Italo Calvino has an image problem. He has been pigeonholed as an Italian Queneau or a knock-off Borges. His admirers proselytise – not always helpfully – about The Joy of Semiosis. Reviewers have tried to account for his interest in narrative at both the level of theory and pleasure by calling him a ‘storyteller’, meaning that he wrote books that are both compelling and showily self-aware. Calvino himself embraced the description. The Uses of Literature, a selection of his non-fiction published in English in 1986, opens: ‘It all began with the first storyteller of the tribe.’ He is also called a fabulist, as much for his narrative conceits as for his vast repertoire of Italian folktales. Both terms are more ambiguous than ‘novelist’. Both invite suspicion.
Calvino’s affinity with Parisian intellectuals (he was an Oulipo fellow traveller) has sometimes meant that his later fiction is interpreted as merely illustrating theoretical concepts – concepts a good deal less interesting than the novels themselves. Condensed descriptions can make these books sound like exercises: novels made up of the first chapters of other (fictional) novels or composed at the random direction of Tarot cards or consisting only of descriptions of cities. But each book is also a detective story or a romance, with an array of characters, funny, vain, perceptive, lost, wise.
The association between Calvino and theory was complicated from the beginning. He admired structuralists for their intellectual discipline but was interested in feeling as much as abstraction. Writing of Roland Barthes, Calvino approved of his rigour but argued that his real genius was to have achieved it since his mind was one ‘whose only sure criterion was pleasure’. That combination of formal and sensual qualities is also characteristic of Calvino, who called himself an ‘ex-historicist’: proof of his modesty as well as his enjoyment of the freedom implied by ‘ex’.
‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’, the 1967 lecture that begins with the tribal storyteller, took its inspiration from avant-garde experiments with basic computers. Calvino thought that the use of machines to destabilise literary form, or produce generative disorder, was eminently human. The machine’s ‘true vocation would be for classicism’, having the capacity to infer and follow stylistic rules exactingly. It is interesting to revisit this argument in the era of AI, not least in light of Calvino’s brief, teasing claim that a true ‘literature machine’ would produce avant-garde work ‘to free its circuits when they are choked’ by classicism. The writer, too, is engaged in acts of processing and combining, though not in obedience to an algorithm. Get the combination right and you drop a depth charge in the unconscious. The storyteller proceeds until one of his ‘little tales explodes into a terrible revelation’.
Calvino’s essays are mercurial, and the pleasure of reading them derives from our intimacy with a mind that seems to be operating at one remove from the text, entirely in command of the unruly, antithetical ideas that animate it. Reality presented itself to him ‘as multiple, prickly, and as densely superimposed layers’; literature offers ‘the possibility of being able to continue to unpeel it like an infinite artichoke’. This metaphor appears in an essay in praise of Carlo Emilio Gadda, a writer who approaches the infinite world through fractal digression; Calvino approaches the same world through brevity, precision.
The Written World and the Unwritten World is a selection of short pieces – essays, reviews, occasional letters, lectures – first published in Italy in 2002. It excludes the works Calvino prepared for other books while he was alive, most of which are already available in English. An intellectual portrait of Calvino curated by someone other than himself is an attractive prospect; the danger is that it will prove to be an anthology of minutiae and hackwork. It’s true that the lucidity of his best essays is sometimes missing here, but Calvino’s smaller peaks are worthwhile: he darts from the I Ching to binary code through Leibniz; an observation on the economy of tears in fairy tales links Odysseus weeping in the house of the Phaeacians to Darwin’s captive elephant, weeping to purge the vast force of its unused muscles.
A critic with artichokes on the mind might wonder about the layers of meaning in a collection such as this, or the new meanings the pieces acquire in the leap between languages and across two decades (the kind of gap, Calvino notes, that can turn antagonists into tragic companions as history leaves them both behind). Calvino’s tastes are classical, more premodern than post; he prefers periods when the generic borders of fiction have been fuzzy. He is in some respects old-fashioned. Women rarely trouble his canon – in the fiction, too, they are little more than ciphers – and problems of identity are treated as perceptual and epistemic, rather than political. One virtue of these essays, however, is that they encourage us to recognise Calvino as an active participant in arguments about the relationship between literature and politics. To the distinctive Calvinian voice – erudition worn lightly, humanism balanced by ironic detachment – Ann Goldstein restores a wit and sharpness, its residual communist starchiness dissolving over time.
Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923, but raised in Liguria. His parents, both botanists, were rational, scientific, austere (in a laudatory sense). He fought in the Resistance; the experience led him to join the Italian Communist Party, which he left slightly later than many intellectuals, in 1957 rather than 1956. He went to university to study agronomy (following in his father’s footsteps), while building an eccentric personal canon dominated by Pavese. For most of his adult life Calvino maintained some contact with the ‘real’ world of money, deadlines and public appetites as a publisher at Einaudi. He moved to Paris, though he spent time in Turin and San Remo. He married and had a daughter. Altogether his life lacked the alcoholic and sexual drama of many postwar Anglophone writers. Global celebrity arrived in 1974 with an appreciation by Gore Vidal in the New York Review of Books. Critics murmured about a Nobel. Ten years later Calvino died of a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 61, while completing the texts for his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Only five of the six lectures were finished, but they were nonetheless published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Their themes – lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity – are the signatures of Calvino’s own work.
He cultivated an aloof reputation, and liked to emphasise a degree of foreignness (Cuba, Liguria, Paris). His letters are vivid and often funny (‘You write like clumsy hippos!’ is his verdict on a friend’s editorial column). Even some of his closest friendships remained formal, mediated through books; his longstanding translator, William Weaver, recalled Calvino flinching every time he was obliged to call him ‘Bill’. In a preface to Numbers in the Dark, a collection of short and very short stories, Calvino’s widow, Esther, quotes a note from 1943 that she discovered among his papers: ‘One writes fables in periods of oppression. When a man cannot give clear form to his thinking, he expresses it in fables.’ With the death of fascism, Calvino added, this need would end. But he went on writing them anyhow.
‘I wish every book I write were the first,’ he said in a lecture shortly before his death. ‘I wish I had a new name every time.’ Calvino made a habit of reinvention. His early work (such as The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, published in 1947) – politically engaged and neorealist – gave way to three long fable-like stories, written over the course of the 1950s and published collectively as Our Ancestors. The transition was difficult: instead of forcing himself to write ‘the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.’ The fabular motif – ‘conjured’ – and stress on both pleasure and productive distance are typical. Each story concerns an individual in a state of unnatural division or alienation, such as the viscount bisected by a cannonball, compelled to sunder everything around him. It’s hard not to read the most significant of these, The Baron in the Trees (1957) – in which a young man flees familial horror and vows never to return to ground having taken refuge in an arboreal republic – as prompted by the problem of political action, in particular the exodus of intellectuals from the Communist Party. Analysing his own work in a letter, Calvino admitted there was ‘essayistic language’ in his fiction, but insisted it only appeared in ‘chipped fragments’. Reading The Baron as a simple political allegory irritated him. ‘WHAT THE HELL DOES COMMUNIST ALLEGORY HAVE TO DO WITH ALL THIS?’ he exploded in a letter to one reviewer. He claimed that the political aspect was only one side of a more general social and cognitive problem; the story was an attempt to find ‘the right distance to be present and at the same time detached’.
During the same period, Calvino produced a cycle of three (relatively) realist novellas on what he called the ‘weird belle époque’ of Italian neocapitalism, its corruption and inertia. These are not widely read in English, though Smog (1958) anticipates our greenwashing present with the character of a polluting industrialist who also owns a campaigning anti-pollution journal. The most significant, The Watcher (1963), is also the most autobiographical. It describes the difficulties faced by Amerigo Ormea, a communist intellectual who is sent to oversee election-day voting at Cottolengo, a church-run charitable home for the physically and mentally disabled, as well as orphans and the elderly. It is obvious to Amerigo that the nuns are procuring votes for the Christian Democrats from patients incapable of giving meaningful assent, and this plunges him into a crisis of faith in democracy, communism and even the practical possibility of politics.
Amerigo is a character primed for crisis: The Watcher is a text of sincere communist disillusionment as well as an unsparing satire of communist intellectuals. Defining communism for the reader, Amerigo embarks on a two-page sentence scattered with qualifying parentheses and subclauses (he would have made a good Jesuit). In a letter to the critic Claudio Varese, Calvino referred to his ‘need’ for brackets; he thought that they had a ‘semantic value’ of their own. Amerigo is, like the viscount, bisected. Everything makes him conscious of his internal division: electoral fraud, a vain deputy, the charity of the nuns, his lover’s pregnancy, the wordless love of a father visiting his inmate son. It is a condition he shares with his party, accounting for both the fertility and despair of its intellectual culture:
The Italian Communist Party, among its many other tasks, had also assumed the position of an ideal liberal party, which had never really existed. And so the bosom of each individual communist could house two personalities at once: an intransigent revolutionary and an Olympian liberal. The more schematic international communism became, in those hard times, the more explicit its official, collective expressions became, the more the militant individual lost inner richness, to conform to the compact, cast-iron block, and the more the liberal, housed in the same individual, gained new, iridescent facets.
Calvino had been a scrutineer at Cottolengo in 1961. It left him unable to write for months. The scenes were ‘so infernal’ that he could only have produced ‘the most violent pamphlet, a manifesto against Christian Democracy, anathemas against a party supported by votes obtained this way’. Like Amerigo, Calvino came to fear that Cottolengo – its abjection, its unreason, its brute manipulation – was representative of the world more generally. ‘Seen from here, from the depth of this condition, politics, progress, history were perhaps not even conceivable.’ The Watcher was a difficult production: it came after four years in which Calvino had published nothing, and he suggested to Natalia Ginzburg that it ‘only offered news about my silence’. But he didn’t, in the end, produce a novel of anathemas so much as a ‘book of question marks’, in which the crisis is seen as too general and too pressing to concern only one party. It became, in Calvino’s words, ‘the protagonist’s meditation on himself (as a communist intellectual), a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress of a historicist who wants to salvage the bases for intervention in history, as well as other kinds of grounds, scarcely guessed during that day, about the secret depths of the human person’.
The Watcher was a turning point. Calvino never returned to realism at length. Next came the science-fables of the Cosmicomics (1965), the fantasia Invisible Cities (1972), the metafictional anti-novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979). Italian critics grew frosty. Putting Calvino on literary ‘trial’ in the short-lived (but charmingly titled) magazine Wimbledon in 1990, Franco Fortini – whom Calvino once called his ‘implacable antithetical interlocutor’ – derided the later work as ‘deadly, destructive’, the encounter with Oulipo as a ‘poisoning’ and Six Memos as an exercise in banality contrived for idiot Americans. Fortini charged him with involution, with substituting a pallid theoreticism for his italianità and with a retreat from history, politics and relevance.
Attentive readers might notice that Invisible Cities is a novel in which the nocturnal, orientalist mood is gradually displaced by the nightmare homogeneity of the megalopolis, and thus is hardly emptied of politics. Fortini’s charge, though, has some weight. Calvino’s later fiction was produced in difficult times: democratic disillusionment, corruption, a monolithic left floundering in a changing world, political violence and assassination, fascist bombings. Shouldn’t they disturb, even slightly, the limpid surface of his stories? For Salman Rushdie, writing in the LRB in 1981, Calvino was uncanny, protean, always one disconcerting step ahead of the reader. But Rushdie wondered why anyone should bother with ‘a word-juggler, a fantasist’ when cities were burning.
Calvino seems never to have forgotten Cottolengo, though he began to investigate a more general disorder in human culture, which encroaches on even his most readerly characters. The disquieted Khan in Invisible Cities realises his empire is ‘an endless, formless ruin’. Qfwfq, the primordial (if also noticeably Italian) sentience who narrates the Cosmicomics, creates the universe’s very first sign, but loses it among the infinite clamour of other signs. In the preface to Una pietra sopra, his 1980 essay collection, Calvino laments that the future he once sought to transform through earnest critical thought has manifested ‘come collasso, come frana, come cancrena’ (‘as collapse, as landslide, as gangrene’).
This lament, like all his departures into earnestness, is not without irony, but Calvino remained preoccupied with linguistic and cultural decay. In the lecture of 1983 that gives The Written World and the Unwritten World its title, he worries that everything is ‘already conquered, already colonised by words … everything is read even before it starts to exist.’ Calvino links the state of Italy, ‘a country where many mysterious things happen, which are every day widely discussed and commented on, but never solved’, with the condition of its language, ‘stricken by a kind of plague’ of indirection. Blame lies with ‘politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals’, but everyday speech has long since fallen victim. This Calvino is a long way from the ludic caricature.
His prescription is clarity. Language records our predicament, but is also the means by which we may worsen or remedy it. He admires writers who force their language into weird contemporary shapes (Joyce, Pound, Gadda), but his solution is Kafka’s: ‘to speak of the intricate tangle of our situation using a language so seemingly transparent that it creates a sense of hallucination.’ For this Calvino, drawn to limits, boundaries and impossible projects, it’s important that a part of the world remains unwritten, and the essay concludes with a striking metaphor: ‘From the other side of the words, from the silent side, something is trying to emerge, to signify through language, like tapping on a prison wall.’
Decaying language, political immobility, homogenised culture: Calvino’s world is also ours. But his sense of the problem is distinctive. He participated in a sharp discontinuity – the Resistance – that changed the future of his country. To experience a shift from historical agency to immobility is a special catastrophe. It is a necessary context for the somewhat barbed praise he gave in 1960 to a group of younger writers more theoretically adept than his cohort but for whom the link between ideology and human action was already dissolving: ‘For me, ideas have always had eyes, mouths, arms and legs. Political history for me is above all a history of human presences.’
Confidence that literary questions could bear large cultural and national significance was an enduring legacy of the postwar moment in Italy; it underpins even Calvino’s most abstract late meditations on semiosis. In a typically recursive, digressive preface to the 1964 reissue of The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (itself a product of that postwar moment) he captures the instinctive, explosive return of narrative freedom after fascism:
The return of free speech was experienced by people as an urgent desire to tell each other stories: in the trains which began to run again, packed with people and sacks of flour and cans of oil, every traveller told strangers about the things that had happened to him, and so did every customer who ate at the ‘people’s canteens’ and every woman queuing at the shops; the greyness of daily lives seemed to belong to another era; we circulated in a multicoloured universe of stories.
Some of the best essays in The Written World were prompted by cultural anxiety over the death of the novel. Calvino makes the case for optimism. He is suspicious of literary sentimentalists. There is ‘no better terrain for the birth of true values than that which has the stink of practical requirements, market demands, consumer production’, he wrote in 1959, citing Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Charlie Chaplin. Market enthusiasm from an ex-communist might seem odd, but this is an early example of his appreciation for literary constraints. The admiration is conditional: constraints are only useful if they produce ‘true values’; the same piece celebrates the arduous task of creating ‘language as transparent as clear water’. If the novel is to renew itself, it will do so by returning to its hybrid roots, revisiting its borderlands with the philosophical tale, essay, travelogue, fable. Who cares if doomsday comes? At his most optimistic, Calvino welcomes the prospect of annihilation, because afterwards – he is certain of an afterwards – one can see ‘how the discourse will resume; that is, how the totality of culture, which has suffered so many earthquakes and razings to the ground and has so far lived through them, will manage to overcome this.’
But Calvino also possessed another literary disposition, which animates his judgments and saves him from scholasticism. In one of the several interviews included in The Written World, a question about his favourite novelists prompts an outpouring: ‘I love Tolstoy because at times I seem to be about to understand how he does it, then I don’t. I love Manzoni because until a little while ago I hated him. I love Chesterton because he wanted to be the Catholic Voltaire and I wanted to be the communist Chesterton.’ The performance depends on its apparent sincerity (‘I love Jane Austen because I have never read her but I’m glad she exists’), its promotion of pleasure and its seeming immediacy. It doesn’t collapse into general appreciation; each declaration of love is moored to a specific thought. So often in Calvino ‘to read’ and ‘to love’ are almost synonyms. Like every reader, he knows his reading is never complete – that is part of the pleasure – and the piece ends elliptically, stretching towards the unknown of the next page: ‘I love …’
To love – and to read – is not to do so equally. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller contains many stories, but chief among them is a romance conducted through books and populated by defective (or duplicitous) readers. The gravity of defect varies: Ludmilla, whom the protagonist loves, sees writing as a natural extrusion from an author, as ‘a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins.’ Like most productive naiveties, this one is carefully guarded, and Ludmilla avoids contact with publishers or authors in order to preserve it. This makes her a wise reader as well as a naive one: she knows how difficult it is to recover pleasure and determines not to lose it in the first place. She is certainly a better reader than her academic sister, Lotaria, who has devised an objective reading machine that determines the meaning of a book by a statistical analysis of word frequency: ‘What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences?’
Calvino had a practitioner’s distrust of academics. He regretted the rise of ‘overlong and over-academic introductions’ and warned against the aesthetic triumph of a ‘rampant neo-professorialism’. Lotaria’s students communicate from this abyss, where ‘events, characters, settings, impressions are thrust aside, to make room for general concepts.’ His objection isn’t that literature is being sullied by the grubbiness of the world: elsewhere he praises the insights offered by new analytic disciplines, though his admiration is qualified by their tendency to displace their object of study. He wants to preserve the primacy of literature as a distinct mode of thought against its reduction to a series of predictable consequences, ‘illustrations, examples, of a discourse created elsewhere’. He disdains critics who impose themselves on a text, already certain of what they are about to discover. Such reading is not only impoverished, inadequate, boring, careless, inert and arid – it isn’t really reading at all.
In a late essay on Carlo Ginzburg, Calvino suggests that the role of the critic might equate to that of the hunter or the lover, but might also degenerate to that of a policeman. ‘The curse of our century’ (he is writing about both states and critics) ‘is that every cognitive interest is transformed into an accusation.’ Intellectuals are always ‘in search of a crime to try, a disgrace to report, a secret to violate’. The analogy is provocative and uncomfortable, and Calvino does not exempt himself. His manuscripts are fraught with evidence of self-suspicion – deletions, insistent rephrasings, new structures. Ludmilla’s ingenuous mode of reading could not be his, but that didn’t make it any less enviable. A longing for inaccessible modes of being recurs through late Calvino: he conjures the thought-world of a caveman, able to read natural signs now closed to us; in his American lectures he represents himself briefly as a leaden Saturn longing to be a quicksilver Mercury, only capable of mimicking weightless and intricate motion in his texts. Yet, he writes, ‘I never forget the gains are greater than the losses’: precision, clarity, the capacity for accurate description. He is impatient with muddy or uncertain aesthetic criteria. Calvino rarely alludes to Dante, but the moments when he does are significant: he compares the critic to Minos, judge of the damned, assigning hellish placements with a flick of his tail, but ‘without ever being sure which god has assigned him that ungrateful task for ever’.
None of his fiction after The Watcher deals so directly with political questions, but they persist in the novels as a series of covert ethical themes – freedom, the relationship between the individual and society, self-deception, the derivation of action from knowledge – on which political beliefs might be premised. (One of the hidden structures of Invisible Cities, not discernible in its prefatory index, is its distinction between just and unjust cities, happy and unhappy citizens.) His political concerns are more overt in the essays, especially those tackling the neo-avant-garde – a movement filled with the heretic communists, ultra-leftists and militant saboteurs of early 1960s Italy. Against literary instrumentalists and negationists (who believed the only thing worth saying was ‘no’), Calvino confesses to being a reformist who believes that ‘reality is knowable and therefore transformable.’
The revolution did not arrive. Calvino’s vindication is mixed with regret for vanquished ideals. He recognises that ‘to seek in literature the reasons for the disasters of politics and the dreams of a politics that is not disastrous’ is a kind of category error, albeit one that people can’t resist making. Against the degeneration of politics into complete identification with power, and the transformation of the world into a Cottolengo – he was writing in 1983, the era of the five-party cartel in Italy – he articulates a modest negative programme: ‘The only thing we can do is try to limit the damage of the power of the others.’ Literature’s powers ‘are indirect, act only over the long term, and influence areas that escape the grip of the visible power’. We might wish them to be more durable, even if they remain invisible.
There’s a certain slyness about Calvino’s definition of reformism, which allows for both ambitious and minimalist interpretations (in a letter to Norberto Bobbio he argues that, politically, it depends on a more threatening and less ordered change waiting in the wings). Calvino writes of multiplicities, or truth discerned through plural discourses, but also of ‘true knowledge’, which is difficult to acquire, represent and communicate. The problem preoccupies him. Marco Polo speaks of an infinity of cities when he means one city, Venice. Mr Palomar observes the sword of light thrown by the sun setting over the sea, which seems to point directly at him, as it does to every other person on the beach.
All of Calvino’s later work engages with the notion that the world can be changed because it can be known. The fictions don’t attempt to conceal the authorial control that oversees their many recursive layers and complex structures. It is notable that texts so artificial (or, to use the Oulipian verb, ‘constrained’) nonetheless describe reality so closely. It ‘requires a clear mind, control of reason over instinctive or unconscious inspiration, stylistic discipline … to read the world on multiple levels and in multiple languages at the same time’. Calvino was here describing the discipline required of writers of the fantastic, but not without self-projection. He tells us, with only a little irony, that he aspires to write a book ‘completely beyond the capacities of my temperament and my technical skills’.
This is not false modesty. Desire – for communication, for the portion of the world that remains unknown – propels Calvino and his characters. Incarnated as a mollusc, Qfwfq generates the first spiral shell through his desire to mate, inventing in the process both time and art. Contrary to Calvino’s ambition runs a cold stream of scepticism. He doesn’t doubt that literature’s powers are limited. As the bestselling hack Silas Flannery puts it in If on a Winter’s Night, ‘I do not believe totality can be contained in language; my problem is what remains outside, the unwritten, the unwritable.’
It is hard to know whether to call this tension between epistemic modesty and aesthetic ambition a contradiction, not least because Calvino was perfectly aware of the tension and set it to work. Sometimes he seems on the brink of an empty aestheticism. ‘If the world is increasingly senseless,’ he wrote in 1982, ‘all we can do is try to give it a style.’ This is almost caricature Calvino (Penguin has put the quote on the back cover of The Written World). It concludes an essay devoted to the worthwhile difficulty of communicating across languages and insists on the importance of the ‘writer’s particular accent’. Even here, Calvino avoids sentimentalism by approaching the subject at one remove, through quotation, allusion or implication. Styles are unequal, after all. Some repeat the world’s senselessness, its nullities and violence, or render these things slick and inviting.
A consistent ethos emerges in later Calvino, in lieu of his previous political commitments. As he put it in a lecture of 1976, ‘what we ask of writers is that they guarantee the survival of what we call human in a world where everything appears inhuman.’ It’s the sort of statement that disappoints revolutionaries, although to take it seriously might entail a very ambitious politics. It permits us to see, alongside the ludic and the absurdist Calvino, a Calvino for our predicament. When I looked up the original Italian of his injunction that we give the senseless world a style, I realised that its verbs, ‘cercare’, ‘fare’, ‘dare’ (to look for, to make, to give), were a deliberate echo of the counsel Polo gives to a despairing Khan at the end of Invisible Cities. To survive the inferno, ‘seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the middle of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
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