Roberto Calasso’s Singular Books

Patrick Mackie

The delayed, fraught Tokyo Olympics were well underway when the Milanese publishing house Adelphi announced the death of Roberto Calasso. He might have nodded mordantly at the timing. Few writers have spun their work so confidently out of a belief that the old cultural totems of Olympian gods and heroic fervour remain not just valid reference points but ubiquitous and hungry presences.

Calasso was among the founders of Adelphi in 1963 when still in his very early twenties, and in 1971 he became editorial director. Adelphi’s first major commitment was to the great critical edition of Friedrich Nietzsche by Colli and Montinari that is still transforming understanding of his thought. Publishing Joseph Roth was an early success that meant a lot to Calasso; the turn-of-the-century Vienna of Freud and Karl Kraus remained a heartland for him. He did a doctorate on Thomas Browne and had written two books before the publication in 1988 of The Marriage Of Cadmus And Harmony, the massive, intricate, swooping meditation on Greek myths that turned him from a pillar of Italian culture into an unexpectedly bestselling star of international letters.

It had been preceded by the more helplessly extravagant The Ruin Of Kasch, in which the French diplomat Talleyrand is an elusive focal point for riffs on nineteenth-century history, the anthropology of modernity and much else besides. Calasso thought of The Ruin of Kasch as the first in an ongoing sequence of linked books. But it was with The Marriage Of Cadmus And Harmony that he learned to thread his indefatigably cosmic mind through the eye of a single topic, and to leaven his sometimes burlesque style of intellectual showiness with a more crowd-pleasing openness to storytelling and the senses.

The wedding feast of Cadmus and Harmony was supposed to have been the last time the gods sat down and mingled with mortals ‘on familiar terms’, so the book’s title is in one way a lament. At the same time the teeming élan of Calasso’s writing is an open invitation to the imaginative reconstruction of possibilities that are never truly lost in his account. The further twist is his recognition that it might be better if they could be. No one has done more to show how fully horrors suffused the glory and seductiveness of the mythical world.

Christopher Logue’s tough, dazzling versions of Homer grind themselves out of a similar doubleness. So do the copious and twirling classical engagements of Anne Carson; the figure of Simone Weil stands behind both her and Calasso, and beyond her is Nietzsche. For Calasso, you can’t live with the gods and you can’t live without them. Trying to lure them back into the human city can lead to disaster as surely as attempts to ignore them. He reaches a conclusion that turns ambivalence into flamboyance: ‘You could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored by men who have no stories.’

A flow of passionately if erratically venturesome books followed, on topics from Tiepolo to ancient Vedic religion. He continued not only to run but to define Adelphi, his life as a publisher nourishing his writing, as if an immersion in the nuts and bolts of literary endeavour could oil the most ambitious flights. In his essay ‘Singular Books’ he sets out a creed at once vaultingly expansive and wildly modest: ‘A singular book is one in which it is clear that something has happened to the author and has been put into writing.’ But his singular passions were always generative and serial. The books he published were meant to form links in a chain of affinity and value; the books he wrote are the twists in an ongoing, serpentine argument about narrative, sacrifice and the possibility of wisdom.

Two late books are yet to appear in English. In one he keeps the appointment with the Biblical corpus that must have loomed over all his preoccupations. His writing is engrossingly appealing, insanely ambitious and sometimes very annoying. I learned more from the title of his essay ‘The Siren Adorno’ than from any number of critical theory seminars, because it suddenly brought to the surface so much that had been driving those seminars all along.

The more mannerist, febrile elements of his writing were partly ways of registering the strain exerted by the history around it, but they also fed off the feel for showmanship instilled by his dealings in the marketplace. Above all though they stemmed from some basic exuberance or surplus energy; surplus may indeed have been his deepest subject. It so happens that the brilliant sprawl of Calasso’s major project as a writer developed as an uncanny parallel over the years that the internet flooded our world. But his writing is far quicker and more inclusive and more various in its connections than that laborious behemoth.