A Review of Italo Calvino’s Letters 1941–1985
Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2013/2014
Translated by Martin McLaughlin
Selected and introduced by Michael Wood
Although Italo Calvino was a deeply convicted artist and intellectual, he was not a man of great personal passions. His fiction, like that of his Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges, weaves dazzling conceptual fantasies that explore the mind and the universe and the written word in books that sometimes fall in on themselves to become their own central subject, but he leaves out all the lonely sadness of Borges—and foregoes altogether the fervor of his other, earlier master, Ernest Hemingway. He instead employs the cold codes of Hemingway as he plumbs the interior labyrinths of his imagined worlds and leaves blank the self-portrait that Borges suggested that his own creations outlined in intimate detail. Mirroring this aspect of his fiction, and in fact magnifying it, his personal and professional correspondence explores a world of art and ideas and politics almost entirely divorced from the human feelings that underlie them.
Selected by Calvino scholar Michael Wood from an Italian edition twice its size (which itself collects just a fraction of Calvino’s lifetime of correspondence), the English-language edition of Italo Calvino’s Letters 1941–1985 serves as a kind of intellectual and artistic biography of postwar Italy—of which Calvino was a prime representative—if not as a biography of Calvino himself. Translator Martin McLaughlin provides relentlessly informative notes to the letters, some of them translated from the original Italian edition and some of them his own work, tracking down in painstaking detail every political or artistic reference and noting the exact publication information of every book or article that Calvino discusses or refers to or is reacting to. It’s a seriously impressive piece of sleuthery, and it illuminates the texture of Calvino’s world almost as much as Calvino does with his own words.
Beginning when Calvino was eighteen and at college fearing conscription into Mussolini’s army, the letters follow him into hiding with the Resistance and then into a postwar environment in which he’s a devout Communist trying to keep his party relevant and still connected to the actual proletariat, a struggle that bitterly disappoints him as it increasingly fails. In tandem with his political involvement, Calvino’s literary career attempts to bridge two competing urges: the commitment to writing illustrative political works filled with types and goals and progress, and the overwhelming desire to follow his imagination into the ether. Ultimately, politics frustrate him and he quits the Communist Party in a drastic and unexpected letter that reads like the self-divestment of a priest stepping down from the church but still vowing utter faith to all of its fundamental tenets. His pen then largely unfettered by any programmatic fealty, his fiction takes off, and his letters document his evolving ideas and intentions and aesthetic interests.
Calvino was ever the public intellectual, however, and his correspondence records a mind still very much in thrall with the modish ideas of his time, and a great many of his letters read like incredibly tedious recitations of the latest theory or article of intellectual faith. Often new concepts will enter and inspire him, as when he applies semiotics to the universe for his Cosmicomics series of tales, but just as often he’s simply spinning his wheels. He also had to devote much of his energy to his job in publishing, and it’s both fascinating and depressing to see him expend so much attention on other people’s works and ideas and artistry.
Calvino’s interdisciplinary interests brought him in touch with some of the most cutting-edge creative minds of his time, including the filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paulo Pasolini and the composers Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio, even working on a collaboration with the latter composer. In fact, some of Calvino’s most captivating letters describe his reactions to some of these artist’s work, such as his intense dislike of Pasolini’s films, and one letter finds him riffing brilliantly on the theme of sounds and silence in battle after hearing the debut of Nono’s great A floresta é jovem e cheja de vita.
What’s disappointing is that these passages are the exceptions and not the rule. Calvino is not a writer who likes to regale his friends with his reactions to the wonders of his reading or listening or seeing, and when he occasionally reveals some of his vast erudition, it’s often surprising to see the names of authors and books come up, as if from hiding, when he’s never divulged any sort of initial revelation about having encountered them in the first place. These are simply not the letters of Keats or Kafka or Flannery O’Connor, where the reader takes a trip through the realms of gold with the author and marvels along with each new discovery. The personal element of these great letter-writers is entirely missing from Calvino’s correspondence too, with virtually no dramatis personae crowding in from either his or his correspondents’ lives. He only mentions his wife a handful of times, never telling the story of meeting her when he was in Cuba, and it’s nearly impossible to tell his correspondents apart from the way he writes to them. There’s no Kafka’s Felice or O’Connor’s “A” to be found anywhere in these letters. In the end, this volume will serve as a sourcebook for understanding Calvino’s works and days, and some of it is actually quite interesting and informative, but it will never count as having much intrinsic value as a collection itself.