Forty-three nonfiction works by Italo Calvino traverse experimentation, melancholy, playfulness, and erudition.
The Written World and the Unwritten World: Essays, by Italo Calvino, translated by Ann Goldstein, Mariner Books, 369 pages, $17.99
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In Italo Calvino’s short story “The Adventure of a Photographer” (1958), the protagonist, Antonino, is a Kodak-moment skeptic, disparaging the modern urge to document one’s life for future retrospection. But after he accidentally takes a good picture of a friend at the beach, Antonino becomes obsessed with producing perfect images of subjects that normally evade the camera: heating pipes in his room, a damp stain on the wall, an ashtray full of butts. To fulfill his ideal of capturing the truth of these “unphotographable” things, he concludes he has no choice but to photograph photographs themselves. Calvino’s story is a neat allegory about the limits of art and literature, from a writer who had started out a committed postwar realist and then turned eagerly toward myth, fantasy, magic, and an avant-garde distrust of mimesis. But Antonino’s excessive artistic ambition also points to what Calvino himself would later become: a writer intent on exhausting genres—novelist, critic, editor, anthologist, polemical theorist of literature in the age of its mechanical depletion.
He seemed to do it all with precision, calm, and alacrity—lightness, as he recommended in the posthumously published Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988). (One more photographic reflection: Can you find a single picture of Calvino in which he does not look a little wry, as if surprised and amused by the extent of his own genius?) The Written World and the Unwritten World collects essays, letters, reviews, prefaces, lectures, and interviews from across Calvino’s career—he died in 1985, aged sixty-one—and the first pleasure it affords readers is the discovery that there was so much profound nonfiction still untranslated into English. For a contemporary anglophone audience, the forty-three pieces here include some whose ideological moment may be hard to resolve—on industrial themes in Italian fiction after the war, on critical accounts of that era’s controversies over the politics of the novel. Some of Calvino’s book reviews from the 1970s are caught in a peculiar nexus of the time, when the methods and ideas of structuralism and semiotics met the overreaching symbology of pop ethnography. Sometimes the specific urgency of a new journal or book series with which Calvino was involved may no longer translate. But for the most part this work is just as elegant and thrilling as in previous nonfiction volumes like The Literature Machine (1980) and Collection of Sand (1984).
As always, so many versions of Calvino. There is first of all the genial and learned literary professional, appearing, for instance, at the Buenos Aires Book Fair in 1984, to hold forth on possible futures for the ageing codex. Will the book survive competition with electronic devices? “Well, my answer can only be one: loyalty to the book, come what may.” Still, the book takes us out of ourselves as readers and writers, putting alien words in our mouths: “maybe it’s not we who write books but books that write us.” Here and elsewhere, Calvino and his practice appear to represent a charming compromise between experiment—his affinities for the nouveau roman, his pioneering postwar metafiction, and what used to get called “magical realism”—and the virtues of tradition, albeit (here he follows T. S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges) a tradition creatively amended, warped, perverted by the arrival of the new.
The erudite Calvino is something like the perfect literary host, who introduces you to a crowd of authors, from classical to modern, without ever being so vulgar as to imply you don’t already know who and what he’s talking about. Some of his enthusiasms are to be expected, and remind us that he’s the author of such fictions as The Cloven Viscount (1952) and The Baron in the Trees (1957): stories of unreal metamorphosis starting from a simple poetic premise or change. In “Fantastic Tales of the Nineteenth Century”—Calvino’s introduction to a 1983 anthology—he tours briskly the writings of, among many others more obscure, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry James, who “belongs to the nineteenth century chronologically but to our century as a literary taste.” Calvino the teacher is at ease with his canon, and ensures we are too; but there is usually a twist, some unresolvable aspect. Here, it’s the fact that fantastical fiction relies on visual phenomena (apparitions, spectacles)—except when it doesn’t, when invisibility is everything.
Then there is the Calvino for whom reading and writing are far less serene activities, and not so easily integrated into life as such. In the title essay (delivered as a lecture at NYU in 1983), he describes a painful disjunct between word and reality. “When I leave the written world to find my place in the other, in what we usually call the world, made up of three dimensions and five senses, populated by billions of our kind, that to me is equivalent every time to repeating the trauma of birth.” A canny and unsettling reversal of the usual clichés about the birth of a masterpiece. But neither is the passage from life to literature an easy one. Calvino says he writes once he has identified in another writer certain skills or achievements he knows himself incapable of; he writes to become otherwise, and that is the only way he can write: “I try to identify with the imaginary author of that book that is still to be written, an author who might even be very different from me.”
In some ways, The Written World and the Unwritten World confirms a view of Calvino as a supremely controlled writer, if playfully so—an Italian counterpart to his friend and Oulipian colleague Georges Perec. (The most Perecian piece here is “Plan for a Journal,” from 1970, with its evocative lists of themes and approaches: “journey—adventure—initiation—disorientation.”) But as with the French author, Calvino’s cerebral games don’t quite distract from ultimately tragic or melancholic content. In Perec’s case it’s the deaths of his parents at the hands of the Nazis; with Calvino (who fought in the Italian Resistance), a more generalized sense that the world is sundered, one of its faces teary-eyed and the other dry, “with a good measure of smugness and deception in both.”
Brian Dillon’s Affinities: On Art and Fascination is published by New York Review Books in April 2023. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love.