Readersforum's Blog

July 29, 2013

How Italo Calvino Arrived at a New Ideal for Fiction


Letters: 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino, selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin

Letters: 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino, selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin


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.

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