cAre there a lot of materials left in the drawers of Italo Calvino’s desk? Since the death of the intrepid Italian polymath in 1985, no fewer than six collections of his non-fiction books have appeared in English, compiled into his autobiography (The Road to San Giovanni, Hermit in Paris) or literary criticism (The Six Memoirs of the Third Millennium), Why You Read classics?).
So with this seventh collection, The Written World and the Unwritten World, covering Calvino’s literary prose from 1952 to 1985 and translated by Ann Goldstein, we might expect scraps from the table. Sure, there are a few minor things here – a page on character names, for example – but surprisingly we get a lot of substance.
The greatest value in the first section, reading, writing, translation. Calvino relieves us with a hilarious overture to holiday reading aspirations (“A good reader has decided that this summer he will really read this author”), and savors the joys of a good book fair, “This boundless sky of colored covers, this dust cloud of typographic letters.”
We also get info on his favorite writers, a reliable and predictable group including Stendhal, Chekhov, and Pushkin, but low on women, other than Jane Austen (no, wait: “I’ve never read it but I’m glad it’s there”) and Katherine Mansfield.
But a keen reader like Calvino has no ease in deferring to other readings of his work. He writes to a critic who praised his book T Zero: “I’m glad you found it [it] ‘lovable’; But the more unpopular the book…the more important it is; The more difficult it is to assimilate, the more important it is.”
Yet this line is hard to reconcile with his statement elsewhere that “to entertain readers, or at least not to bore them, is my first and binding social duty”—and indeed, with the experience of reading Calvino’s novels, which is always as welcome as it is rigorous. This balance–complex ideas delivered with a light touch–is evident in all of his mature works, from Invisible Cities to Mr. Palomar.
Calvino expresses this tension between appeasing and otherwise challenging the reader, by saying that without the avant-garde literature dies, but the “perpetual avant-garde” is “equally disturbing”. He argues that Thomas Mann is in fact a nineteenth-century author, while William Faulkner shows the way forward: “Either we write this way or fiction is doomed to become a minor art form.” Meanwhile, Lolita is a great book because “there is so much at once, that it can turn our attention in infinite directions at once”—a wonderful description of Calvino’s own literature.
Calvino’s work has been widely translated, and working on his translations has been “the true way to read oneself, to understand what he wrote and why”. He admits to being the “tormentor of translators” (which fits with his longtime collaborator William Weaver’s accounts of Calvino’s obstinacy in thinking he knew English well enough to pick out the motive himself).
Not everything here is essential: some pieces falter when stripped out of context, like a letter responding to an essay we can’t see, and its references to Hegelian Lukácsians and Bergsonism require their own length in the footnotes for the general reader to peruse. You understand.
But there are many delights. Calvino’s love of fantasy gets its own section, and the reviews of the science books that make up the final segment are pretty sensational. These items are aspects of Calvino’s curiosity about ways of seeing things. In the title essay, he muses on his anxiety with the “real” world outside of the books, asking himself, “Why would you want to venture into this vast world that you can’t master?” The answer, of course, was to put it on the page, to help the rest of us helpless readers see it and understand it, too.