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How Italo Calvino Arrived at a New Ideal for Fiction

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Who any longer remembers or broods on Italy in the 1950s and 1960s? It was the era of a severe sadness—whether in the cinema of Rossellini and Antonioni, or the artistic thinking of Alighiero Boetti, or the musical thinking of Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono. There was a total noble clarity to the tone, and the deepest expression of this tone was in literature. For this was the era of Primo Levi’s prose and Pasolini’s novels and essays, as well as Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini’s novels and the novels of their protégés Natalia Ginzburg and Elsa Morante—and, above all, the work of Italo Calvino. In Turin and Milan and Rome, an unusually intricate investigation into what might be taken for reality was underway. This had something to do, no doubt, with the state of postwar destruction. In Paris, the postwar moment was a mute, anguished trauma. In Italy, however, the atmosphere was different. It managed to be simultaneously more utopian and more fragile, and that atmosphere allowed for investigations into reality that would have been savagely political if they hadn’t been at the same time so delicately formal.

There is nothing like it now, not in New York or London or Shanghai, just as there is no writer alive who resembles that era’s greatest writer, Calvino. So the appearance of a selection of Calvino’s letters in English is a moment of happiness. This does not mean, however, that it is a book to be read through on the ultimate sofa or day-bed. These are not self-exposing compositions like the letters of Flaubert or Elizabeth Bishop. The tone, in Martin McLaughlin’s translation, can sometimes feel coldly pedantic or earnestly verbose. The scrupulously literary focus of the selection by Michael Wood gives a strange impression, as if Calvino were unable to talk about anything in private that could not be said in a lecture course or a publishing meeting. So perhaps this isn’t a great book, not entirely.

And yet Calvino was a great writer, after all—and his greatness is also inseparable from this book’s careful solemnity. In everything Calvino writes, his integrity is visible. His various homages to Cesare Pavese, his hero, are exemplary for the precision of their praise, and what he once said about Pavese could also be said about him:

It was his example of productivity that was fundamental, witnessing how the culture of the man of letters and the sensitivity of the poet were transformed into productive work, into values that were put at the service of his neighbors, into the organization and commerce of ideas, into practice and into a school of all the techniques of which a modern cultural civilization consists.

In the same way, these letters offer a gorgeous portrait of Calvino in the midst of his own productivity: as an editor, a reader, a critic, an inventor of new literary forms. And they allow the reader to investigate the complicated background from which those strange forms emerged. To many admirers of his most famous works—those playful almost-novels like If on a winter’s night a traveler—this background, I think, may be surprising. In a letter written in 1971 to Esther Benítez, who was at work on a Spanish edition of Pavese’s own Letters, Calvino offered a general theory: “It is only by situating him in what was his field of combat that one can understand Pavese’s originality and his constant commitment.” At this point, Calvino was finishing Invisible Cities, the book that would make him internationally famous—a series of luxuriant imaginary cities described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, all of which, notoriously, are really the same city, Venice. And so I also suspect that Calvino’s advice to Pavese’s editor was intended for Calvino’s imagined reader, too: a plea that the luxury and delicacy of his imagined fictions would not be separated from the larger history of Calvino’s career—which began with the Partisan war against the Nazis in the hills of northern Italy, and then continued as a member of the Communist Party, from which Calvino resigned in 1957 but whose ideals he never abandoned.

Just consider the following picture. In 1959, the thirty-six-year-old Italo Calvino took the boat from Italy to New York. His career as a novelist had begun more than a decade earlier, with the publication in 1947 of a short novel about the partisans during World War II, called The Path to the Spider’s Nests. He had since written a series of books that combined a realistic precision with a kind of folk or fairy-tale structure: Adam, One AfternoonDifficult LovesInto The War; and some of the stories that would eventually become Marcovaldo—as well as his most popular book, Our Ancestors. He had also edited a collection of Italian Folktales for Einaudi—the Turinese publishing house where he worked, and where his mentors and friends worked as well: Pavese, Vittorini, Natalia Ginzburg. (On November 8, 1946, he offers this progress report: “Natalia too is writing a novel. Pavese is writing a novel as well. I’ve started a novel too: I wrote four pages in a week.”) Sure, he had recently resigned from the Communist Party, but he was still Turinese by adoption—in other words, he was a nostalgic revolutionary. This is a man who could write stories of cloven viscounts, and barons in the trees, but who could also proudly write home that, on arrival in San Francisco, “Naturally, the first thing I do is to go and visit Harry Bridges, secretary of the ILWU, the dockers’ union which is the only left-wing union with any clout in America, famous for its meeting with Khrushchev.” Or who, the following year, would go down to Montgomery to witness the sit-in protests against Jim Crow, and briefly meet Martin Luther King Jr., “a very stout and capable person, physically resembling Bourghiba a bit, with a little moustache.”

This is not, I think, the habitat of your average metafictionist.

The usual way of putting the basic conundrum or strangeness of Calvino’s career is to picture it as a conjuring trick, or joke: how does a neorealist Italian Communist become an international inventor of metafictions? And yet these letters reveal that this apparent split in Calvino’s soul was in fact a permanent dilemma. Always he was worried about his twin desires—for probable and improbable stories, realism and fables. In 1949, he put it this way round, talking about his early books: “My problem today is how to escape from the limits of these books, from this definition of me as a writer of adventures, fairy tales, and fun, in which I can’t express myself or realize myself to the full.” Nearly a decade later, in 1958, he was still wistful: “I would be very happy if the future were to prove you right, in other words that I would succeed in writing a great realist novel.” And then he added: “At this moment I am speaking as a marginal spectator, impartially divided between Calvino ‘the fabulist’ and Calvino ‘the realist.’”

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The director Roberto Rossellini on the set of The Flowers of St. Francis, which he wrote with Federico Fellini.

It might look like excessive self-consciousness, as if Calvino were trying to write his own reviews. But really this was a problem not of literary politics but integrity. Later in 1958, Calvino wrote to the critic Alberto Asor Rosa. In this letter, he defines the task of the critic as “finding a unity amongst things that apparently each go their own way. And if that unity does not exist, it means that the author is not a writer, and so these are pointless discourses.” That task of the critic is the mirror image of the writer’s own task. For as Calvino explained to the writer Franco Fortini, lamenting the fact that they lived “in an Alexandrian period” when writers could “choose freely the most varied forms,” he believed “more and more firmly in the morality of style: in the total identification of content (of the truth of the individual) with style.” That was the ideal, whereas Calvino and his contemporaries were lost in the “inferno of the exchangeability of styles.”

In other words, one definition of paradise is to possess your own style. And this desire for a single definition never left him. Much later, in 1974, he wrote a happy letter to Gore Vidal, who had written about Calvino in The New York Review of Books: “you manage to establish a general sense in everything I have written, almost a philosophy—‘the whole and the many’ etc.—and I am very happy when someone manages to find a philosophy in the products of my so unphilosophical mind.” But I wonder if the truth of Calvino’s integrity is even stranger, beyond any pairing of the real and the fantastic, or the whole and the many. And one hint of his deep project is announced in 1961, in a letter to Mario Socrate: “I would like to found a cosmic literary movement.” That it is almost meant as a joke, there is no doubt: “I’d be ready to declare myself a follower of the cosmic literary movement for a period of six months, maybe even a year. ... Not for any longer than that; literary tendencies count only if they are of short duration.” But that this is also sincere is proved by Calvino’s next paragraph: “The fact is that until we fight head on everything that is happening and being thought about in contemporary Italian literature, the arts, cinema etc., we will not make any progress.”

The cosmic was Calvino’s route out of the permitted genres. All the time, Calvino was trying to find a total way of writing: it would include everything he wanted to express, from the most prosaic politics to the most abstract sign-making. And he found it in this commitment to a total natural history. Calvino is a nature writer, in a way—if you consider that this term can cover his beloved Cyrano de Bergerac as much as Galileo or Lucretius or Ovid or Ariosto, all writers who are trying to describe an entire cosmology. The cosmological is Calvino’s great subject. It is the point at which all subjects can converge.

It also does crazy tricks with the usual literary perspective. A decade later, in 1970, writing to Sebastiano Timpanaro, Calvino wrote passionately against all “anthropocentric provincialism.” The reader, I think, should pause on that charming phrase. For Calvino, the provincial is not in only thinking about New York, say, or Europe, or even about the West. No, in Calvino’s correct formula, you are provincial if you think about only the human. The true concern should be the universe. How can you not love this? We might think, argues Calvino, that “the objective of man is the humanization of nature, the total mastery of the forces of matter etc.,” but really “this objective will be reached only when it is understood that these are rhetorical formulae and that in reality it is the memory of matter that organizes itself through man.” People are a tool of nature, not the other way round. In its supreme modesty, this statement represents the essence of Calvino’s greatness. And it is from this perspective that the apparent difference between the human and the natural, between signs and objects, disappears—in this concept of matter using humans as antennae: “Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself.”

The sequence of works that made Calvino famous, beginning with the stories of Cosmicomics, all represent in some way an attempt at a miniature cosmology, or encyclopedia: The Castle of Crossed DestiniesInvisible CitiesIf on a winter’s night a traveler, and Mr. Palomar. To call them novels is too glib, too imprecise. For novelists, in the end, care about people more than they deserve. All novels, in Calvino’s terms, are provincial. Whereas what Calvino invented were more like world-works—like Goethe’s Faust, about which Calvino wrote to Franco Fortini in 1971, following Fortini’s recent translation of Goethe’s epic poem:

Amongst the positive experiences of the last few months, I have to include the fact that Faust has become—thanks to the spirit of your “translation”—one of my “models,” as a work that contains all the dimensions we need. It is at once the establishing of a universe, an evocation of new values, and at the same time a form of game.

In 1965, Calvino wrote to his friend Michelangelo Antonioni regretfully saying that he couldn’t in the end help work on Antonioni’s latest project, the movie that would turn out to be Blow-Up, “at a time when I am immersed in creative work of a very different kind (a series of stories which constitute a new experiment and require me to concentrate using a certain kind of logic).”1 It is a letter that is partly charming for its proof that so many projects in postwar Italy overlapped; but also because Calvino was right. His work represented a new experiment.

Calvino may have been indebted to the moral strictures of Pavese and Vittorini, but it was only when his last mentor, Vittorini, was dead that his experiments seem to have accelerated. It might only be coincidence. But it is still curious that one of his most revealing letters about his new Cosmicomics project, on February 15, 1966, to Gian Carlo Ferretti, has this poignant postscript: “I had left the draft of this letter in Turin; then I left for Rome and have not been back here for three weeks. I am signing it only now, the day after poor Elio’s funeral.” This letter was a small manifesto, an announcement of future work: “I would like to succeed in distilling the results of my ideal form of research, and of my comments on reality; but I would like to do so not solely using symbolic or rather allegorical words with a range of meanings. I would like to be able to express everything by thinking in images, or in word-images.” And he then adds: “I am well aware that even this question of proposing signs and following them through their potential organization is a way of thinking, and so the point of arrival must be the abolition of this opposition between the organization of signs and the organization of meanings.” He had arrived at a new mode of thinking.

In other words, his work might have come out of the postwar Italian milieu, with its commitment to commitment, but the form Calvino’s morality arrived at was purely singular. He invented a way of writing whose essence was utopian—just as Pavese’s was—but whose form was entirely new: sketches or drafts for a cosmology. And one example of this new form is his story “The Count of Montecristo,” which Calvino dated to the summer of 1967, a year after Vittorini had died—“in other words it was the last story I wrote before handing over the book for printing.” Five years later, writing to Giovanni Falaschi, Calvino described this story as his “‘epistemological testament.’” It is narrated by Dumas’s Count, imprisoned in the Château d’If, in which the Count considers all the possibilities of escape. And it ends like this:

If I succeed in mentally constructing a fortress from which it is impossible to escape, this conceived fortress either will be the same as the real one—and in this case it is certain we shall never escape from here, but at least we will achieve the serenity of one who knows he is here because he could be nowhere else—or it will be a fortress from which escape is even more impossible than from here—and this, then, is a sign that here an opportunity of escape exists: we have only to identify the point when the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one and then find it.

The problem of the prison is both epistemological and political—or, in Calvino’s summary to Falaschi: “the ‘Montecristo’ story ... aims to indicate the right way in which the absolute system, the perfect prison, should be hypothesized precisely in order to prove that the real prison is not perfect. ... This is also the problem of a utopia (Fourier), of a negative utopia.” 

All of Calvino’s future work is summarized here. Every imaginary world is a form of utopian thinking. It is a means of testing the possibilities of escape within, and from, the apparently real world. Which meant that this cosmology was political and playful, at the same time.

In the same summer of 1967, when Cosmicomics was finished, the Calvinos left Italy for Paris. That fall, he returned to theory, writing essays such as “Philosophy and Literature” and “The Hypothetical Bookshelf.” I don’t think that this move to the city of theory, or this sudden new rush of theoretical activity, was a coincidence. For Calvino was a great essayist who was also a great novelist, and this was one effect of his new investigations. From his ideal cosmic perspective, a different aesthetic emerges: or even a different idea of what the aesthetic might be.

I think the best way of putting this would be: Calvino tries to imagine what literature would look like if its link to a self were cut. He is remarkable for his ability to treat writing as a practice, with an alarming sense of objectivity. In these letters, it creates an almost comical and then finally charming obsession with writing to critics about his own work, an obsession that seems initially to be the highest vanity and then is gradually revealed to be the grandest selflessness. (The only equivalent I can think of is Picasso, whom Brassaï once described as having the uncanny ability to consider his paintings as if they had been done by someone else, just minutes after he had finished them.) But the implications of this impersonal writing are darker, too. His absolute a-humanism makes Calvino one of the least benign of writers. So charming himself, he is impervious to the usual charms of other people. Under his gaze of “a hardened morphologist,” the “autobiographical-critical-ethical-lyrical hero” is sternly dismissed. Instead, he moves into vaster territory: “It is on the level of anthropology (let’s say of pre-history rather than history) that literature is not a closed universe.”

The individual novelist therefore disappears, to be replaced, on the one hand, with collective projects and experiments, and, on the other hand, with unique works. This is a vision of literature that still feels strange, because it is from a perspective much larger than our usual timescales. In a letter describing how he feels comfortable only with short forms, Calvino then continues:

However, I do not mean by this that I am in favor only of short time-spans—or rather, there is no doubt that we are living in a period in which time has been shattered, there is no room to breathe, no possibility of foreseeing and planning ahead, and that this rhythm is imposed on what I write—but ideally I believe more and more that the only thing that counts is what moves in long, very long time-spans, both in geological eras and in the history of society.

On the level of literary history, this meant that Calvino more and more demurred at the crude idea of the author-interview: “A text must be something that can be read and evaluated without reference to the existence or otherwise of a person whose name and surname appear on the cover.” For the author, “after writing a book, is no longer the same as he was before, and therefore is no longer the author of that book”: “I believe that this ought not to be the exception but the rule, if literature really was a serious experience.” Rather than the study of individuals, the critic should study works or collectives: “I am more and more convinced that literature is made up of works, genres, schools, discussions, problems, collective work in order to solve certain problems, and not of the individual personalities of authors. Of course authors exist and are necessary, but the study of literature author by author seems to me to be less and less the right way forward.”

At the level of the work itself, this created in Calvino a constant vigilance about making sure the frame of every narrative was exposed. This formal exuberance was not pure playfulness, or not only playful. Instead, Calvino felt—as he put it in 1967—“a moral obligation while writing to warn: ‘Watch out, I am writing.’” Just as, much later on, in 1979, describing the strange structure of If on a winter’s night a traveler, he describes how “in every novel fragment there is at least one passage in which the written page comes into the foreground.” This obsession with the frame was the proof of his morality. It was the only way of truthfully describing the fact that the real was layered, in levels. Or, as he put it in a note drafted shortly before his death:

Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls—and somehow stands for—everything that remains out of the picture. I might venture a definition: we consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.

An obsession with exposing the frame is necessary if you are truly obsessed with what is inside the frame. The frame is a form of respect for the cosmos. It is a way of honestly stating one’s provincial position.

It really is an advance, the manner of Calvino’s thinking. The values that he discovers—and which he also described in his brilliant, prancing essays and lectures—are very strange. If one tried to make a list of those values from this collection of letters, it would include the cosmic, the frame, the refusal of the personal, the love of small forms, the fantastic, the metafictional, or self-consciously fictional. And all these values are on either side of the human scale: either too small or too large. That, in the end, is what an ethical aesthetics will look like. This is what will happen if you are honestly utopian.

For utopia is the deep theme of these letters—the preoccupation that Calvino first acquired during his time in the Resistance, in the hills during World War II. As early as 1950, the word utopia is critical to Calvino’s thinking: “Now both ‘Russia’ and ‘America’ represented a collection of Italian data and aspirations, they were two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias, and the sum ‘Russia’ + ‘America’ (‘that’ Russia + ‘that’ America) added up to the great country of utopia that was, I believe, for many people, and certainly not solely intellectuals, the true objective of the Resistance.” The idea goes on to structure certain mini-narratives that run throughout this collection—such as the moving, divergent course of Calvino’s friendship with Pasolini, from Calvino’s early love of Pasolini’s poetry to his dismay at Pasolini’s films2 and then at his lurid public persona: “the ideologizer of eros and the eroticizer of ideology.” But then, according to Calvino’s own terms, literary history is not a matter of individual personalities. From the true and giant perspective, they are both revealed as part of a wider collective project—a project to investigate what utopia might mean. This was the real center of their artistic disagreements.

Utopia, for Calvino, had a particular meaning. Perhaps the most famous appearance of this theme in his fictions is in the final chapter of Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo describes his search for the ideal city: “If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” Even if, at the same time, he ends with a description of the infernal city, in which all a person can do is “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” In a letter to Claudio Varese, in 1973, Calvino paused on this double ending:

I notice that all critics dwell on the final sentence ... as if that were the conclusion—and of course by placing it at the end I myself have privileged it over the other conclusions that the book suggests as it goes along—but I think one can dwell also on other sentences that have an emphasis of this type. The final italic passage itself has two conclusions, both of the same order of importance: one on the ideal city (which is seen as discontinuous and immanent, and no critic has concentrated on this so far), and the other on the infernal city.

Calvino was worried about how pessimistically readers interpreted his book’s conclusion. Maybe what this shows is how difficult it is for people to understand what a utopia might really mean. That something is discontinuous, and hesitant, didn’t mean for Calvino that it wasn’t real. This was the tempered optimism that his integrity allowed. And so this lovely, lonely letter reminds me of two other moments in Calvino’s oeuvre, on either side of Invisible Cities. In a wonderful essay on Stendhal, which he would publish in 1980, Calvino writes, with cosmological precision: “We can say, therefore, that the reality whose essence Stendhal wants to explore is punctiform, discontinuous, unstable, a pulviscular cloud of heterogeneous phenomena.” The discontinuous can be a form of knowledge: this was the wisdom of his Marco Polo, and now also of his Stendhal. A decade earlier, he had written to Lev Veršinin and had come up with this moral principle: “Communist morality is valid even if one does not worry about future happiness, about a ‘paradise’ on earth, but one finds one’s own happiness in the very fact of behaving like a Communist. Communism is already the fact that some men behave as Communists, that some workers tenaciously face up to struggles and persecutions for a just cause etc.”

That something might be improvised in form, hesitant, miniature, is no reason that it isn’t in fact representative of the grandest truths. Just think, after all, of the strangeness of Calvino’s works. He is a great novelist who never wrote a great novel. His works are often collections of works—stories, tales, essays: punctiform, discontinuous—gathered in collections that are given form by intricate algorithmic rules and structures. As Calvino confessed, “My work is so disparate that as soon as I find some affinities that allow me to bring different texts together, I never let the chance slip.”

But this refusal of fixed form may precisely be his greatest achievement. On September 12, 1970, he wrote to Pietro Citati: “I have been mulling over recently on what constitutes a novel, maybe because of an (at present vague) desire to go back to proclaiming the necessity of ‘novelistic’ ingredients.” There is a beautiful freedom in this perception of the “novelistic” as a simple mode. True, even Calvino was worried by his apparent intellectual mobility, the way his books seemed to differ so resolutely from each other. But perhaps the novelistic, like the essayistic, is really just a method of interrogation, a way of approaching a single problem. What would a just representation look like? This was the enigma Calvino first perceived in the Italy of the 1950s—and he framed it with such clarity and lightness that his solutions still remain useful for a future, cosmic literature.

Adam Thirlwell’s most recent novel is The Escape (Picador).

  1. Although in retrospect it's also true that Blow-Up and Cosmicomics do share an obsession: they are both investigations of a world where everything has turned into a possible sign.

  2. On July 3, 1964, Calvino wrote to Pasolini praising one of his poems, and then adding: "When are you going to stop making films?" To Pasolini—who had just made Mamma Roma, and The Gospel According to St. Matthew!