Biography of Italo Calvino,
One of the leading figures in the the post-modern literary eraBy
Updated January 06, 2020
By Way of an Autobiography
(from The Uses of Literature)
You ask me for a biographical note—something that always embarrasses me. Biographical data, even those recorded in the public registers, are the most private things one has, and to declare them openly is rather like facing a psychoanalyst. At least I imagine so: I have never had myself psychoanalyzed.
I will start by saying that I was born under the sign of Libra, so that in my character equilibrium and unbalance mutually correct each other’s excesses. I was born when my parents were about to come home after years spent in the Caribbean; hence the geographical instability that makes me forever long for somewhere else.
My parents’ knowledge was all concentrated on the vegetable kingdom, its marvels and its virtues. Attracted by another kind of vegetation, that of the written word, I turned my back on what they might have taught me; but wisdom in what is human also remained foreign to me.
I grew up from infancy to youth in a town on the Riviera, huddled in its microclimate. Both the sea contained in its gulf and the massive mountains seemed to me protective and reassuring. I was separated from Italy by a narrow strip of coast road, and from the world by a nearby frontier. To leave that shell was for me to repeat the trauma of birth, but I only realize that now.
Having grown up in times of dictatorship, and being overtaken by total war when of military age, I still have the notion that to live in peace and freedom is a frail kind of good fortune that might be taken from me in an instant. Given this incentive, politics took up perhaps too great a part of the preoccupations of my youth. I mean too great for me, for what contribution I might have made, since things that seem distant from politics count far more as influences on the history (even political) of countries and of people.
As soon as the war was over, I felt the call of the big city more strongly than that of my provincial roots. I found myself hesitating for a while between Turin and Milan. My choice of Turin certainly had its own reasons and was not without consequences. Now I have forgotten both reasons and consequences, but for years I told myself that if I had chosen Milan, everything would have been quite different.
I set my hand to the art of writing early on. Publishing was easy for me, and I at once found favor and understanding. But it was a long time before I realized and convinced myself that this was anything but mere chance.
Working in a publishing house, I spent more time with the books of others than with my own. I do not regret it: everything that is useful to the whole business of living together in a civilized way is energy well spent. From Turin, a city that is serious but sad, it often happened that I would slip down to Rome. (Incidentally, the only Italians I have ever heard speak of Rome in other than negative terms are the Turinese.) And so Rome is probably the Italian city where I have lived longest, without ever asking myself why.
The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner. Therefore, Paris is the city where I found my wife, set up home, and raised a daughter. My wife is a foreigner, too, and when the three of us are together, we talk in three different languages. Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one’s mother’s womb.
Grand Bazaar (Milan), September-October 1980. I realize that in this autobiography I have dwelt chiefly on the subject of birth, and talked about the later stages as of a continuation of my first seeing the light; and now I tend to go even further back, to the prenatal world. This is the risk run by every autobiography felt as an exploration of origins, like that of Tristram Shandy, who dwells on his antecedents and, when he gets to the point of having to begin to recount his life, finds nothing more to say
ITALO CALVINO, THE NOVELIST, DEAD AT 61
Mr. Calvino is survived by his wife, Chichita Singer, a former translator for Unesco in Paris whom he married in 1964, and a daughter, Giovanna.
A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 20 of the National edition with the headline: ITALO CALVINO, THE NOVELIST, DEAD AT 61THE NEW YORK TIMES
The 10 Best Italo Calvino Books
Italo Calvino was a writer who remained true to himself by restlessly seeking change. Fantasy, science fiction, fables, essays, anthologies, autobiography, novellas, novels: the same wit and playfulness were always there, as was a certain special sort of seriousness. The interesting question, all the time, was where there was.
Calvino’s first published work was The Path to the Nest of Spiders, a novel in more or less realistic (even neo-realistic, as in the Italian cinema) mode about the Italian resistance to the German army during World War II. After a protracted attempt at a second such novel, he never worked in this tradition again. But he didn’t abandon reality, only the ambition to depict it directly. He made a subtle, helpful distinction when he protested against the translation of the title of his novella The Non-Existent Knight as The Unreal Knight. "I never say the knight is unreal," Calvino remarked. "I say that he does not exist. That is very different." What we imagine is real too, and may be one of our best roads to understanding the supposedly solid historical world.
Another fine phrase from a letter. Calvino said that as a writer he aimed at "a clown-like mimesis of reality." A representation of life with lots of make-up and antics, full of laughter and sorrow, but not immediately, realistically plausible. Yet a version of reality all the same. Who has ever thought clowns are not real?
Here are brief evocations of 10 works by Calvino. I haven’t ranked them, because they are so different from each other--but it would be a fine game in the spirit of Calvino to try out different rankings and decipher our reasons for them.
Invisible Cities - In this extraordinary mixture of fantasy, fable and history Calvino traces the conversations of Marco Polo with the Great Khan. Each conversation is effectively a place, an invented, magical city that Polo ‘tells’ to the Khan as if it were a story. Every city offers images of great beauty and bewilderment, and the tone of the work darkens delicately as it progresses towards its ultimate, ambiguous visions of hell.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium - These memos represent the lectures that Calvino was to have given at Harvard in 1983. He had written five of them at the time of his death, so that in English the very title represents a wish and a regret--the Italian book is called Lezioni americane, Italian Lessons (or lectures). Each lecture evokes a virtue that Calvino would like humanity to take with it, if possible, into the next millennium. The virtues are: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity.
The Road to San Giovanni - This is an autobiographical essay about Calvino’s childhood in San Remo--long walks in the mountains, many movies, time on the beach. His love-affair with Ginger Rogers, he says, was "star-crossed from the start, even in my daydreams, since I didn’t know how to dance."
Mr Palomar - Mr Palomar is a lonely modern thinker, a portrait of the artist as a man with time on his hands. He looks at the sky, his lawn, the sea, starlings, tortoises, Roman rooftops, a girl, giraffes and much else. He wants only to observe, to learn a modest lesson from creatures and things. But he can’t. There is too much to see in them. Still, he keeps looking, a model for all those of us who would like to understand more (of anything) than we do.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies - In this pair of long stories, groups of travelers are stranded (in a castle, in a inn) and mysteriously unable to speak. They are desperate to tell their stories, though (they all have stories), and manage to do this by laying out playing cards on a table in a certain order. Many adventures arise, including some old and famous ones, those of Faust and Oedipus, for example. There is even a flickering figure who resembles Sigmund Freud.
The Cloven Viscount - The first of the three novellas later collected under the title Our Ancestors. Hit by a cannonball in an ancient war against the Turks, the titular viscount survives to become two people, the good guy and the bad guy. Things being what they are, though, in fantasy and in fact, neither of these figures gets on all that well with his compatriots, and only an end to the division can bring the story to a happy end.
Cosmicomics - A collection of brilliant short stories exploring Calvino’s interest in science and the fate of the earth. Topics like evolution, the distance of the moon from the earth, life as a mollusc, the last dinosaurs, messages from space all receive ironic and imaginative treatment. As Calvino says in a letter, joking and telling the truth as usual, "Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself."
Numbers in the Dark - This is a posthumous collection of stories, including the fabulous account of a stand-off between Francis Drake’s ship and a Spanish galleon. They are too far apart to fire at each other, and there is no wind, so they cannot move. Many commentators have seen an allegory of Italian politics and the cold war in this tale, but the narrator Donald Duck (who sailed with Drake) is not giving anything away.
Hermit in Paris - Autobiographical essays, bringing politics, writing and reading into close contact. The world outside used to be ‘packed with signs’, Calvino says, but now he likes to write in a room full of books, ‘not so much for the books themselves, as for the interior space they form’. It is amazing how many of the old signs of the