Following the revelations in La Repubblica that a supposed interview with Philip Roth published in Libero last November was a complete fabrication, I got in touch with a few Italian novelists to ask them what they thought about the affair. Most of them politely declined to be interviewed, but Italo Calvino – I found his number in an old Turin phonebook mouldering among the carboys in the cellar; I can’t think how it got there – was generous enough to give me a few minutes of his time. My computer unfortunately wiped the recording of our conversation before I was able fully to transcribe it, but here’s what I’ve managed to salvage from my fragmentary notes. It was a bad line, and my Italian isn’t all it might be, but this is more or less how the conversation went:
LRB: Hello. Is that Italo Calvino?
Calvino: I would have a hard time explaining that I came in because I heard the telephone ring.
LRB: Right. I was wondering what you thought about the fake interview with Philip Roth in Libero.
Calvino: It’s a well known case of forgery!
LRB: I don’t suppose you read the original interview? Did it sound like Roth to you?
Calvino: Who ever said this author had an unmistakeable tone?
LRB: Fair point. There’s also the question of the translation, of course.
Calvino: Little by little you will manage to understand something more about the origins of the translator’s machinations.
LRB [beginning to lose the thread]: OK… Er, what do you think of Roth’s work generally?
Calvino: He is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next.
LRB: I suppose he is. Have you read The Humbling?
Calvino: It’s not too long, fortunately. Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction.
LRB: And what about this character Debenedetti, the alleged interviewer? What do you suppose he thought he was doing, if he even exists?
Calvino [at last sounding interested]: The true authors remain those who for him were only a name on a jacket, a word that was part of the title, authors who had the same reality as their characters, as the places mentioned in the books, who existed and didn’t exist at the same time, like those characters and those countries. The author was an invisible point from which the books came, a void travelled by ghosts, an underground tunnel that put other worlds in communication with the chicken coop of his boyhood…
LRB: The chicken coop? What chicken coop? What do you…?
But he had rung off.