- Italo Calvino:The Last Modernist
Sitting in the garden at his summer home on the Tuscan Maremma, Italo Calvino was stricken by a stroke on 6 September 1985. Nearly two weeks later, now at the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that took his life. He was sixty-one years old. Speculation about his winning a Nobel prize had been rife for some time. Today, nearly three decades later, the question of his stature and status in postwar letters has become urgent once again, prompted in part by the recent publication of his letters, in English, in an edition selected and introduced by Michael Wood and translated by Martin McLaughlin.
Calvino was born in 1923 in Santiago de las Vegas, a small town located outside Havana, Cuba. Both his parents were botanists, and his father was then conducting experiments with tropical fruits. In 1925, Orazio Raimondi, his father’s closest friend and a Socialist member of Parliament, died and left his estate to create an experimental institute in floriculture that the two men had long planned together. Mario, Calvino’s father, returned to San Remo (in northwest Italy) and became its director. Calvino grew up in the luxuriant gardens that surrounded the Villa Meridiana, spending his summers in nearby San Giovanni, a small town where his father’s family also had property.
San Remo was a small town inhabited by residents and well-to-do tourists. (Alfred Nobel built a villa there in 1891 and died there in 1896.) Calvino lived quietly until 1941, when he enrolled in the faculty of agriculture at the University of Turin. After two years, he transferred to the Royal University of Florence. But his life was now overtaken by outside events. On 25 July 1943, Mussolini was deposed by the Grand Council of Fascism and arrested on the orders of the king. Less than two months later, however, after being rescued by German troops, he declared the establishment of the Republic of Salò, nominally a new [End Page 577] Fascist state that controlled all Italian territory from Rome northward, in reality a German puppet. Calvino, to avoid military service, went into hiding, and in 1944 he joined partisan resistance forces under the Italian Communist Party. As he explained shortly after the war’s end, “I’ve been a partisan all this time, I’ve been through an unspeakable series of dangers and discomforts; I’ve experienced prison and escape, been several times on the point of dying. But I’m happy with everything I’ve done, with the wealth of experiences that I have amassed, in fact I’d have liked to have done more” (30).
He returned to the University of Turin, now enrolled in the faculty of arts and letters where he received his degree in 1947 after finishing a thesis on Joseph Conrad. By then he had also completed his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (1947), a largely realistic account of his wartime experiences, and was already working at the publishing firm of Einaudi, a left-wing publisher that became a magnet for talented younger writers.1 His co-workers and friends included Cesare Pavese (1908–1950), Elio Vittorini (1908–1966), and Natalia Ginzburg (1916–1991), three writers who would profoundly shape postwar Italian literature. Though he left Einaudi briefly in 1948–1949 to edit the cultural page for the Turin edition of Unità (the Communist Party’s newspaper), he returned and stayed on in a variety of editorial roles, lasting until 1980. “The greater part of my life,” he later recalled, “has been dedicated to books by others, rather than my own. And I am content with that, because publishing is important in Italy in our time, and having worked in an editorial environment, one that’s been a model for the rest of Italian publishing, is not a trivial achievement.”2
By 1954 he had abandoned three other realistic novels, which he could not finish to his satisfaction. Instead, in...