Triptych image: Francesco Clemente, “Ace of Cups,” 2011
IN 1976, ITALO CALVINO, in his capacity as an editor at the Einaudi publishing house, flipped through the correspondence of his late friend and mentor Elio Vittorini, which was being prepared for a book. “His letters to Guarnieri form one of the meatiest parts of the correspondence,” Calvino wrote to Carlo Minoia, the volume’s editor, in a letter that appears in a new collection of letters of his own. “First because it is about friendship, holidays, girls; then there is the flare-up in Spain, which bursts to life very suddenly, after a dark period […].” (According to the notes provided by the editor of Calvino’s correspondence, a sentence has been omitted — it’s unclear by whom — that deals with Vittorini’s private life.) “The letters to [Vittorini’s] family are of great biographical interest,” Calvino continues. “For the work letters […] we’ll see what might be useful in covering any period or phase of his work that is less well documented; otherwise let’s leave them out.”
These workmanlike missives from one editor to another (which arrive with us in book form courtesy of yet another) are only noteworthy in that they offer a sort of tease, a brief glimpse of what the new 500-plus-page collection of Calvino’s selected correspondence, titled Letters 1941-1985, might have been, while also representing perfectly much of its spirit. Though we’ve seen plenty of friendship by the time we’ve arrived here on page 465, there’s been nary a sign of holiday-making or girls, and there has been, in fact, very little bursting into life (besides, of course, Calvino’s own lively intelligence). Instead, there has been much having to do with work. Calvino does report, peripherally and obliquely, having hidden in the mountains with the Italian Resistance (“I’ve been a partisan all this time, I’ve been through an unspeakable series of dangers and discomforts”), resigned from the Communist Party (“I find myself facing history without intermediaries for the first time”), and witnessed the 1968 student protests in Paris (“Basically I find myself in the ideal position of being a spectator: things are happening that interest me profoundly”). But Calvino’s marriage, his infamous affair with the actress Elsa De Giorgi, and his meeting with Che Guevara are not mentioned at all. One wonders, in passing, if Michael Wood — who made this selection from Luca Baranelli’s much more extensive (though still incomplete) Italian collection, Lettere 1940-1985 (2000) — included this particular one as a form of wishful thinking, a kind of Easter egg hinting that, really, it would have been nice if there’d been more girls.
On the other hand, the collection’s lacunae may do little more than reinforce the fact that Calvino, in his letters as in his fiction, remained committed to ellipses. “For the critic,” he writes in November of 1967, “the author does not exist, only a certain number of writings exist.” This is a recurrent theme in Calvino’s correspondence: an invitation to look at the object, rather than the subject himself.
It’s certainly true that a published letter is a peculiar kind of object to begin with. With the exception of letters to the editor, open letters, and the now voguish epistle-based review, and the like, a letter is, by its very nature, a private text intended for someone in particular: a substitute, across distance, for person-to-person speech. This intention becomes muddled when the letter arrives between covers. Whether or not its author objects (as Willa Cather and William Gaddis did, and Calvino at least pretended to) to his or her correspondence being made public, its readers are automatically half deaf, and so made to answer questions they only think they hear.
It may be because letters tend to be dated, but the impulse to grant every epistolary statement — whether a workaday task list or a piece of fatherly advice — a discrete authority comes as much from the time of its composition as from its source. (Letters are history, in other words, before and beyond being literature.) Like a diary entry, the words of a letter have a kind of weight due to their specificity and spontaneity, emerging from a specific desk, a specific typewriter or pen. Unlike novels, then, we read them as literal reflections of a particular reality; immediate, transparent objects, yet still heavy, less veil of gauze and more pane of glass. As though writing a letter were just a matter of — as Calvino himself puts it in a 1950 letter to novelist Elsa Morante — “Hey presto! Having an idea and instantly wanting to put it in writing to a friend, and then writing it.” (This sense of immediacy is the very characteristic exploited by the authors of epistolary novels.) And so an apologia for putting out-of-season blackberries into his story “The Good Air” (“The moral of the story: don’t trust poets, short-story writers, or novelists as scientific describers of reality”) reads like a manifesto, and the fact that Calvino chose the title for his 1979 novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler because “next to my desk I had a Peanuts poster with Snoopy the dog typing and the phrase ‘It was a dark and stormy night […]’” appears as an important datum as well as a charming anecdote.
We may think we can know the author through the letters, and, in small ways, we can. Calvino — like Giacomo Leopardi, a precursor in many things, including in taking a scientific and exact approach to the indeterminate and unquantifiable — was an obdurate pessimist, and the temptation here is to read in Calvino’s laughter the beginnings of his belief that, as he would write at the end of his life, experience must be borne lightly if it is to be borne at all. To wit, a letter to his friend and fellow Communist Franco Fortini dated 28 May, 1957:
I sense a hint of bitterness in this letter of yours and in a previous one. Excellent: we are living in a dark period, there is absolutely nothing going right, and the only consolation we have is to think about the brevity of life. I have only to say that in this situation I am absolutely fine, and I am giving myself up finally to total misanthropy, which I now discover corresponds fully to my true nature. But you seem to be still anxious about something or other. Ha, ha! Don’t worry, it will just get worse and worse.
(And in a P.S.: “We are at the end of May and it is still raining. Ha, ha!”) This pessimism — a creative, lightly borne pessimism to be sure — is endemic to Calvino’s fiction as well. As Marco Polo tells the Khan in Invisible Cities (1972):
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
Of course, one must not get carried away: the joyful sense of doom in the Fortini letter is just as likely to have been nothing more than youthful braggadocio, a 20-something’s game of “I’ve got it worse than you, ha, ha.”
Nevertheless, it’s this quality to which the attention is most directly drawn in the letters: they are more concrete, more immediately graspable (“plainer” as Wood puts it in his introduction) than Calvino’s quicksilvered fiction, and in so being can serve to ground that fiction in turn, like a weight tied to a balloon string.
But there’s an equal sense in which the fiction, despite being — need it be said? — the reason the letters were preserved and then published at all, represented something like an equal and opposing force to this kind of gravitational weight. “At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone,” Calvino writes in the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), “a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable state of Medusa.” It’s entirely possible that these letters — some of which are long and dull, detailing business matters for Einaudi, and the endless literary duties of a well-regarded, prize-winning author — represent something like a rueful glance at the Gorgon’s face. And so there’s a contradiction at work here, as there is in most things Calvino, to which one just sort of has to submit.
“Reality itself,” Calvino writes to poet Armando Bozzoli in 1958, “will discover new meanings in the artist’s images.” Bozzoli had been discussing Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees at the library in Modena, and had some questions about the text’s meaning. In responding, Calvino unsurprisingly — but presciently, in these days before deconstruction — admits the validity of ascribing meaning to a text, but also gives it its freedom: imaginative writing is porous, he implies, and if it is valid its meaning will change over time as it enters into dialog with different forms of reality, in gathering dust or being dusted, yes, but also and most of all because ways of understanding will have changed as well. There is little use either, Calvino might have added, hunting for answers in the weighty reality of his letters, as doing so is tantamount to grabbing Medusa by her snaky tresses and presenting fiction to her gaze: it fossilizes it in the granite of a certain time and place.
Of course the temptation to do so is hard to resist, and one of the difficulties of this kind of thinking is that literature tends to attach itself to reality on its own, for the simple reason that reading itself, like letter-writing, takes place in a particular time and place. It was the custom, where I went to college, for incipient freshmen to be assigned Invisible Cities over the summer, so that we’d all read it by the time we convened on campus in August for the two-week-long workshop in “Language and Thinking.” That a description of the novel’s contents, is, as Gore Vidal once wrote, basically irrelevant made it something like the perfect vessel for the thoughts of a teenager just learning to think. Writing about it as a pre-freshman myself, I drew from Calvino’s matrix of stories a rather naive lesson about the function of memory. “I remember this room,” I wrote, in a dusty epistle retrieved from a computer’s hard drive:
I remember the sound of my mother’s voice coming up the stairs, I remember the sight of my hair in the mirror, where it is growing in after I last dyed it […]. Memory is responsible for the way we see the world. Yet as Calvino seems to imply, we see what we plan to: a rider approaching from the sea will think the city resembles a camel, while one approaching from the desert will think it looks like a ship.
Which may well have been partially true — certainly this memory, a sort of letter to myself, is tangled into subsequent re-readings. But it’s also true that reality, thank goodness, has been able to discover other meanings there too.
Vidal wrote in a 1974 essay for the New York Review of Books that, reading Calvino’s work, he’d had “the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written.” This sentiment, in turn, caught Calvino’s attention — he had a habit of responding to his critics — resulting in a letter to Vidal, in June of that year. “The conclusion of your review contains a statement that seems to me to be important in an absolute way,” the Italian writes:
I don’t dare to wonder whether it is true if applied to myself, but it is true as a literary ideal for each of us: the aim that each one of us has to reach has to be that “writer and reader become one, or One.” And to encompass both your discourse and mine in a perfect circle, we will say that this One is the Whole.
It’s easy to pore through the letters for camels — they exist! — or for ships, depending on where one’s been. It’s easy, too, to take the collection as a whole and draw conclusions about the personality behind it: diagnosing a certain over-attention to criticism, say (“you are the first to have noticed this” is a common refrain), a benevolently pedantic tone somewhere between teacher and know-it-all, or the kind of intellectual generosity for which Calvino is well-enough known already. But we need to take care, again, as it’s also easy to forget that the true meaning of this correspondence lies in the interstices between these letters and an equal number of invisible, perhaps even unwritten ones; and that whatever meaning once resided in them corresponds to something else — a referent that’s forever unseen. This is true of all letters, but it seems particularly important to remember in Calvino’s case.
Just so, Calvino writes to the critic Giuseppe Bonura, in May 1972: “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.” (Bonura had written a book identifying, among other things, Calvino’s “patriarchal timbre.”) And in large part, Calvino’s letters are interesting for this very reason. They encapsulate and physicalize his lifelong interest in dialogue, in tracing continuity and its ruptures in both his work and that of others, through exchange. In the letters, Calvino or (what is probably more accurate) the myth of “Calvino” is an entity caught in the act of being dissolved in communion. “Writers themselves do not exist — or at least they do not count for much,” he tells the critic Guido Fink in 1968:
As far as I am concerned, you still try too hard to explain Calvino with Calvino, to chart a history, a continuity in Calvino, and maybe this Calvino does not have any continuity, he dies and is reborn every second. What counts is whether in the work that he is doing at a certain point there is something that can relate to the present or future work done by others.
No more or less than a tool, after all, in the ongoing construction of this crumbling edifice, Calvino’s correspondence plays double mirror to the work, reflecting its reflections.
Other than the fiction, though, what help can we find, as readers, in unpacking Calvino’s epistolary bags? Certainly any sense of intimacy with the author is misleading, if unavoidable. “Your letter brings up a problem that surfaces I think every time a reader wants to know that author of a book they liked,” Calvino writes to aspiring writer Antonella Santacroce, in a kind of rebuttal of Holden Caulfield’s adolescent whine. “It is always a disappointment. Because the author does not exist: that is to say he exists only in his works; outside them (unless he is a D’Annunzian writer or some other kind of windbag) he is an everyday guy, who is very careful not to ‘identify’ himself with an ideal character.” And yet Calvino does play a character, somewhat, too: rather than giving his birthplace as Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba, for instance, he offers San Remo, Italy. The latter, Calvino said, was “more true.” Still, he was aware of this self-mythologizing impulse in himself, and took pains not to give himself over to it. This is the flaw he saw in Hemingway, a writer he loved: the triumph of a man’s private drama as paradigm.
There is, certainly, a moral dimension to both the purposeful diffuseness of our correspondent and in his commitment to a kind of immaterial truth. The Calvino that emerges, in stages, through his letters, was a deeply committed human being, committed to his art, his politics, and to the political possibilities of literature. As early as 1943 he promises: “My art has and always will be social while trying to remain art as far as possible.” But the impulse extends beyond the strictly political. Whatever statements he may make on social issues (and there is an eloquent defense of a woman’s right to choose contained in these pages), Calvino seems to have believed that the political function of literature was embedded in literature itself, in words and what one does with them and in their ability to approach imprecision precisely. This is all one can do, after all, as he sighs to Giovanni Falaschi: “I see no other form of knowledge except that which is gained through successive approximations and corrections of mistakes.” And as he told the Paris Review in an interview published in 1992, even his pages were often covered in scratches and revisions, evidence of sort of conversation, or even argument, with himself.
Calvino also imagined formal solutions to complex literary problems — and literary solutions to complex formal problems, for that matter — taking what is logical and stretching it beyond the visible, beyond the imaginable — think of Cosmicomics (1965), Calvino’s collection of scientific fables, in which a cosmological fact provides the basis for each of the narrator Qfwfq’s memories of the universe’s creation — if never beyond the limits of reason. He seems to have had a scientist’s mind (inherited, one might guess, from his botanist parents). In the letters, certainly, Calvino tends to instruct his critics rather scientifically, in a way one wishes were more common today. Over and over, he insists on logic, analysis, and method, on a moral, empirical approach to reading (“[…] ought to be analyzed with precision […] say things that are true and precise […] concrete and undeniable results […] a rigorous application of a method of research […] practices that cannot be questioned,” and so on).
And yet ultimately such exegesis always fails. As Calvino writes in Six Memos: “Any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it […]. The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.” Which is expressed another way too, in the letters:
In my view, real poetic creations represent a conception of life, but they represent it in such a way that it cannot be defined except though those images, that plot, those words. To try and define it another way is always, in some sense, to betray it, because the poetic image contains within itself a multiplicity of meaning, not contradictory meanings, but where one meaning is contained inside another like the leaves of an artichoke.
Calvino’s sixth and final “memo to the next millennium” was to be on “Consistency” — presumably in reference to whatever it is that, regardless of form or content, allows a work to be, for instance, recognizably Calvino-esque. That he never finished it, or delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures the “memos” were supposed to be, is one great loss, among many, of his relatively early death. But in the Letters there is the barest of hints as to what its theme might have been — and it’s maybe the most valuable thing to be found here — when, in a 1978 letter to Guido Almansi, Calvino obligingly engages in a round of Isaiah Berlin’s famous foxes and hedgehogs game, presumably at the behest of his correspondent. Adapting Archilocus’ maxim “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin proposed a division of writers and intellectuals throughout history into one or the other of these categories — a distant echo, itself, of Leopardi’s theory about the “strong” and “promiscuous” imaginations. Calvino’s conclusions about himself prove similar to Berlin’s about Tolstoy:
I change my method and field of reference from book to book because I can never believe in the same thing two times running, therefore I am a fox, even though I dream of being a hedgehog in all my dreams, and even though I try to write hedgehog books if you take each of them one by one.
Berlin took Tolstoy’s in-between-ness (talents of a fox, preference for hedgehogs) as evidence that his self-assessments were not to be trusted, and the same caution must be applied to Calvino here. But it seems right to trust the author’s word on this one point, if on nothing else. Calvino’s consistency, if it exists, is not to be found in the persona behind letters like these or in personal detritus of any kind, but in the literary intelligence of the mercurial stories and novels themselves, because it’s there that the “single conscious ego, a reasoning reason” is, as Calvino tells Gianni Mantesi in another letter, consistently “seen as a limitation that is overcome.”
In his fifth memo, on “Multiplicity,” Calvino imagined an ideal artistic work
that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic.
This is the “One, or the Whole” Calvino wrote of to Vidal, a paradise that is not necessarily to be reached, but that exists instead in his commitment to “working better” for a “human homeland … in the heart of his own works and days, in a dialectic between himself and everything else that is extremely difficult to acquire and maintain.” If Calvino knew one big thing, I think, it must have been that there are a great many things, and that he could only try, one at a time, to see them.