Italo Calvino was discreet about his life and the lives of others, and sceptical about the uses of biography. He understood that much of the world we inhabit is made up of signs, and that signs may speak more eloquently than facts. Was he born in San Remo, Liguria? No, he was born in Santiago de las Vegas, in Cuba, but since “an exotic birthplace on its own is not informative of anything,” he allowed the phrase “born in San Remo” to appear repeatedly in biographical notes about him. Unlike the truth, he suggested, this falsehood said something about who he was as a writer, about his “creative world”.
This is to say that the best biography may be a considered fiction, and Calvino was also inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. “For the critic, the author does not exist,” he writes, “only a certain number of writings exist.”
Such assertions begin to conjure up what came to be known as the death of the author, and in a lecture called “Cybernetics and Ghosts”, Calvino explored the notion with great theoretical panache. This was in 1967, a year before Roland Barthes made the theme notorious in France and the English-speaking world. “And so the author vanishes,” Calvino said, “that spoiled child of ignorance – to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works.” We note that a machine replaces a myth, but a real (thoughtful) person replaces an unthinking illusion, and Calvino adds that we shall get a “poetic result . . . only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and of his society”.
This last sentence makes clear that Calvino is talking about a finished work and its life in the world, and not about some sort of unattainable impersonality: self and society may have become ghosts but they are essential. The death of the grandee author in no way implies the disappearance of the writing person, and any appearance of contradiction vanishes as soon as we understand that for Calvino and many others, writing is life. Books are unavoidably personal for Calvino but not confessional, and not only personal.
But then what are we to make of the letters of such a writer and what are we doing reading them? In part we are, I’m afraid, ignoring his warnings and careful distinctions; peeping into his privacy. What is striking is that the creative writer doesn’t dominate his correspondence as we might expect. There are interesting exceptions but on the whole the letters are not being used as practice for fiction or essays. Calvino does not have any sort of eye on posterity, as so many other modern letter-writers do. He is living in the present, not constructing a future monument.
This may offer something of a surprise to the reader who comes to the letters from the fiction and who may at first miss the expected intricacy and play. It’s not that there is no fun in the letters, but the sense of direct communication, of a man being as clear as he can about a host of matters, complex and simple, is quite different from that created by the artistic density of Calvino’s prose fiction. In his art, the wit and the irony are ways of reflecting the difficulties of the world while hanging on to his sanity – instruments of reason in a world of madness. “I am in favour,” Calvino says in one letter, “of a clown-like mimesis of contemporary reality.” Clowns are often sad and all too sane; but their relation to reality is oblique. Calvino’s writing is part of a great literary project of hinting and suggesting, making memorable shapes and images, rather than giving information or offering explanations. In his letters, Calvino tells rather than shows his correspondents what he means – with great and often moving success.
For this reason, although we invade Calvino’s privacy by the mere fact of looking at these letters, it is a very special privacy that appears: not the writer’s real self – why wouldn’t his writing represent this self, as he thought it did – but his plain self. We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity. Calvino’s clarifications cover many diverse topics but they often converge in their effect. We now understand what we half-understood before; we see that what looked like a quirk was a policy; we realise that our puzzlement and Calvino’s are one and the same.