Review: Rita Wilsonon Italo Calvino

‘He must be killed’: Italo Calvino Letters

On 7 March 1942, writing from university to his best friend Eugenio Scalfari, future founder of the influential daily La Repubblica,  a young Italo Calvino affirmed the pleasure of writing letters:

A fine thing it is to have a distant friend who writes long letters full of drivel and to be able to reply to him with equally lengthy letters full of drivel; fine not because I like to plunge into captious polemics nor because I enjoy getting certain ideas into the head of some idiot from the Urbe, but because writing long letters to friends means having a moral excuse for not studying.

Consistent with his firm belief in ‘literature as dialog’, Calvino was a prolific letter writer throughout his life. As he wrote in May 1972 to the literary critic Giuseppe Bonura: ‘Literature – even though people usually study it author by author – is always a dialog amongst many voices which intersect and reply to each other within literature and outside it.’

The letters in this collection, edited and introduced by Michael Wood, are, to a large extent, interesting for this very reason. Not only do they encapsulate and make palpable Calvino’s lifelong interest in writing as, fundamentally, dialog; they also show how integral this interest was to his motivation to write. As early as May 1959, meditating on why writers write, Calvino was addressing the profound and unshakable sense of purpose that marks the difference between a profession and a vocation:

We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write, otherwise we don’t exist at all. Even if we did not have a single reader any more, we would have to write; and this not because ours can be a solitary job, on the contrary it is a dialog we take part in when we write, a common discourse, but this dialog can still always be supposed to be taking place with authors of the past, with authors we love and whose discourse we are forcing ourselves to develop, or else with those still to come, those we want through our writing to configure in one particular way rather than another.

Editing a lifetime’s letters is no easy undertaking. Michael Wood, who selected the letters for the English edition of Italo Calvino Letters, 1941-1985, was spared the Herculean labour of collecting them. This was carried out by Luca Baranelli, the editor of the original Italian edition, Lettere (1940-1985), published in the prestigious Meridani series by Mondadori in September 2000. The hefty Italian volume (over 1600 pages) contains an erudite introduction by Claudio Milanini, who charts the various stages of the correspondence, and notes that the letters fall into three categories: ‘lettere-saggio’ (essay letters), ‘lettere-cantiere’ (business letters) and ‘lettere che sollecitano altre lettere’ (letters that stimulate other letters). Milanini further asserts that the letters convey the writer’s ‘true passion’: not only the ‘passion for literature’ – which, in a letter from 1964 to Franco Lucentini, Calvino speculates is manifested by his ‘diligence’ – but ‘a passion for living that enables us to break free from the intellectual and moral shabbiness that, all too often, confines us’.

The large number of letters in the collection make the editor’s function as epistolary ring-master even more important, and both Baranelli and Wood are careful to give due weight to ‘big name’ interlocutors (such as Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Umberto Eco, Leonardo Sciascia, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, to name only a few), without overlooking the numerous minor figures who have no other literary memorial.

Apart from the fact that the English edition contains ‘a little less than one third’ of the letters in Baranelli’s edition, the main difference between the two editions is that Wood has chosen to ‘retain letters that have an international dimension’ over those that have an ‘Italian dimension’, presumably in order to appeal to a wider readership. A less obvious, but nevertheless significant, point of difference is the approach taken to providing explanatory notes. Given that usually we have only Calvino’s half of his various correspondences, it is not always easy to follow his allusive or condensed references. Baranelli opts to follow the example set by Calvino when he curated the letters of Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese, limiting the notes to those offering an ‘essential service to the reader’ – that is, providing ‘brief factual information’ and ‘basic bibliographic details’ for literary citations. In the English edition, Michael Wood provides a perceptive introduction that situates his selection in the larger context of Calvino’s life and work. The translation of the letters is by Martin McLaughlin, who is also responsible for the additional notes, supplied ‘in order to assist the non-Italian reader with certain names and events that need no explanation to an Italian reader but do require one for the Anglophone reader’.

In both editions, the criterion for a letter’s inclusion in the volume is its relevance to the author’s literary life. Baraldi is hopeful that the Italian edition of the letters will provide ‘primary material for an intellectual biography’, while Wood emphasises that the focus is on the writer’s work and not on private matters: ‘We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.’ As a result of this editorial decision, we see Calvino negotiating with publishers, correcting proofs, exchanging ideas with colleagues, providing detailed critiques of manuscripts. Some letters are effectively stand-alone critical essays. This is the ‘professional’ Calvino. Then there is the ‘pastoral’ Calvino: the sage giving encouragement and insight to struggling fellow writers. There is no ‘personal’ Calvino: not one of the 300 letters he wrote to actress Elsa De Giorgi, during their passionate three year affair in the 1950s, finds its way into this collection. Nor is his historic meeting with Che Guevara, around the same time as his wedding to Argentinian translator Esther Singer in 1964, mentioned at all.

We do catch some glimpses of the genial individual in his lively conversational writing style, particularly in the early letters. In May 1942, he writes to Eugenio Scalfari:

I’m a regular guy, I like well-defined outlines, I’m old-fashioned, bourgeois. 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.

Actually, Calvino was anything but a ‘regular guy’ and his prediction about his place in contemporary literature is clearly wide of the mark. Born in Cuba, he grew up in northern Italy. His parents were both scientists: his father was an agronomist and his mother a botanist. This may explain Calvino’s tendency, as seen in many of these letters, to instruct his critics rather scientifically. There are numerous instances where he advocates the use of logic, critical analysis and method – an empirical approach to reading. Phrases such as ‘ought to be analyzed with precision’, ‘say things that are true and precise’ and ‘a rigorous application of a method of research’ abound.

The young Italo went to school in the seaside town of San Remo, where his father directed an experimental floriculture station, and spent his vacations at the family’s country house in the hills.  When the Germans occupied northern Italy during World War II, Calvino (at the time enrolled in the agriculture department of the University of Turin) and his sixteen-year-old brother evaded the Fascist draft and joined the partisans. After the war, he resumed his university studies, transferring from agriculture to literature, and began writing, throwing himself into literature with a passion that was, as Milanini notes, astounding for a man his age.

Calvino entered his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno – The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (1947) – in a contest sponsored by the Milanese publishing firm Mondadori. The novel did not place in the competition, but Cesare Pavese passed it on to the Turin publisher Giulio Einaudi, who accepted it, founding a professional relationship with Calvino that would continue throughout most of his life and is well documented in the letters. Indeed, much of the collection is business correspondence: 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 . . .’) and detailed responses to manuscripts and articles. Both editors comment on the profusion of letters related to editorial matters, and Baranelli rather plaintively adds that not only did he need to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of business letters, but he also needed to avoid selecting those that had already been included in Einaudi’s 1991 collection of Calvino’s letters, I libri degli altriOther People’s Books – a title whose origin lay in a ‘casual, generous remark’ in which Calvino observed: ‘Working in a publishing house I have dedicated more time to other people’s books than my own. I do not regret it.’

In the post-war period, the Italian literary world was deeply committed to politics, and Turin, an industrial capital, was a focal point. Calvino joined the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and reported on the Fiat company for the party’s daily newspaper. When Hungary was invaded by the Soviet Union, Calvino decided to resign from the PCI. In his 1957 open letter of resignation, he makes it clear that he is not resigning because he has lost faith in the founding ideas of the Party; rather, he could not condone its practical choices. He believed it needed a ‘serious change of course’ in order to save itself. The letter also contains an important artistic proclamation: ‘I never believed that literature was that sad thing that many in the Party preached, and in fact the very poverty of Communism’s official literature acted as a spur to me to try to bring a touch of creative felicity to my work as a writer.’

Nonetheless, the communist movement’s guiding ideas remained dear to him. Not least among those ideas was ‘utility’, and this desire to be useful to the larger cause finds him, in June 1952,  writing ‘short stories along the lines of certain others I’ve written previously, grotesque, anti-militarist tales, which is the vein that is easiest for writing “useful” stories’.

But reconciling freedom with duty is never easy and it comes as little surprise to find Calvino, as he writes to the critic Carlo Salinari a few months later, grappling with what he calls his ‘ideal’ of writing: ‘my ideal would be to manage to write in equal measure, and ideally with equal facility “useful” things and “amusing” things.’ In subsequent years he turned his attention to the higher utility of unifying style and matter, form and content. In October 1958, he wrote to the poet and critic Franco Fortini: ‘I believe more and more firmly in the morality of style: in the total identification of content (of the truth of the individual) with style.’ This faith in art transcended individual political issues and informed his steadfast view that ‘true poetic creations present a conception of life, but present it in a manner that cannot be defined in another manner than through those images, those incidents, those words.’ Such reflections on the particularity of literary language mark the beginning the long, intriguing journey from Calvino’s early neo-realist declarations to his eventual position that ‘my way of taking part in political life’ is ‘to write stories and … others can interpret them as they like.’

Calvino’s interest in the potential of literature extends in many directions, and one of the pleasures offered by Letters 1941–1985 lies in tracing that interest. Calvino moved his family to Paris in 1967 at the height of post-structuralist fervour. During his years in Paris, he became a member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or ‘Workshop of Potential Literature’), which included writers such as Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau. He also attended the lectures of Roland Barthes – who, as Calvino wrote in 1965, was ‘the contemporary critic I admire most’ – and the lectures of Jacques Lacan, which he found were ‘of such difficulty that this mass attendance can only be explained in terms of a cult’.

In several letters from this period, he makes clear his opinions on the relation between the author, the work, and the reader: ‘For the critic,’ he writes in November of 1967 to would-be interviewer Maria Pia Ghiandoni, ‘the author does not exist, only a certain number of writings exist.’ He then proceeds to question the point of interviewing an author at all:

What use is it to the critic (you in this case) if the author issues judgments or statements regarding his own works? The critic cannot take as reliable anything the author writes; so this new declaration would have to be subjected to criticism. But if the critic is not sure of his critical tools, he will go back again to the author to ask for further clarification; the author will reply, the critic will have to criticize these new replies, and so on ad infinitum.

These considerations – shared by a number of his correspondents, including Umberto Eco – are developed into a kind of manifesto in a letter from 1971. In response to a request for an interview by Paolo Valesio on behalf of one of his graduate students at Harvard, Calvino notes that ‘university theses on my work seem to me to be very dreary, giving me the impression that it is only the most clueless students and scholars who are interested in my modest output’. He then writes:

The living author, I believe, can never be taken into consideration. To be able to study a writer, he must be dead, that is – if he is alive – he must be killed (or at least considered as being in his dotage).

It interesting to see how closely Calvino’s statements come to Barthes’s more celebrated ones, but even more interesting to see how Calvino’s correspondence plays double mirror to his literary work, most notably If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979), reflecting its reflections and resulting in deliberations that were to find powerful, if incomplete, expression in the Harvard Norton Lectures, which he was working on just before his sudden death from a stroke in 1985 and which were posthumously published as Six Memos for a New Millennium (1993).

What this collection most clearly documents is Calvino’s tireless activism in the service of ‘the renewal of the Italian cultural climate’. In the letter he wrote to the influential Marxist literary magazine Il Contemporaneo in 1956, for example, he acerbically critiques the way it fails to keep up with contemporary Italian literature:

Some months ago one of the most important events in Italian postwar literature took place, easily the most important event in the area of poetry: the publication … of Pasolini’s poem Le ceneri di Gramsci (The Ashes of Gramsci). This was the first time for who knows how many years that a large-scale poetic work had articulated, with extraordinary success both in content and form, a conflict of ideas, a set of cultural and ethical problems that a socialist view of the world has to face. Il Contemporaneo did not mention it.

Yet, despite his continuing activism and his participation in various forms of public intellectual debate, Calvino remained largely uncomfortable with the ‘public figure of the writer’. In a 1968 letter to John Woodhouse, who had just published a scholarly study of the trilogy I nostri antenati – Our Ancestors (1952-59) – he remarks:

the writer-character, the ‘personality-cult’ of the author, are all becoming for me more and more intolerable in others, and consequently in myself. In short, if a critic writes about a problem and makes reference to one (or more) of my works in relation to that problem, this gives me the sense that my work is not pointless. Whereas the prospect of my bust crowned with laurel appearing along with the other busts in the hall of famous writers gives me no joy at all.

What does seem to give him joy is taking part in the ‘collective enterprise’ of writing. In a letter from 1982, Calvino recalls how, after the war, when his literary education began in earnest at Einaudi, ‘there was more belief that there was a collective job to be done’, that one had ‘a duty towards the author as well as towards the readers’. It is worth noting that Calvino’s early mentors, Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese, by then established authors, were two of Einaudi’s most tireless translators. Without their example, Calvino might never have compiled his Italian Folktales (1956), a massive project which required much translation from vernacular and medieval Italian into modern Italian. He also worked closely with Einaudi’s other translators, editing their work, encouraging them, debating their choices. In fact, Calvino recognised that translation was a major engine in the renewal of the post-war Italian canon. He was cognisant of the way translated works could expand the boundaries of literary practice in Italian. As he wrote to Franco Fortini in 1971, following Fortini’s recent translation of Goethe’s epic poem:

Amongst the positive experiences of the last few months, I have to include the fact that Faust has become – thanks to the spirit of your ‘translation’ – one of my ‘models’, as a work that contains all the dimensions we need. It is at once the establishing of a universe, an evocation of new values, and at the same time a form of game.

He was also conscious of the need ‘for critics to enter into the merits of a particular translation’. In an open letter to the journal Paragone (1963) entitled ‘On Translation’, he explains

This need is felt by readers, who want to know to what extent they can give credit to the high quality of the translator and to the seriousness of the publisher’s name. It is felt by good translators who lavish all their stock of scrupulosity and intelligence on a book and no one ever takes the slightest bit of notice. And it is felt by the people who work in publishing who want the successes to receive the plaudits they deserve, and who want amateurish performances to be ridiculed … and think they have everything to gain if the choice and quality control of translators can come about with the collaboration of critics and in public.

So it is ironic that in the plethora of reviews of Letters 1941–1985, only a couple mention the  translation, and those that do generally limit themselves to a passing comment on the translator’s ability (generally along the lines that it is exquisitely or ably translated), but give no insight into the fact that translating Calvino’s epistolary style requires not only linguistic competence, but also intertextual, cultural and narrative competence.

Martin McLaughlin, whose previous translations include Calvino’s Why Read the Classics? (1999), Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings (2003) and Collection of Sand (2013), has had to overcome the particular challenges posed by Calvino’s quite distinctive letter writing style. One of its remarkable characteristics is his insistence on polite formality and frankness at once. In his brief, incisive translator’s note, McLaughlin explains his overall approach, drawing the English-speaking reader’s attention in particular to what might seem an inconsistency in the various forms of address used in the opening of the each letter, which is in fact due to ‘the Italian custom of addressing even quite close colleagues and acquaintances by their family name’. McLaughlin succinctly describes the task of the literary translator: that is, to translate words, proverbs and idiomatic expressions cross-culturally – words whose origin and use are intrinsically and uniquely bound to the culture concerned.

The last of the 650 letters included in this volume exemplifies the complications of such a task. Written on 30 April 1985 to Primo Levi, it begins quite informally and immediately presents several hypotheses on the origins of the Italian expression leggere la vita, which Levi had used in his book L’altrui mestiereOther People’s Trades (1985). The literal meaning of the phrase is ‘to read life’. Figuratively, it means ‘to read someone the riot act’. Levi thinks it is a deformation of ‘leggere il Levitico’ (‘reading Leviticus’), while Calvino thinks it a derivation from ‘leggere i Leviti (“reading the Levites”) in the sense of a Biblical passage where the Levites are named’. In support of his argument, Calvino quotes Dante and authoritative German scholars. Translating the subtleties of a debate based on inter-lingual etymologies and interpretations of literal and figurative meanings is its own kind of Oulipian exercise.

There is much to admire in McLaughlin’s translation of the letters, not least his sensitivity to Calvino’s variations of style and tone, from the ironic to the pedantic. The collection also provides new texts in English that provide valuable insights into the germination of Calvino’s best-known works. It captures the writer’s generosity and integrity and, above all, his deep and abiding passion for literary culture.


Italo Calvino, Lettere (1940–1985), edited by Luca Baranelli (Mondadori, 2000).