Italo Calvino's Letters
May 22, 2013 3:30 PM   Subscribe

The New Yorker is publishing excerpts from Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, translated by Martin McLaughlin, on its book blog. (via)

Part One (linked above the fold): 10-11 May 1942, to Eugenio Scalfari

Part Two: 8-11-46, to Silvio Micheli

Part Three: 24 August 1959, to Luigi Santucci

Part Four: 24-6-68, to Guido Fink

Part Five: 7.23.73, to Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Paris Review is also excerpting the book: March 7, 1942, to Eugenio Scalfari

Calvino previously.
posted by Rustic Etruscan (15 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Dear Mr. Ricci,

Here is my CV. I was born in 1923 under a sky in which in the radiant sun and melancholy Saturn were housed in a harmonious Libra. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in what was in those days still verdant San Remo, which contained cosmopolitan eccentrics amid the surly isolation of its rural, practical folk; I was marked for life by both these aspects of the place. Then I moved to the industrious and rational Turin, where risk of going mad is no less than elsewhere (as Nietzche found out). I arrived at a time when the streets opened out deserted and endless, so few were the cars; to shorten my journeys on foot I would cross the rectilinear streets on long obliques from one angle to the other—a procedure that today is not just impossible but unthinkable—and in this way I would advance marking out invisible hypotenuses between gray right-angled sides. I got to know only barely other famous metropolises, on the Atlantic and Pacific, falling in love with all of them at first sight: I deluded myself into believing that I had understood and possessed some of them, while others remained forever ungraspable and foreign to me. For many years I suffered geographic neurosis: I was unable to stay three consecutive days in one city or place. In the end I chose definitive wife and dwelling in Paris, a city that is surrounded by forests and hornbeams and birches, where I walk with my daughter Abigail, and that in turn surrounds the Bibliotheque Nationale, where I go to consult rare books, using my Reader’s Ticket, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old. That’s all.

Yours sincerely,

This letter is thought to have been written in Paris in the autumn of 1969. Translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin.
posted by vacapinta at 3:37 PM on May 22, 2013

A guy I dated many moons ago tried to convince me that If on a Winter's Night a Traveler was the greatest book ever written and that I just *had* to read it. I must be some kind of abject failure because it's been on my shelf all these long years and I still haven't finished it. Still interested to see these excerpts. Maybe I'll stumble over whatever it is I need to finally finish that damn book.
posted by PuppyCat at 3:55 PM on May 22, 2013

This is very neat, but also a bit sad that Bill Weaver isn't translating Calvino's stuff any more.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:52 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

"…Calvino lived briefly in Paris and met regularly with Giorgio Agamben during the period when Calvino had begun to reflect on lightness and Agamben on the questions that led to his own theory of bare life. From 1974 to 1976, Calvino, Agamben, and Claudio Rugafiori undertook together to identify the fundamental categories of thought and experience as part of an unrealized plan to begin publishing a new journal that they envisioned covering the most urgent critical issues of their day. Rugafiori started his share of the exercise with architecture and vagueness, Calvino with speed and lightness, and Agamben with tragedy and comedy, biography and fable, and, most importantly, law and creature."

Alessia Ricciardi, After La Dolce Vita: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi's Italy (2012). 12.

posted by whyareyouatriangle at 5:13 PM on May 22, 2013

And speaking of Bill Weaver, Italo Calvino, The Art of Fiction No. 130: Interviewed by William Weaver, Damien Pettigrew.

"Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. To a psychoanalyst it is not so important whether you tell the truth or a lie because lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth.

I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars. My goal in writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel entirely based on fantasy, was to find in this way a truth that I would have not been able to find otherwise."
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 5:17 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thank you. (I would also note that some of the pages include letters to multiple recipients. For example "Part Five" includes letters to Gore Vidal and Claudio Magris.)

Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore is very meta, but not a personal favourite. Similar to The Castle of Crossed Destinies and Invisible Cities, the imposition of a formal structure leaves me a bit cold, yet within that structure there is a dazzling display of writing. If you [PuppyCat] choose to take it off the shelf, I would definitely recommend Bill Ryder-Jones' If... as a companion piece.

Me, I've always gravitated more towards Calvino's shaggy-dog-surrealistic-put-something-I-already-knew-in-my-face-but-couldn't-say-it-myself short stories and fables. Like Cosmicomics and Mr. Palomar.

But, of all the things Calvino that I have read, the one that most affected me most was his essay on Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. I've been lost in a sea of epic Carolingian/Arthurian poetry ever since.

But, but... these letters! I'm so happy to see these!
Some lengthy letters amount almost to critical essays, while one is an appropriately brief defense of brevity, and there is an even shorter, reassuring note to his parents written on a scrap of paper while he and his brother were in hiding during the antifascist Resistance.

posted by shoesfullofdust at 5:23 PM on May 22, 2013

I look forward to the letters from Germano Hobbesi.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:00 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

My very favorite Calvino is Il barone rampante. The whimsy, the imaginative characters, the beautiful language, and of course the fact that the reader, like the title character, gets to experience the world from a new and unusual perspective... what a great book.

Love him. Thanks so much for this post.
posted by Superplin at 6:10 PM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was just coming in to say Il barone rampante too. It is genius and difficult and full of challenging characters. It is so beautiful.

Thanks very much for this post!
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:19 PM on May 22, 2013

"This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts bring with it consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it…
" If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 6:32 PM on May 22, 2013

Ah, Calvino; I love him. He was supposed to come speak to us at William & Mary in 1986, but had the temerity to die first. I wonder whether any of his letters relate to that planned trip. Ah, Calvino. I'm going to go see whether the cover falls off my paperback of Invisible Cities purchased in Williamsburg in 1985 this time when I open it.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 9:06 PM on May 22, 2013

I haven't read any Calvino at all, but he was recommended quite intensely to me by someone recently — not necessarily someone I trust, but she was very earnest.

I don't want to seem lazy, but I trust you lot a bit better than the "reception" section of his works on Wikipedia or a capsule summary at the NYT - if someone doesn't mind, what sort of literature did he write and in what way, and are there any near relatives (as near as relatives get among original authors, at any rate)?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:48 PM on May 22, 2013

Maybe I'll stumble over whatever it is I need to finally finish that damn book.
All you need is curiosity, wit, imagination and a modicum of patience. In other words, almost nothing. Read it DEEPLY next time and get into it. Attend.
posted by ReeMonster at 12:07 AM on May 23, 2013

I don't want to seem lazy, but I trust you lot a bit better than the "reception" section of his works on Wikipedia or a capsule summary at the NYT - if someone doesn't mind, what sort of literature did he write and in what way, and are there any near relatives (as near as relatives get among original authors, at any rate)?

Here's his Wikipedia page.

His most famous book is probably Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes the cities of the Mongolian Empire to Kublai Khan. The cities are so fanciful that they couldn't possibly exist: Each description is more of a short prose poem than anything else. The conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan appears in snippets between sets of descriptions.

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler alternates chapters: On the odd chapters, the protagonist (You) tries to get the correct copy of the novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, but the even ones are the first chapters of the novels that the protagonist gets instead. These first chapters pastiche various literary genres popular at the time of the book's publication. The odd chapters' plot eventually becomes strange.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:00 AM on May 23, 2013

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