What we learn when we read Italo Calvino’s letters

The life and death of the author.

It on a winter's night a traveller.
If on a winter's night: Calvino's letters emphasise the notion of a writer's work being his biography. Image: Cat Roisetter.

Italo Calvino was discreet about his life and the lives of others, and sceptical about the uses of biography. He understood that much of the world we inhabit is made up of signs, and that signs may speak more eloquently than facts. Was he born in San Remo, Liguria? No, he was born in Santiago de las Vegas, in Cuba, but since “an exotic birthplace on its own is not informative of anything,” he allowed the phrase “born in San Remo” to appear repeatedly in biographical notes about him. Unlike the truth, he suggested, this falsehood said something about who he was as a writer, about his “creative world”.

This is to say that the best biography may be a considered fiction, and Calvino was also inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. “For the critic, the author does not exist,” he writes, “only a certain number of writings exist.”

Such assertions begin to conjure up what came to be known as the death of the author, and in a lecture called “Cybernetics and Ghosts”, Calvino explored the notion with great theoretical panache. This was in 1967, a year before Roland Barthes made the theme notorious in France and the English-speaking world. “And so the author vanishes,” Calvino said, “that spoiled child of ignorance – to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works.” We note that a machine replaces a myth, but a real (thoughtful) person replaces an unthinking illusion, and Calvino adds that we shall get a “poetic result . . . only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and of his society”.

This last sentence makes clear that Calvino is talking about a finished work and its life in the world, and not about some sort of unattainable impersonality: self and society may have become ghosts but they are essential. The death of the grandee author in no way implies the disappearance of the writing person, and any appearance of contradiction vanishes as soon as we understand that for Calvino and many others, writing is life. Books are unavoidably personal for Calvino but not confessional, and not only personal.

But then what are we to make of the letters of such a writer and what are we doing reading them? In part we are, I’m afraid, ignoring his warnings and careful distinctions; peeping into his privacy. What is striking is that the creative writer doesn’t dominate his correspondence as we might expect. There are interesting exceptions but on the whole the letters are not being used as practice for fiction or essays. Calvino does not have any sort of eye on posterity, as so many other modern letter-writers do. He is living in the present, not constructing a future monument.

This may offer something of a surprise to the reader who comes to the letters from the fiction and who may at first miss the expected intricacy and play. It’s not that there is no fun in the letters, but the sense of direct communication, of a man being as clear as he can about a host of matters, complex and simple, is quite different from that created by the artistic density of Calvino’s prose fiction. In his art, the wit and the irony are ways of reflecting the difficulties of the world while hanging on to his sanity – instruments of reason in a world of madness. “I am in favour,” Calvino says in one letter, “of a clown-like mimesis of contemporary reality.” Clowns are often sad and all too sane; but their relation to reality is oblique. Calvino’s writing is part of a great literary project of hinting and suggesting, making memorable shapes and images, rather than giving information or offering explanations. In his letters, Calvino tells rather than shows his correspondents what he means – with great and often moving success.

For this reason, although we invade Calvino’s privacy by the mere fact of looking at these letters, it is a very special privacy that appears: not the writer’s real self – why wouldn’t his writing represent this self, as he thought it did – but his plain self. We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity. Calvino’s clarifications cover many diverse topics but they often converge in their effect. We now understand what we half-understood before; we see that what looked like a quirk was a policy; we realise that our puzzlement and Calvino’s are one and the same.

A “clown-like mimesis” of reality will picture the world as sad and laughable, perhaps scarcely to be lived in. But we are living in it, and that is why the laughter is essential. It is a sign that we are not mere victims, that we are still thinking. This is how we attempt to get the starkest sort of grasp on the real while recognising that only indirection will work. This is how literature becomes at times a “kind of game, which does not require allegories to be looked for, though at the same time suggesting them” and this is why closure in Calvino is always ironic, a neat simulation of what is not available.

All this is part of what Calvino calls his Enlightenment mentality, belated, self-conscious, aware of the troubles reason has got itself into but faithful to lucidity all the same. Clowns and rationalists do not – cannot – believe in paradise and, more important perhaps, are endlessly troubled by the fact that everyone around them does. What chance is there for those “who have always wanted people no longer to think in terms of hell and paradise”? Well, they can argue their case, as Calvino does in 1950 in a long letter to Mario Motta. Responding to Motta’s suggestion that “each one of us can hope for a supernatural paradise”, Calvino says that the very term “paradise”, let alone “supernatural”, is “totally foreign” to his “usual way of thinking”. The thought of paradise for Calvino gets in the way of the work that needs doing on earth. Even Dante, Calvino says, in spite of the otherworldly locations of his great poem, is concerned with “men as they are, on the ‘earth’”.

What provoked Calvino’s long initial reflection on paradise was Motta’s review of a book called The God That Failed. The god in question was either Marx or revolution, and Calvino can’t bear the thought that politics is a matter of faith, or has any relation to religion. Politics is about making conditions better on earth (or trying to), or it is nothing. The very idea of an ex-communist in this theological sense seems shabby to Calvino, a proof only of delusion. “The ‘ex-Communist’ is one of the dreariest figures of the postwar period,” he writes in July 1950.

It’s not that communism itself doesn’t have its dreary sides and worse. But in order to understand Italy (and indeed many other countries) in the 20th century, we need to see how a communist party could be a representative progressive force in its intentions and sometimes its achievements; and also fatally flawed by its dependence on Moscow. It was not a god that failed but a deified dictator called Stalin – or more precisely, an unquestioning allegiance to Stalin’s success was the ruin of European communism. Calvino does not deny this allegiance, but he never becomes an ex-communist except in the narrowest sense. It is possible, and Calvino does this very delicately in his letters, to get a clear view of one’s errors without believing that one’s former life was nothing but a mistake. It is in this sense that, as Calvino puts it in March 1958, the contemplation of the Tower of Babel rather than the Garden of Eden is instructive for a writer.

For an instance of how the clarity of these letters relates to the ironic clarity of a fable, we could look at one of Calvino’s earliest stories, “Making Do”. The location is a town where everything is forbidden except playing the game of tip-cat. No one complains, everyone enjoys the game. Then a thaw comes, or a moment of liberalisation, and the constables of the town decide “there was no longer any reason why everything should be forbidden”. Now the people are allowed to do whatever they want. What they want, however, is to go on playing tip-cat and when the constables try to prevent this, we are told, “the people rebelled and killed the lot of them”. The last words of the story are, “Then without wasting time, they got back to playing tip-cat.”

This tale, with its respect for a hostility to change and its implied invitation to do better nevertheless, has a close resemblance to the much later story “Becalmed in the Antilles”, where Donald Duck, who once sailed with Francis Drake, is pestered by his nephews for his account of the time when the crews of an English and a Spanish ship, rather than fighting each other, just watched and waited – for the wind or perhaps the invention of the steam engine. That’s all that happened: nothing. Calvino was thinking of the Italian Communist Party in the mid-1950s, but also more generally of the cold war, and the antagonism between Russia and China. And both of these stories, of course, can be taken as alluding to a range of realities Calvino himself could not have known, because as with his birth in San Remo, the instances are fictitious but their echoes in the world are actual. Calvino’s objection to the French translation of the title of his novel The Nonexistent Knight as Le chevalier irréel makes this point impeccably: “I never say that the knight is unreal. I say that he does not exist. That is very different.”

Michael Wood has written the introduction to “Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985”, translated by Martin McLaughlin (Princeton University Press, £27.95)