“I will begin by saying that I was born under the sign of Libra,” notes Italo Calvino in the brief autobiography offered in the guise of an appendix to Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e società (1980; The Uses of Literature). The astrological detail may seem innocuous, but it is perhaps revealing of the ambivalence running through the Italian writer’s work. Calvino does, in fact, use humor to express his concern over what the modern world is becoming, and the place that man may yet take in it. Bearing at one and the same time the imprint of realism and the fantastic, his fiction writing—novels and extended short stories—has shown him to be one of the most original authors of postwar Italian literature. But it is also through his work as an editor, journalist, and essayist that Calvino has commanded attention as one of the outstanding figures of the cultural life of his country.
At the close of World War II, during which he had joined the Resistance, Calvino made his debut as a writer and journalist in the columns of Politecnico, a Marxistinspired weekly. The experience did not last long, but from it Calvino acquired the certainty that “only a critical attention to everyday reality could underwrite the validity of his [literary and intellectual] commitment” (Germana Pescio Bottino, 1967). More prosaically, the Politecnico venture introduced Calvino to Elio Vittorini—at that time editor of the magazine—who, along with Cesar Pavese, noticed his first novel, Il sentiero dei nido di ragno (1947; The Path to the Nest of Spiders), and introduced him to Einaudi, the Turin publishing house where Calvino was to work for many years. It was with Vittorini, too, that he was subsequently to start Il Menabò di Letteratura (1959–67), a militant cultural magazine which was to introduce many young writers. Calvino himself published a variety of essays in it, most memorably “Il mare dell’oggettività” (1960; “The Sea of Objectivity”), in which he denounced the belief in objectivity which spared the intellectual the need to subject real events to his critical judgment, and “La sfida al labirinto” (1962; “The Challenge to the Labyrinth”), in which he examined the consequences of industrial development on the human condition and contemporary culture.
In the post-1956 period, marked by the events in Hungary which were to cause him to leave the Italian Communist Party, Calvino devoted himself more to his work as an editor than to his literary work. But the novels of this period are also clearly influenced by the uncertainty of the times. The trilogy I nostri antenati (Our Ancestors)—Il visconte dimezzato (1952; The Cloven Viscount), Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees), and Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; The NonExistent Knight)—which was to win Calvino a permanent place in the history of Italian literature, stands out from the ambient neorealistic vein to give precedence to fantasy which came close to fairytale, and which had already been glimpsed in his first novel. Behind the fantastic digressions, the irreverent tone, and the linguistic inventions characterizing these three improbable stories can be seen all of Calvino’s questioning about the precise relationship between the individual conscience and the course of history. Exactly like his Baron (who lives in the trees in order to withdraw from the world, but does so without misanthropy, concerned first and foremost with his neighbor), Calvino was never to stop his anxious reflections on the gradual progress of a dehumanized world. Although, over the course of the years, the fantastic assumed an increasingly important place in his literary work, his factual writing and approach, influenced particularly by the group OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle [Workroom of potential literature]), was often to come close to sheer virtuosity.
At the same time, various texts and essays he published (collected in 1980 under the title Una pietra sopra) were concerned with the execution of literature, the way a literary text works, the combinative processes which give it shape, and the levels of reality it presupposes. Calvino subsequently put his ideas to the test in a series of lectures (collected in 1991 under the title Perché leggere i classici [Why read the classics]) ranging from the Odyssey to Pavese, taking in Ariosto and Voltaire on the way. Another collection of essays and nonliterary texts appeared in 1984 under the title Collezione di sabbia (Collection of sand). In the first section of the collection, Calvino brings together a series of articles written for the newspapers he worked on (among them Il Corriere della Sera [The evening courier], La Repubblica, L’Espresso, and Le Monde [The world]). These articles, devoted to the most unusual subjects, enabled him to comment on the world via an exploration of various unexpected objects. A second section was devoted to the visible, and the very act of seeing, including vision born from the imagination. The last part of the book is dedicated to various incidental reflections during three journeys (to Japan, Mexico, and Iran), which raise questions about other dimensions of the mind.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988) brings together in one place five lectures (he had not yet written the sixth when he died), which Calvino was to have given at Harvard University. Working around five themes which he anchored within a literary discussion—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity—Calvino attempted to draw up a memorandum for the forthcoming millennium, so that the aging world, with the weight of its problems and anxieties, should not find itself unprepared to face the future. In this posthumous book, we once again find the literary and existentialist questionings which guided Calvino throughout his work.
Born 15 October 1923 in Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba; moved to San Remo, Italy, 1925.
Studied at the University of Turin, 1941–47; Royal University, Florence, 1943. Drafted into the Young Fascists, 1940, but left and sought refuge in the Alps, and joined the Communist Resistance, 1943–45. Wrote for various periodicals throughout his life, including L’Unità (Unity), La Nostra Lotta (Our struggle), Il Garibaldino, Voce della Democrazia (Voice of democracy), Contemporaneo, Città Aperta (Open city), and La Repubblica, from 1945. Staff member, Einaudi publishers, Turin, 1948–84. Coeditor, with Elio Vittorini, Il Menabò di Letteratura, 1959–67. Traveled to the Soviet Union, 1952, and the United States, 1959–60. Married Esther Judith Singer, 1964: one daughter.
Moved to Paris, 1967, and to Rome, 1979. Member of the editorial board, Garzanti publishers, 1984.
Awards: several, including L’Unità Prize, 1945; Viareggio Prize, 1957;
Bagutta Prize, 1959; Veillon Prize, 1963; Feltrinelli Prize, 1972. Honorary Member, American Academy, 1975. Died (of a cerebral hemorrhage) in Siena, 19 September 1985.
Essays and Related Prose
Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e società, 1980; part as The Uses of Literature, 1986, and as The Literature Machine, 1987, translated by Patrick Creagh
Collezione di sabbia, 1984
Six Memos for the Next Millennium (texts for Charles Eliot Norton lectures), translated by Patrick Creagh, 1988; as Lezioni americane: Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio, 1988
Perché leggere i classici, 1991
Other writings: several novels (including Il sentiero dei nido di ragno [The Path to the Nest of Spiders], 1947; I nostri antenati [Our Ancestors] trilogy, 1952–59; Le città invisibili [Invisible Cities], 1972; Il castello dei destini incrocati [The Castle of Crossed Destinies], 1973; se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore [If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller], 1979; Palomar, 1983), short stories, and three libretti.
Baroni, Giorgio, Italo Calvino: Introduzione e guida allo studio dell’opera Calviniana, storia e antologia della crítica, Florence: Le Monnier, 1988
Bertoni, Roberto, Int’abrigu int’ubagu: Discorsi su alcuni aspetti dell’opera di Italo Calvino, Turin: Tirrenia, 1993
Bonura, Giuseppe, Invito alla lettura di Italo Calvino, Milan: Mursia, 1972
Bresciani Califano, Mimma, Uno spazio senza miti: Scienza e letteratura: Quattro saggi su Italo Calvino, Florence: Le Lettere, 1993
Calligaris, Contardo, Italo Calvino, Milan: Mursia, 1973
Cannon, JoAnn, Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic, Ravenna: Longo, 1981
Carter, Albert Howard, Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy, Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1987
Ferretti, Gian Carlo, Le capre di Bikini: Calvino giornalista e saggista, 1945–1985, Rome: Riuniti, 1989
Gabriele, Tommasina, Italo Calvino: Eros and Language, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and London: Associated University Press, 1994
Hume, Kathryn, Calvino’s Fictions: Cogito and Cosraos, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992
Milanini, Claudio, L’utopia discontinua: Saggio su Italo Calvino, Milan: Garzanti, 1990
Pescio Bottino, Germana, Calvino, Florence: Nuova Italia, 1967
Puletti, Ruggero, Un millenarismo improbabile: Le “Lezioni americane” di Italo Calvino, Rome: Lucarini, 1991
Ricci, Franco, editor, Calvino Revisited, Ottawa: Dovehouse Press, 1989
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