Correspondence course

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, edited by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin, Princeton, RRP£27.95 / RRP$39.50, 632 pages

When Italo Calvino was becoming a big name in the English-speaking world in the 1970s and 1980s, he was seen as a somewhat rarefied figure: an Italian master of French-style abstraction who seemed to observe life from a serene ironic distance. And because of the timing of his death – at 61, after a cerebral haemorrhage, in 1985 – the prevailing image of him outside Italy has more or less stayed that way. His witty meta-novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) has for years been used to teach the rudiments of postmodernism, while Invisible Cities (1972) – “a totally decadent book”, he wrote casually in a letter – has acquired the status of a fetish among architects, urban theorists and purveyors of art-speak.

Yet the role of chic metropolitan guru wasn’t one that Calvino sought or felt comfortable in. An agronomist’s son from the Ligurian Riviera, he started out as a writer under the auspices of the Italian Communist party, having joined while fighting as a partisan during the second world war. Hemingway and Chekhov were his first literary models and, early on, he was stymied by his unsuccessful efforts to write a novel documenting social conditions in industrial Turin. Learning to give rein to his dreamier side in books such as the wonderful The Baron in the Trees (1957) was as much of a struggle as deciding to leave the party, which he did after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. By the end of the 1960s, his Enlightenment rationalism and pre-consumerist ideals were out of step with the times, and the quizzical playfulness of his later writing was partly, though not wholly, a pessimistic gesture.

It is this aspect of Calvino – the writer as committed intellectual – that is mostly on display in this selection of his letters, drawn from an even bulkier Italian Lettere (2000) and translated by Martin McLaughlin, the UK’s go-to Calvinologue. As Michael Wood, who did the selecting, warns in his introduction, we don’t get much of Calvino the companionable joker; we certainly don’t get access to a secret self behind the books, a notion that Calvino viewed as an annoying distraction. One of his claims to fame in the theory-mad 1980s was that he had lectured on “the death of the author” a year before his friend Roland Barthes published a famous essay on the same theme, and again and again in the letters he advises inquirers to concentrate on texts instead of on living persons. “Admittedly, there are authors who are ‘rich in humanity’ whom it is worth meeting anyway ... But I am the exact opposite.”

As a result, readers looking for biographical colour would do better to turn to Hermit in Paris (1994), a collection of Calvino’s memoiristic pieces put together by his widow. His experiences as a partisan, during which his parents were taken hostage and subjected to mock executions by fascist militiamen, are touched on here in only two letters, one of them three lines long. An extended visit to the US – where he met Martin Luther King and complained in his diary that all the women he tried to flirt with were lesbians – is represented largely by businesslike memos to his colleagues at the Einaudi publishing house. Italian standards of decorum mean that even passing references to the personal lives of long-dead friends have been blanked out, and, needless to say, the many surviving letters he wrote to a married lover in the 1950s aren’t included.

In line with Calvino’s austere strictures, however, the book gives a sense of the way his environment shaped his writings in the course of his evolution from teenage poet (“I will revolutionise art and the world. Hurrah!”) to rueful grandee. There are hints of tensions with his parents – both respectable scientists – over his choosing the frivolous path of literature, and his leftist commitments make him fearful of frivolity too. On the other hand, Turin’s postwar militants come across as the most cultivated Stalinists in history (one letter details a heated debate over Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind), and Calvino’s defences of wayward artists such as Pasolini are models of level-headedness. The light touch of his comic neorealist stories seems all the more impressive in this context, as does the magically assured interplay between fantasy and allegory in the novellas he wrote while agonising about his political future.

The Baron and Marcovaldo (1963) quickly became set texts and there are several courteous letters to schoolchildren. Much of the correspondence is given over to Calvino’s work as an editor, a capacity in which he encouraged younger writers but also dispensed some scarily frank assessments. Thanks to their value to Calvino studies, though, his communications with critics fill much of the volume, with the inadvertent effect of making him look a bit sly. His approach is to praise reviewers of his books, hostile or friendly, for their astuteness, then to explain at length what they’ve got wrong and right. “At last,” a typical passage begins, “a review which is a serious examination!” Examples could be multiplied endlessly, and it’s hard to keep track of the number of times he thanks a critic for his or her unparalleled insights.

It would be easy to make those letters sound vain and self-serving. Yet Calvino never pulls rank and often throws out reminders that he doesn’t think he, the author, should get the last word. And after a while it’s clear that they’re the opposite of self-assertive, being a practical expression of his life-long belief in literature as a social, communal endeavour rather than a matter of individuals in ivory towers. An Italian joke from the 1970s – “God is dead, Marxism is having a crisis and I’m not feeling too good myself” – sometimes seems to shadow his gloomier later letters. All the same, he doesn’t lose faith in the utility of writing and arguing, and in the end he seems a rather wise and heroic figure in his determined this-world­liness, “impervious to marvellous hopes as much as to marvellous despair”.

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