A memoir is an invitation, like a doorstop left in the entry to a writer’s personal history
Published: July 17, 2013
by Italo Calvino
A memoir is an invitation, like a doorstop left in the entry to a writer’s personal history that keeps it open just enough—a book’s width—for us to let ourselves in. A collection of letters, on the other hand, published after the letter-writer has died, invites us to kick that door down and violate the hell out of someone’s privacy. (How gross will The Collected Emails of Jennifer Egan sound on the 2035 bestseller list?) Juicier than any calligraphied and wax-sealed proto-sext, though, is discovering the relationship between an author’s private and public (published) personas, especially in the case of a writer whose influence reached from Buenos Aires to Bombay as a master of the dimension-bending style that would become known as magical realism.
If you have read Italo Calvino, you’ll have to lower your expectations a bit before plunging into Letters, 1941-1985, a massy brick of the Italian novelist’s correspondence with friends, colleagues, comrades, bewildered translators, hostile critics, and more. It’s not that Calvino’s letters are boring or without insight, just that the fiction is so singularly enchanting that his own “real life” can’t possibly excite us with the same force of his imagination. It’s weird reading Calvino as himself, in other words, and not in the guise of one of his narrators. The voice we hear in these letters sounds no more or less authentically Calvino than Marco Polo’s descriptions of mind-bending metropolises in Invisible Cities or the extraterrestrial essence called Qfwfq that banters through the beginning of time in Cosmicomics. It’s the same voice, full of irrepressible humor and humanity; those books and all his others were just his letters to us.
It will be difficult to follow some of these exchanges without a grasp of Italian political and literary currents of the mid-20th century. . . . That a problem? Same here, but the letter-writer is his own context: Fortunately, we can follow Calvino’s grappling with the circumstances that shaped his life and the character of his art without knowing things like, y’know, who most of his friends are (though a few familiar names do appear, from Calvino’s American champion Gore Vidal to NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli, age 17). The dominant image that emerges across 40 years is of a writer of serious commitment to ideas and values, participating in the development of culture by arguing for everything good and calling bullshit on everything backward.
In one letter, Calvino tells a classroom of Italian middle school students that “in a writer’s life it is only important to know facts that are relevant to the writer’s works, in other words what it is usually called his ‘creative world.’” In that case, why read the letters? Simple: the passion and perception he applied to his real world is what gave his creative one, weightless with imagination, all its gravity.
> Email Andrew Holter