “You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it at all.” After a moment of uncertainty, you are told that “you prefer it this way, encountering something and not yet quite knowing what it is.”

This is the first of many beginnings in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (whose working title was Incipit), some like “The Countess went out at five,” some utterly unlike it, and forming a whole much more than the sum of its strange parts. There is little chance that such a reader as Valéry would have closed the book, in no small part thanks to the atmosphere of conditionality, of potentiality, to be heard in its first short word.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is Calvino’s last novel, but it is not the beginning of Calvino’s curious beginnings or equally curious endings.

There is much that can be and much that has been said about the unusual forms and contents of Calvino’s stories and novels: that they are unlike anything that came before them; that they are too much like Borges and Kafka; that theory overtakes practice, intellect overwhelms feeling; that they have changed the way we read; that they spend too much time reminding us of what we knew from the beginning; that what feels like a world is really just words on a page. But whatever the reader might think of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler or The Cloven Viscount (1952), The Baron in the Trees (1957), or Invisible Cities (1972), “The Dinosaurs,” or “The Distance of the Moon,” one thing is certain: they are not Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To the Category of Books Read Before Being Written.

You bought Italo Calvino: Letters 1941–1985. You did the right thing.

Other People’s Books
In 1944 the twenty-year-old Calvino fled with his sixteen-year-old brother into the mountains above his native Liguria to fight the allied Nazi and Italian fascist forces. Their parents were taken hostage by the Germans.

Until his departure, Calvino had been studying, like his parents before him, agronomy. Upon his return from fighting, he promptly declared himself a writer and just as promptly became one. A novel drawing in part on his partisan experiences, The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947), was soon written, prominently published, and warmly received.

Calvino wrote to a friend, “We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write.”

In letters from this period, we watch the young Calvino find his voice, and then find that it was found too quickly. In a letter to Elsa Morante from 1950, the 27-year-old Calvino spoke of the difficulty of escaping from what he was already finding to be merely a “manner” of writing. After learning to write easily, he then learns to lose that ease, noting to Natalia Ginzburg later that same year, not without satisfaction, “Writing is very difficult, it really is not the joke it once seemed to me.” And here we find the seeds of what will most characterize Calvino’s oeuvre, what will make him famous and beloved, what will lead to his invitation to give—in the footsteps of T. S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges, Northrop Frye and Octavio Paz—the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, on which he was at work when he died in 1985 of a stroke.

All volumes of correspondence are not tragedies, but they all have tragic ends. None end in marriage; all end in death. And this end seems to come out of nowhere: abruptly, violently. This is because collections of letters follow not the graceful arcs of fiction, but the more irregular lines of life. In one sense this is as true of Italo Calvino: Letters 1941–1985 as of any other volume of correspondence.

And yet there is another sense in which it ends on a harmonious note. This is not because Calvino knew he would soon die—he did not—but because of a mixture of tone, topic, and addressee. The last of the 650 letters included in the volume selected and edited by Michael Wood (the Italian edition is three times as long and ends with a different, less resonant, letter) is written a few months before Calvino’s untimely death and is addressed to the great writer, and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi. It begins warmly, informally, and immediately plunges into a detailed discussion of the Italian expression leggere la vita, which literally means, “to read life” and figuratively means, “to read someone the riot act.” The two friends had been debating the origin of the phrase, which Levi used in his book L’altrui mestiere (1985). Levi thinks it is a deformation of “reading Leviticus,” with its many fiery prohibitions; Calvino thinks it a derivation from “reading of the Levites” and makes the case of their punishment complete with references to the Bible and Dante. Less important than the correct genealogy of the expression—then already falling out of use—is the emblematic note it strikes. Although Letters 1941–1985 contains few readings of riot acts, it does tell, first and foremost, of where a life of reading meets the reading of life.

Like many a famous letter writer—from Keats to Beckett, Leopardi to Proust—Calvino was a voracious reader. But unlike them, it was his job to read voraciously. He did this for the leftist publishing house Einaudi and, for a time, the communist newspaper L’Unità, founded by Antonio Gramsci. It was at Einaudi, after the war, that Calvino’s literary education—guided by Cesare Pavese—began in earnest and where he found himself irresistibly “attracted by another vegetation, that of the written page.”

In a letter from 1964, Calvino speculated, “Maybe diligence is my way of being passionate.” Whatever the truth of the passionate side of the statement, Calvino is nothing if not diligent in the many letters he wrote to writers. He noted to Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1973, “I spend twelve hours a day reading, on most days of the year,” and as the earlier letters make clear, these were not new hours he was keeping. As for what Calvino was reading and to whom he was writing about it, Pasolini and Levi are far from the only Italian writers of note with whom Calvino corresponded. There are few Italian writers of note in this period with whom he did not correspond, from Morante and Ginzburg to Umberto Eco and Leonardo Sciascia.

Nor did matters end there, as we find him exchanging letters with famous filmmakers such as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, with Finnish literature students, Italian schoolchildren, the Nobel Committee, and many others. A great many letters took the form of a reader’s report, tactfully telling the author what was liked and what wasn’t, what might be changed and what must be changed. In some cases Calvino’s notes offer fascinating insights on famous works, although there is often more behind-the-scenes editorial detail than the average reader is likely to find gripping. A few follow a listing rhythm that may recall reading Leviticus and do recall for the reader that Calvino is doing his job as diligently, if not always as passionately, as possible.

As Calvino rapidly attained national, and then international, fame, a new element was introduced. Requests and reviews flooded in, and Calvino dutifully responded. On occasion he read the riot act to someone bent on interpreting his work in one or another allegorical light, but these letters are reasoned, reasonable and, above all, rare. Many unsolicited submissions arrived, and not a few letters begin with something akin to “I have read the poetry of the Palestinian Resistance that you kindly sent me,” followed by comments and advice.

The chief effect of all this reading is the reversal of the equation usually found in the letters of a great writer, as we find Calvino far more often discuss the works of others than his own. In 1991 Einaudi published a collection of Calvino’s letters entitled I libri degli altri (Other People’s Books), a title whose origin lay in a self-portrait written eleven years earlier in which Calvino observed, “Working in a publishing house I have dedicated more time to other people’s books than my own,” to which he added, “I do not regret it.”

A Desk Like an Island
As in the Italian edition of Calvino’s letters—and in, to name another, and ongoing, example, the two volumes of Beckett’s letters thus far published—the criterion for a letter’s inclusion in this volume is its relevance to the author’s literary life. This means that the collection cannot serve as a biography, and does not chronicle the depth and breadth of a more or less adventurous life. While Calvino was in many respects a shy and retiring man, his life was rich in incident. He met Che Guevara in Cuba, fell in love with New York, was in Paris for May ’68. He married and had a daughter. And while each of these events finds its place in the letters, they are rarely placed center stage. Center stage is the desk Calvino once described as “a bit like an island.” We find no love letters and few that even vaguely treat personal matters.

Reading so much about what happens on the island of the desk and so little in the waters and worlds beyond it can be somewhat strange. Even a reader so close to Calvino’s concerns as Jonathan Galassi—writer, translator, and, as Calvino was, editor at a major publishing house—could express in The New York Review of Books a note of frustration at the reader’s being left in the dark about many capital events in the life of the writer: “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?” Galassi would have liked more editorial intervention on these points, and this is understandable.

The point lies less, however, in this editorial question than in the experience of reading correspondence confined to the literary. In 1959 Calvino wrote to a friend, “We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write,” and this seems to be an idea the volume takes almost literally. As Wood summarizes the matter in his exemplary introduction, “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.”

Communism, or What To Do?
While many of the dramas in Calvino’s life are not directly related in the letters, one is: communism. Calvino returned from the mountains, and the brutal fighting there, with the firm intention to become a writer. He also returned with an equally strong, if not equally durable, political conviction. “I’m a Communist, fully convinced and dedicated to my cause,” he declared in 1945. (Although not mentioned in the letters, it is interesting to note that Calvino’s first memory is of a socialist being beaten by fascists in 1926, when he was only three years old.)

Just as we see the beginning of this engagement, we also see its end—or its radical change—in the open letter from 1957 in which Calvino resigns from the Italian Communist Party for which he had so ardently worked and in which he had put so much faith. It is not faith in the founding ideas of the Party that Calvino lost. At issue were first and foremost the practical choices made by the Party. That said, there is also an artistic element that finds voice in this open letter of resignation as Calvino wrote of how he had “never believed that literature was that sad thing that many in the Party preached, and in fact the very poverty of Communism’s official literature acted as a spur to me to try to bring a touch of creative felicity to my work as a writer.”

Given that Calvino’s issue was with the Party rather than with communism, the movement’s guiding ideas remained dear to him. Not least among those ideas was “utility.” A young communist writer wants, of course, to be useful to the larger, and maximally urgent, cause, and so the reconciliation of freedom with duty is never without difficulty. It should then come as little surprise to find Calvino wrestling with what he calls in a letter from 1952 his “ideal” of writing “in equal measure and perhaps with equal ease ‘useful’ things and ‘amusing’ things.” (Here and in some other instances, I have slightly modified published English translations for purposes of accuracy.) Even when Calvino reached a place where he was, as he wrote in a letter from 1957, “less overawed by strictly political demands,” this question of utility remained.

Notes of hope and despair run like a musical theme throughout Calvino’s letters and the works written alongside.

It was, however, gradually recast, and can be seen not only in the works Calvino wrote during this period, but in his ongoing reading life, as where he will say in 1958 of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (1946) that it is “one of the very few works that are useful and necessary in this postwar period.” This is not because of any depiction of virtue or portrayal of the working class, or even because Calvino liked the work (he did not), but, simply, because in it “style and content have become one.” This higher utility of unifying style and matter, form and content, would become an increasingly powerful idea for Calvino. In 1958 he wrote, “I believe more and more firmly in the morality of style,” which morality he characterizes as “the total identification of content . . . with style.” This faith in art transcended individual political issues and guided his view of literature. Concerning his Baron in the Trees, for instance, Calvino emphasized that it is “not an allegorical story” and that “for me true poetic creations present a conception of life, but present it in a manner that cannot be defined in another manner than through those images, those incidents, those words.”

Such reflection on the rich particularity of literary language marks the long and fascinating road from Calvino’s first Communist declarations to his eventual position that “my way of taking part in political life” is “to write stories and . . . others can interpret them as they like.”

The Death—and Dotage—of the Author
It has often been noted that as the 20th century progressed, its literature—and its art more generally—became increasingly critical, which is to say interwoven with critical concerns and theoretical questions. It has also been often noted that Calvino’s particular case reflects this tendency with special clarity, that his fiction follows this same line—to the point of paroxysm in the most famous meta-novel of the century, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Writing in 1943, the eighteen-year-old Calvino found, “In my creative activity thought has taken the upper hand over imagination.” From this point forward Calvino would seek ever-new forms of balancing not only amusement with utility, but also criticism with creation. Three years later he wrote, “I already foresee the wrong novels I would write, because I also have critical ideas in my head, I’ve got a full theory of the perfect novel and that’s what gets in my way.”

This theoretical penchant does not recede in the works to come, but it does come to find a more comfortable home. In Calvino’s best writing, imagination is not in conflict with thought; it is one with it, just as style and matter, form and content, will become one in the literature he admires and defends. Asked in a 1980 interview about the open structure and the “more critical spirit” of contemporary writing, Calvino remarked, “Every work that contains within itself imitation, citation, or parody presupposes a choice, a reading, a criticism, the privileging of certain aspects, of certain lines encountering others, and is therefore a critical activity.” Discussing in 1984 a writer with whom he often found himself compared, and from whom he endeavored to separate himself in a number of his letters—Borges—Calvino traced a modern “idea of a literature as a world constructed and governed by the intellect” resulting in “a literature as the extraction of the square root of itself,” which he found in Borges and linked with the “potential literature” of Oulipian writers (of which he was one). These interwoven critical and creative energies form one of the chief dramas in the later stages of the correspondence, resulting in reflections that found rich, if incomplete, expression in the Norton Lectures, posthumously published as Six Memos for a New Millennium (1993).

Calvino’s interest in the potential of literature—and the “Workshop of Potential Literature” or Oulipo, which is, alas, rarely mentioned in the letters—extends in a host of directions, and one of the pleasures offered by Letters 1941–1985 lies in tracing that interest. It leads Calvino to engage intensely with the writings of Northrop Frye, particularly his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). It leads Calvino during his years in Paris to attend the lectures of Jacques Lacan, which he found were “of such difficulty that this mass attendance can only be explained in terms of a cult.”

You bought Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985. You did the right thing.

But most of all, this interest is expressed through an affinity felt with Roland Barthes, whom Calvino called in 1965 “the contemporary critic I admire the most” and whose epochal lectures he attended in Paris for years to follow. This led to one of the period’s more interesting crossings of creative and critical insights, as Calvino discussed a death of the author before Barthes ever employed the phrase. In a letter from 1967—a year before Barthes’s essay on “the death of the author”—Calvino wrote, “For the critic, the author does not exist, only a certain number of writings exist.”

These reflections are given something like a miniature manifesto in a remarkable letter from 1971. Calvino—after noting that “university theses on my work seem to me to be very dreary, giving me the impression that it is only the most clueless students and scholars who are interested in my modest output”—wrote, “The living author, I believe, can never be taken into consideration. To be able to study a writer, he must be dead, that is—if he is alive—he must be killed (or at least considered as being in his dotage).” This is something in l’air du temps, echoed and explored by a host of thinkers in the period—including other correspondents of Calvino’s, such as Eco—and admirably presented in Wood’s introduction. But what is of greatest interest is not only how close Calvino’s statements come to the so-celebrated ones of Barthes’s, but how radical his conclusions would become and how they informed not only his responses to requests for biographical information, but also such works as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, with its shifting forms and ungraspable author.

Not Inferno
This idea of the death—or dotage—of the author leads the reader of Calvino’s letters back to the beginning, to the reason for reading these letters in the fist place. In an early letter to Morante, Calvino wrote of “this world torn to pieces which is ours” where “the things to hold fast to are so very many and so deeply incommensurable.” The notes of hope and despair to be heard in this letter run like a musical theme throughout both Calvino’s correspondence and the works written alongside it. No more poignant expression of that theme is to be found than the speech that closes the work in which Calvino, by his own estimation, “said the most things”—Invisible Cities:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and study: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Marco Polo is speaking to the most powerful man in the world, and is speaking in fiction. But it is not difficult to link his urgency with that of his creator, or to link the cadences and ideas, the form and content, of such passages from Calvino’s fiction with those in his letters. The world is endlessly fascinating and varied. And yet it is no easy world to live in. It is no easy thing to see someone you treasure in such pain that he takes his own life, as happened with Calvino’s mentor Pavese, no easy thing to watch the political party in which you put such faith act so cravenly, no easy thing to answer the question that Primo Levi put at the outset of his first book, If This Is A Man (1947): how so many could act so cruelly.

No times are easy ones in which to live because no times are free from suffering, loss, and cruelty. You can find the world so torn to pieces that you turn away from it, becoming a hermit in Paris or elsewhere, just as you can throw yourself into its stream and be carried along by its current, oblivious to the harm done because you are one with it. Or you can try to do the thing that Calvino has his traveler designate as the most difficult and hazardous, to see your responsibility in seeking out and supporting those people and things in our torn-apart world that are not one with that tearing apart, that are not inferno, and dedicate to them your every effort. The choice is yours.