Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923 – September 19, 1985) was an Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels. His best known works include the Our Ancestors trilogy (1952-1959), the Cosmicomics collection of short stories (1965), and the novels Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979).
Lionised in Britain and America, he was, at the time of his death, the most-translated contemporary Italian writer.
Calvino's mother, Eva Mameli, was a botanist and university professor. A native of Sardinia and 11 years younger than her husband, she married while still a junior lecturer at Pavia University. Born into a secular family, Eva was a pacifist educated in the “religion of civic duty and science.” Calvino described his parents as being “very different in personality from one another,” suggesting perhaps deeper tensions behind a comfortable, albeit strict, middle-class upbringing devoid of conflict. As an adolescent, he found it hard relating to poverty and the working-class, and was “ill at ease” with his parents’ openness to the laborers who filed into Mario's study on Saturdays to receive their weekly paycheck.
The family divided their time between the Villa Meridiana, an experimental floriculture station which also served as their home, and Mario's ancestral land at San Giovanni Battista. On this small working farm set in the hills behind San Remo, Mario pioneered in the cultivation of then exotic fruits such as avocado and grapefruit, eventually obtaining an entry in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani for his achievements. The vast forests and luxuriant fauna omnipresent in Calvino's early fiction such as The Baron in the Trees derives from this “legacy.” In an interview, Calvino stated that “San Remo continues to pop out in my books, in the most diverse pieces of writing.” He and Floriano would climb the tree-rich estate and perch for hours on the branches reading their favorite adventure stories. Less salubrious aspects of this “paternal legacy” are described in The Road to San Giovanni, Calvino's memoir of his father in which he exposes their inability to communicate: "Talking to each other was difficult. Both verbose by nature, possessed of an ocean of words, in each other's presence we became mute, would walk in silence side by side along the road to San Giovanni.” Due to his early interest in stories, having devoured Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book as a child, Calvino felt he was the “black sheep” of a family that held literature in less esteem than the sciences. Fascinated by American movies and cartoons, he was equally attracted to drawing, poetry, and theatre. On a darker note, Calvino recalled that his earliest memory was of a socialist professor brutalized by Fascist lynch-squads. “I remember clearly that we were at dinner when the old professor came in with his face beaten up and bleeding, his bowtie all torn, asking for help.”
Other legacies include the parents’ masonic republicanism which occasionally developed into anarchic socialism. Austere, anti-Fascist freethinkers, Eva and Mario refused giving their sons any religious education. Italo attended the English nursery school, St George's College, followed by a Protestant elementary private school run by Waldensians. His secondary schooling was completed at the state-run Liceo Gian Domenico Cassini where, at his parents’ request, he was exempted from religious instruction but forced to justify his anticonformist stance. In his mature years, Calvino described the experience as a salutary one as it made him “tolerant of others’ opinions, particularly in the field of religion, remembering how irksome it was to hear myself mocked because I did not follow the majority's beliefs.” During this time, he met a brilliant student from Rome, Eugenio Scalfari, who went on to found the weekly magazine L'Espresso and La Repubblica, Italy's major newspaper. The two teenagers formed a lasting friendship, Calvino attributing his political awakening to their university discussions. Seated together “on a huge flat stone in the middle of a stream near our land,” he and Scalfari founded the MUL (University Liberal Movement).
Eva managed to delay her son's enrolment in the Fascist armed scouts, the Balilla Moschettieri, and then arranged that he be excused, as a non-Catholic, from performing devotional acts in church. But later on, as a compulsory member, he could not avoid the assemblies and parades of the Avanguardisti, and was forced to participate in the Italian occupation of the French Riviera in June 1940.
Calvino transferred to the University of Florence in 1943 and reluctantly passed three more exams in agriculture. By the end of the year, the Germans had succeeded in occupying Liguria and setting up Mussolini's puppet Republic of Salò in northern Italy. Now twenty years old, Calvino refused military service and went into hiding. Reading intensely in a wide array of subjects, he also reasoned politically that, of all the partisan groupings, the Communists were the best organized with “the most convincing political line.”
In spring 1944, Eva encouraged her sons to enter the Italian Resistance in the name of “natural justice and family virtues.” Using the battlename of "Santiago", Calvino joined the Garibaldi Brigades, a clandestine Communist group and, for twenty months, endured the fighting in the Maritime Alps until 1945 and the Liberation. As a result of his refusal to be a conscript, his parents were held hostage by the Nazis for an extended period at the Villa Meridiana. Calvino wrote of his mother's ordeal that "she was an example of tenacity and courage… behaving with dignity and firmness before the SS and the Fascist militia, and in her long detention as a hostage, not least when the blackshirts three times pretended to shoot my father in front of her eyes. The historical events which mothers take part in acquire the greatness and invincibility of natural phenomena.”
In 1947, he graduated with a Master's thesis on Joseph Conrad, wrote short stories in his spare time, and landed a job in the publicity department at the Einaudi publishing house run by Giulio Einaudi. Although brief, his stint put him in regular contact with Cesare Pavese, Natalia Ginzburg, Norberto Bobbio, and many other left-wing intellectuals and writers. He then left Einaudi to work as a journalist for the official Communist daily, L'Unità, and the newborn Communist political magazine, Rinascita. During this period, Pavese and poet Alfonso Gatto were Calvino's closest friends and mentors.
His first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders) written with valuable editorial advice from Pavese, won the Premio Riccione on publication in 1947. With sales topping 5000 copies, a surprise success in postwar Italy, the novel inaugurated Calvino's neorealist period. In a clairvoyant essay, Pavese praised the young writer as a “squirrel of the pen” who “climbed into the trees, more for fun than fear, to observe partisan life as a fable of the forest.” In 1948, he interviewed one of his literary idols, Ernest Hemingway, traveling with Natalia Ginzberg to his home in Stresa.
Ultimo viene il corvo (The Crow Comes Last), a collection of stories based on his wartime experiences, was published to acclaim in 1949. Despite the triumph, Calvino grew increasingly worried by his inability to compose a worthy second novel. He returned to Einaudi in 1950, responsible this time for the literary volumes. He eventually became a consulting editor, a position that allowed him to hone his writing talent, discover new writers, and develop into “a reader of texts.” In late 1951, presumably to advance in the Communist party, he spent two months in the Soviet Union as correspondent for l'Unità. While in Moscow, he learned of his father's death on October 25. The articles and correspondence he produced from this visit were published in 1952, winning the Saint-Vincent Prize for journalism.
Over a seven-year period, Calvino wrote three realist novels, The White Schooner (1947-49), Youth in Turin (1950-51), and The Queen's Necklace (1952-54), but all were deemed defective. During the eighteen months it took to complete I giovanni del Po (Youth in Turin), he made an important self-discovery: “I began doing what came most naturally to me - that is, following the memory of the things I had loved best since boyhood. Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.” The result was Il visconte dimezzato (1952; The Cloven Viscount) composed in 30 days between July and September 1951. The protagonist, a seventeenth century viscount sundered in two by a cannonball, incarnated Calvino's growing political doubts and the divisive turbulence of the Cold War. Skillfully interweaving elements of the fable and the fantasy genres, the allegorical novel launched him as a modern “fabulist”. In 1954, Giulio Einaudi commissioned his Fiabe Italiane (1956; Italian Folktales) on the basis of the question, “Is there an Italian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm?” For two years, Calvino collated tales found in 19th century collections across Italy then translated 200 of the finest from various dialects into Italian. Key works he read at this time were Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale and Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales, stimulating his own ideas on the origin, shape and function of the story.
From 1955 to 1958 Calvino had an affair with the actress Elsa de' Giorgi, an older and married woman. Calvino wrote hundreds of love letters to her. Excerpts were published by Corriere della Sera in 2004, causing some controversy.
Despite severe restrictions in the US against foreigners holding communist views, Calvino was allowed to visit the United States, where he stayed six months from 1959 to 1960 (four of which he spent in New York), after an invitation by the Ford Foundation. Calvino was particularly impressed by the "New World": "Naturally I visited the South and also California, but I always felt a New Yorker. My city is New York." The letters he wrote to Einaudi describing this visit to the United States, were first published as "American Diary 1959-1960" in the book Hermit in Paris in 2003.
In 1962 Calvino met the Argentinian translator Esther Judith Singer (Chichita) and married her in 1964 in Havana, during a trip in which he visited his birthplace and met Ernesto Che Guevara. This encounter later led him to contribute an article on 15 October 1967, a few days after the death of Guevara, describing the lasting impression Guevara made on him. Back in Italy, and once again working for Einaudi, Calvino started publishing some of his cosmicomics in Il Caffè, a literary magazine.
He then started to frequent Paris, where he was nicknamed L'ironique amusé. Here he soon joined some important circles like the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) and met Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss, in the fermenting atmosphere that was going to evolve into 1968's cultural revolution (the French May). During his French experience, he also became fond of Raymond Queneau's works, which would influence his later production.
Calvino had more intense contacts with the academic world, with notable experiences at the Sorbonne (with Barthes) and at Urbino's university. His interests included classical studies: Honoré de Balzac, Ludovico Ariosto, Dante, Ignacio de Loyola, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Giacomo Leopardi. At the same time, not without surprising Italian intellectual circles, Calvino wrote novels for Playboy's Italian edition (1973). He became a regular contributor to the important Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
In 1975 Calvino was made Honorary Member of the American Academy, and the following year he was awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He visited Japan and Mexico and gave lectures in several American towns. In 1981 he was awarded the prestigious French Légion d'honneur.
During the summer of 1985, Calvino prepared some notes for a series of lectures to be delivered at Harvard University in the fall. However, on 6 September, he was admitted to the ancient hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, where he died during the night between the 18 and 19 September of a cerebral hemorrhage. His lecture notes were published posthumously as Six Memos for the Next Millennium in 1988.
Twelve years before his death, he joined, on invitation, the Oulipo group of experimental writers. He wrote: "My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language."