If you don’t count Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino (1923–1985) is the postwar Italian prose writer who has had the largest and most enduring impact outside his own country. (As a sign of this, it’s worth noting that this is the tenth consideration of his work to appear in these pages since 1970.) Calvino’s refined, gently pessimistic, humane irony rode the wave of the deconstruction of realistic fiction the way the more programmatic French nouveau roman and OULIPO writers could not, gently unmasking narratorial trade secrets and reminding readers of the self-reflexive nature of the fictional game, while continuing to deliver appetizing fabulist delights.
Postwar Italian fiction offered an embarrassment of riches as substantial as that of any other European country, starting with Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s magisterial, posthumously published The Leopard (1958)—though it might arguably be considered the last great novel of the old school. Before the war, Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese had been greatly influenced by Hemingway and American realism; they were followed by a generation that included Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia and his wife Elsa Morante, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Leonardo Sciascia, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Primo Levi, to name only the most prominent—most of whom make appearances in this consistently absorbing and suggestive selection of Calvino’s letters, chosen by Michael Wood from the several thousand pages of his literary correspondence published in Italy.
These writers portrayed a still near-feudal society emerging into industrialization; their various achievements were inflected by cold war politics in an American client state with an independent, competent, and popular Communist Party in active opposition to the ruling Christian Democratic coalition, where left- and right-wing values competed day in and day out on every front. In his own way, Calvino exemplified these tensions in Italian cultural life, even perhaps in his nonideological response to them.
Calvino was born in Cuba, where his botanist parents were working at an experimental station outside Havana, but he grew up in San Remo on the Italian Riviera. He set out to be an agronomist, and his early letters to his boyhood friend Eugenio Scalfari, later one of Italy’s most important newspapermen, are alive with youthful enthusiasm for literature, philosophy, and girls. But after fighting with the partisans in the civil war that followed the fall of Mussolini, an experience that provided the material for his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; translated as The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956), Calvino emerged as a committed Communist at the end of the war. He resigned from the Party in 1957 in protest against its hard-line conformism, writing that he “had hoped that the Italian Communist Party would put itself at the head of an international renewal of Communism, condemning ways of exercising power which have been shown to be a failure and deeply unpopular.” Still, he came to feel that Italian Communists had displayed “a little bit more intelligence here than in other countries,” and, as he wrote the editor of The New York Review, he remained faithful to an idea of the Italian Party as “a very disciplined and efficient organization vitally interested in the defense and development of democracy.”
Authentic solidarity with workers was not all that easy, for him, however—an ambition perhaps more than an achieved reality. In 1950 we find him writing that “for four days I managed to feel very closely tied up with and in a certain sense essential to the working-class struggle, something that has not happened for some time now.” In 1951, he protests, perhaps a bit too much, to a fellow writer that “the writer is someone who tears himself to pieces in order to liberate his neighbor.”