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On “Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985”

29 Aug

Edited and introduced by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin, and published by Princeton University Press. Make sure to grab a copy.

The bizarre thing about reading other people’s letters, is you get to thinking that they’re writing letters to you… Then you start developing some kind of strange celebrity obsession with those people, maybe more like an infatuation, or maybe like True Love. Not saying that happened to me or anything! But with Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, it’s hard not to fall in love (or fall in respect, whatever) with this magnificent writer, Italy’s premier postmodern author, and one of my personal favorites.

I almost fainted when I was contacted by Princeton University Press to do a review on this collection–the first collection in English, and translated by the wonderful Martin McLaughlin–and when it came in the mail a few days ago, I almost fainted again. It’s a hefty book: 640 pages (534 are his letters) of content and end notes, plus a wonderful introduction by editor Michael Wood. There’s something weighty, too, about reading one of your favorite author’s personal correspondences. It’s at once the guiltiest read, the most pleasurable voyeurism, and the highest praise (aside from imitation, of course). Reading Calvino’s letters humanizes him (he gets excited about buying a new pen!) and deifies him:

“The poet turns in on himself, tries to pin down what he has seen and felt, then pulls it out so that others can understand it.” (May 11, 1942)

Calvino wrote this in a letter to his peer, Eugenio Scalfari … when Calvino was a 19-year-old school boy. This is not a new concept. Calvino wasn’t coining anything profound here. But the confidence and grace and terseness with which he writes as a teenager (as well as the reader’s gift of hindsight) augurs his rise to literary stardom.

In another life, Tony Danza plays Calvino in the biopic directed by William Dear.... *shudder*

In another life, Tony Danza portrays Calvino in the biopic (but the later years are played by Rowan Atkinson) and it will be directed by William Dear… *shudder*

Wood captures the letters that map out Calvino’s political life, from his school days writing articles for L’Unita, through his fervent Communism, into his nearly ex-patriot days of his seniority. I’m not really a political person (what does that even mean???), and this type of sincere Communism–the purer, Marxist Communism–is of another time. Instead, the beginning of his life inspires me to get published. The middle of his life inspires me to resign from the Italian Communist Party. The close of his life inspires me to return to academia for a master’s in comparative literature (and because I’m not comfortable with how small my debt to the US government is).

The collection begins with a romping, joshing letter to his friend Eugenio Scalfari, dated December 16, 1941, in which Calvino pretends himself to be an angel and cajoles Eugenio into visiting him in San Remo, and it ends by citing Erwin Schrodinger in a letter to Primo Levi, dated April 30, 1985. The citation was from one of Schrodinger’s lectures in which he “anticipated the concept of ‘genetic code,’ seeing it as analogous to Morse code.” So appropriate from the man who wrote in one letter, “I see art as communication.” He tackles theater (“Then there’s Chekhov. You say he’s not relevant and I get mad.”); film (“I’m for Federico.“); and, of course, politics. But I came for the insights into his own writing and his literary criticism. I didn’t realize I was coming to the snail-mail version of demolition derby. Calvino knows how to dish it out, and not even (or maybe especially) his closest friends are exempt from his harsh feedback. I can only imagine that if he were some liberal arts school’s creative writing instructive, he’d have everyone either pissing themselves or sobbing. What this collection shows, though, is whether through his now-classic fiction or his letters to friends and colleagues, Calvino valued the conveying of information, with beauty and brevity, above all else.

He was born in Cuba, but he claimed he was from San Remo. And he was. His hand motion in this picture proves how Italian he is.

He was born in Cuba, but he claimed he was from San Remo. And he was. His hand motion in this picture proves how Italian he is.

After the war, Calvino jumped into his long career as an editor. He immersed himself in his work, fearful (as many writers are) of the “immaculate sheets of paper” waiting for him at his own desk. In fact, Calvino would go for long stretches without writing and didn’t even want to write novels in the first place. He was fond of short stories. He thought them neat and square–every letter and element absolutely necessary to the coherence of the piece.

“My stories are full of facts, they have a beginning and an end. For that reason they will never be able to find success with the critics, nor occupy a place in contemporary literature.” (May 10, 1942)

Yet his novels sold. And his novels made him the preeminent writer of Italy and the champion of the fabulist genre. In many letters, Calvino describes how difficult the writing process is for him. He tries to avoid it at every step. Maybe his letter to writer Raffaello Brignetti gives us a hint as to why:

“It is impossible to write about anything except what one has lived through for years and years and which far from amusing and interesting us has bored us and made us suffer.” (June 11, 1953)

It turns out Calvino just writes about boring, painful things. How, then, does he produce such beautiful prose, and more so such singular narratives? You will need to purchase his Letters to find out for yourself, and then purchase all of his works, and then read some biographies, and maybe you’ll get some hints, but for now, here are a few other excerpts on his process.

“For me … writing has always meant setting out in one direciton, staking everything on one card, yet with the awarenses that there are others, the awareness of risk and of not being able to exhaust all I have to say.” (March 2, 1950)

“In short, what I tend toward, the only thing I would like to be able to teach is a way of looking, in other words a way of being in the world. In the end literature cannot teach anything else.” (December 10, 1960)

“It is no accident that I’ve gone to live in a big city where I know nobody and no one knows I exist. In this way I have been able to realize a kind of existence which was at least one of the many existences I had always dreamt of: I spend twelve hours a day reading, on most days of the year.” (February 7, 1973)

Maybe this last quote is his true secret: Calvino developed a style and structure different from anyone else, and yet above all he was a reader. So read on, all you hopeful authors! Read everything by everyone from everywhere, and maybe one day Princeton will collect your letters. (After all, do authors write letters any more? What will the editors collect from this generation? Neil Gaiman tweets? Don DeLillo’s emails, collected and introduced by the NSA?)

Famous New York Books contributor David Levine published this depiction of Calvino on June 25, 1981.

Famous “New York Review of Books” illustrator David Levine published this depiction of Calvino on June 25, 1981.

For more reading of Calvino’s outright brilliance, check out this “Paris Review” article and interview from William Weaver, probably the most well-known English translator of Calvino’s works, and Damian Pettigrew, the Canadian filmmaker, author, and artist.

Writers write what they can. The act of writing is a function that becomes effective only if it allows one to express one’s inner self. A writer feels several kinds of constraints—literary constraints such as the number of lines in a sonnet or the rules of classical tragedy. These are part of the structure of the work within which the personality of the writer is free to express itself. But then there are social constraints such as religious, ethical, philosophical, and political duties. These cannot be imposed directly on the work but must be filtered through the writer’s inner self. Only if they are part of the innermost personality of the writer can they find their place in the work without suffocating it.

Happy reading, everyone!

"Escher vibed Italo Calvino" from Debut Art.

“Escher vibed Italo Calvino” from Debut Art.