Italo Calvino, Letters 1941-1985, selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin.
A vastly entertaining collection, meticulously edited and annotated
Italo Calvino, Letters 1941-1985. Selected and with an Introduction by Michael Wood. Translated by Martin McLaughlin
Princeton University Press
He writes energetically and often playfully about what he’s reading – and he reads voraciously; about other writers, the effect of Cesare Pavese’s suicide on him, his relationship to the struggle of the postwar working classes. The early letters remind us of the social and political context, which might surprise readers of the fabulist narratives. He was an anti-fascist partisan, a member of the Communist party who resigned after the invasion of Hungary (his resignation letter to the party is included here) yet never became an “ex-communist” or an anti-communist and remained critical of the tyranny of market capitalism. We see him working out his position here in long and detailed letters, some of which were published in newspapers or journals.
What’s remarkable is the intellectual rigour throughout; not an ill-considered sentence to be seen, his full attention keenly engaged by the subject at hand. In one letter responding to queries about his work, he suddenly realises he has given the whole morning to the task and stops abruptly. He defends his own work – on one occasion from readers who accuse him of having blackberries ripen out of season (his botanist mother often chides him when she spots a botanical error) – sometimes judges his own work harshly, confidently announcing to Franco Fortini that writers such as “Cocteau, Thomas Mann, me, you” who “plunge into the inferno of the exchangeability of styles will leave no trace in future centuries”.
Much is business correspondence, typed on the publisher Einaudi’s headed paper, despatches to hopeful or disgruntled writers (“Dear Fortini, I have been asked to write to you because you are complaining to us that Asia maggiore did not get the treatment it deserved. . .”); detailed responses to manuscripts and articles. We realise the extent to which Calvino was a tireless activist in what he calls “the renewal of the Italian cultural climate”, one engine of which was translation.
There’s also a strong sense of Calvino as a political animal, writing to the editor of Il Giorno about the abuse of long-haired students or expressing his hatred of war and always siding with the oppressed. And we learn something of his own working methods. A letter to the scriptwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico reveals that the miraculous Invisible Cities – as much a collection of poems as a novel – began as a project to write a script on Marco Polo. He tells her that he had to read Marco Polo’s travels over and over “in order to absorb the visionary charge that is the book’s secret”. The same could be said of his own books: the visionary charge they harbour is what draws us back to them again and again. The miracle is that in addition to an astonishing body of work he found time to pour so much of himself into his letters. This is a vastly entertaining collection, meticulously edited and annotated by Michael Wood and richly alive in Martin McLaughlin’s English. What it amounts to is something Calvino might have approved of; the autobiography of a mind.
Peter Sirr a poet and freelance writer. His most recent collection is The Thing Is (Gallery Press, 2009). He is guest translator in the M Phil in Literary Translation, Trinity College Dublin.