Michael Wood begins his introduction to Italo Calvino’s Letters: 1941–1985 with a kind of disclaimer: Calvino often said that biographical information and autobiographical pronouncements were irrelevant to the task of criticism. When, for instance, students at Coletti Middle School in Treviso wrote to ask why an anthology gave his birthplace as San Remo, Italy, and not Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, which was the literal truth, Calvino said that he had spent his childhood in San Remo, and that this coastal city was “present in many of [his] works.” He explained 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 is usually called his ‘creative world.’” Three days later, he was telling a critic something similar: “What use is it to the critic…if the author issues judgments or statements regarding his own works?… The author does not exist, only a certain number of writings exist.”
Calvino doesn’t appear to have subscribed to this credo himself, however, and never ceased to issue judgments and statements about his work. The assertion that critics should ignore them is just another judgment or statement, but it does serve to introduce two central problems for the reader of his letters. First, there is his disconcerting involvement with his critics and his attempts to influence the conversation about his work. Second, there is the problem of published correspondence in general. Letters express ephemeral states of mind; they may be ill-conceived, poorly considered, instantly regretted. As Calvino says, “The letter is another text that adds doubts, problems, contradictions to the others that the scholar has to solve.” In that case, why read his letters at all?
As for the biography, critically relevant or not, it is easily dispatched. In 1923, Calvino was born in Cuba, where his parents were working at an agricultural-research center founded by his father, but the family moved to San Remo when Calvino was an infant. He fought with the Italian partisans in the final years of World War II, became a communist, and later resigned from the Communist Party without disavowing his political convictions. He worked for most of his life on the editorial staff of the Einaudi publishing house, married an Argentine translator named Esther Judith Singer, and lived with her and their daughter, Giovanna, in Turin, Paris and Rome. Meanwhile, he wrote his books and eventually became one of the most famous and well-regarded Italian novelists of the twentieth century. He died suddenly in 1985.
In the letters, Calvino has little to say about daily life. There is a brief but striking account of the war—“my father was on the point of being shot before my mother’s eyes”—and abundant material about his experience with communism, but most of the letters are distant and professional, and even when he’s writing to friends, he rarely gives any information about himself. Personal events of great moment, like his marriage and the birth of his daughter, go entirely unremarked. There are no letters to his wife. “The focus is on literary and political matters rather than family,” says Wood, explaining his selection, “but even the complete Lettere“—the longer Italian edition of the letters—“does not give us access to a secret, second Calvino, a person concealed behind the writer, so to speak.”