Italo Calvino – Letters, 1941-1985
Selected with an Introduction by Michael Wood
Translated by Michael McLaughlin
Princeton University Press – £27.95
Born in Cuba in 1923, most people think of Italo Calvino as Italian, which I guess he fundamentally was. So much so, that during the spring of 1944, his own mother Eva (Mameli) encouraged him and his brother to enter the Italian Resistance in the name of “natural justice and family virtues”.
Using the battle-name of ‘Santiago,’ Calvino was to join the Garibaldi Brigades, a clandestine Communist association, with whom for the best part of two years, he endured fierce fighting in the Alps until such time as the Liberation in 1945.
Other than having a profound influence on his writing, his refusal to be a conscript, resulted in both his parents being held hostage by the Nazis for an extended period at the Villa Meridiana; which, in later life, initiated much of Calvino’s literary thinking. He was to write of his mother’s ordeal, where he once remarked that “she was an example of tenacity and courage; behaving with dignity and firmness before the SS and the Fascist militia. In her long detention as a hostage, not least when the blackshirts three times pretended to shoot my father in front of her eyes. The historical events which mothers take part in acquire the greatness and invincibility of natural phenomena.”
It should come as no surprise therefore, that all of the above is, in some form or another, touched upon amid this absolutely marvelous, eye-opener of book, Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985.
Translated by Michael McLaughlin and selected by Michael Wood – who, in his Introduction, writes: ”Calvino was […] inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires” – this first collection in English, really does give great voice as well as witness, to one of Italy’s most relentlessly and engaging of literary, political thinkers.
From the deft, sincere lightness of touch of the very first letter (addressed to Eugenio Scalfari in 1941), it’s understandable, easy to ascertain just what it is, that continues to be so devastatingly vital about Calvino’s writing: ”Italocalvino, as diaphanous and silent as a specter, places himself at the young man’s pillow, barely manages to restrain the temptation to caress his dark, wavy hair, and with a solemn gesture points an accusing finger at him, calling out in a guttural voice: ”Eugenio!” The young man, interrupted right in the middle of an erotic dream, yawns, rubs his eyes and, thinking it’s the maid that’s wakening him, stretches out a hand to touch her breasts. But instead of the maid’s breasts what he touches is the accusing (and rather dirty) finger of Italocalvino who with an even more solemn voice continues: ‘Eugenio! What has become of you?”
Such writing is as inexorably endearing, as it is enduring.
Yet equally, it’s as direct as it may to some, seem didactic. The following letter sent to Silvio Micheli-Viareggio in 1946, which touches on the curse as well as the all round approach to and execution of the actual writing, makes abundantly clear (well to me at least): ”I’ve got to write articles which really kills me. They want articles all over the place and I write them because it takes half an hour to write an article. To write an article not to do an article. To do an article you have to read books, find ideas, roll up your sleeves. In addition I’m the kind of guy who goes from the maximum of superficiality to the maximum of fussiness in a trice. For instance, I want to cite a certain name in a particular sentence in a particular article. Let’s say: Chesterton. Because it sounds good at that point. Chesterton and an adjective. ”Olympian like Chesterton.” Or ”tormented like Chesterton.” But I’ve never read a line of Chesterton: I don’t know whether he’s Olympian or tormented, whether he has anything to do with what I’m writing. So what do I do? I roll up my sleeves and start looking until I find Chesterton’s works. And I read them. All Chesterton’s works […]. And everything that’s been written about Chesterton. And I read them too. So I can write in that particular sentence: ”Olympian or tormented or cataleptic or schizophrenic… like Chesterton.” That’s it. Meantime two weeks have gone by for three words.”
I know and relate to the feeling all too well…
Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, takes the reader on a journey that only be described as adventurous and kaleidoscopic, cryptic yet defiantly sincere. There really isn’t a dull moment amid its entire 534 pages. It’s exactly as Robert S. C. Gordon at the University of Cambridge has written: ”Italo Calvino was one of the most sparkling literary inventors and innovators of the twentieth century. He was also a highly astute mediator of the work of others and a pellucid purveyor of a subtly elaborated idea of literature. To have a generous selection of his letters in English, translated with great verve, represents a major addition to our knowledge of his work, offering countless precious glimpses of the gears and levers that operate the ‘literature machine.”