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What we learn when we read Italo Calvino’s letters

The life and death of the author.

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)

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.