The letters of Italo Calvino? Surely not, we might think, given this writer’s famous guardedness and privacy, his distrust of the biographical, of the cult of the individual writer as opposed to the collective enterprise. As he says in a 1968 letter to a correspondent suggesting a monograph: “I’m afraid I don’t think I really have a life on which something can be written. All I have is a series of works that form part of a general context of literary works . . .”. Asked in another letter whether he thinks that writers should be interviewed, he answers unhesitatingly: “No, I believe that there must be no interview.” To focus on the physical being who happened to be the writer would be “the death knell for literature as a relationship between a written text and its reader”.
He took a cavalier view of his own autobiography, even to the extent – as Michael Wood points out in his introduction to this fascinating collection of his letters – of concealing his Cuban birthplace because the falsehood "born in San Remo" said more about him as a writer.
His “geographical instability”, he said once, “makes me forever long for somewhere else”. In the same piece he said that “equilibrium and unbalance mutually correct each other’s excesses”. It’s a nice image – the mind poised between evenness and excess – and it’s a clue to the nature of Calvino’s sensibility. Born of scientist parents, he retained a kind of forensic exactitude that made even the most fantastic creations work like precision instruments. Think of those early fables where he began to find himself as a writer, pushing beyond the limits of the realism he had begun with: the viscount cloven in two so that two different versions of himself return from the war; the baron who takes to the trees and discovers a Utopian philosophy; the nonexistent knight pulling up his visor to demonstrate his nothingness to Charlemagne.
Drawing on folk tale and his own fierce and purposeful playfulness, Calvino created a body of work that is one of the great modernist triumphs of the last century. Writing of Borges in a late essay, he noted that the major reason for his affinity with the Argentinian master was "an idea of literature as a world constructed and governed by the intellect", and "inhabited by a constellation of signs that obey a rigorous geometry". One of his heroes was the Catalan monk Ramon Llull who invented various machines to demonstrate that all knowledge consisted of a limited set of truths and the key to understanding was the combination of these truths. Calvino's art was also an ars combinatoria, gathering, collecting, refining, building elaborate fictive designs to hold his creations.
Living for literature
The same playfulness, obsessiveness, inventiveness and huge energy sparkle in the letters and draw us into the daily round of Calvino's concerns. We've always known that he was a brilliant essayist, and in the same way the very essay-like letters make clear that above all else Calvino lived for literature, "the thing I believe in most". A great deal of them are to writers: friends and mentors such as Elio Vittorini (author of Conversations in Sicily) or Cesare Pavese; young writers whose manuscripts he is reading for his work with the publisher Einaudi, such as Leonardo Sciascia, whose novels we see him discovering; writers such as Primo Levi, Franco Fortini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Umberto Eco, Amelia Rosselli or the film-maker Antonioni whom he advises on the script that would become Blow-Up. Often he's less than completely impressed and many of the letters have a gently headmasterly tone combining mild disappointment with encouragement.
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.