Italo Calvino, described by Gore Vidal as the “only great writer of my time”, would have been 100 this year. The most translated Italian writer of his time, he left quite the legacy. A man I admittedly knew little about before, Calvino led a rich life of intellectual ideas and experiments. Calvino was born in 1923 in Cuba to agronomist parents who, as a result of their political beliefs, avoided both religious education and conscription. As a man of integrity, Calvino continued to stand for what he believed in both in the political and literary worlds. During his refusal to serve Calvino went into hiding, throughout which he read widely and advocated for Communism, becoming a party member in 1946. Standing his ground, he resigned from the party in 1957 in a letter published in L’Unita – the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party for whom he had been a journalist in his early career. His letter commented on his discontent with the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, while acknowledging his belief in Communism’s democratic potential. He did not join another political party.
Calvino’s upbringing shaped more than just his politics. On his father’s family farm – where experimentation in cultivating then exotic fruits such as grapefruit took place – Calvino found inspiration in the landscape. The New York Times Magazine writer Frank MacShane noted in 1983 the feel of Calvino’s house being an extension of his fantasy worlds. Calvino, while fascinated by his parents work, was “attracted more to the suggestive aspects of plants and to the forests that ran along the hillsides above the coast”, leading him to attempt to create a “kind of apotheosis of nature” in his own home. However, his writing was not always fantastical. His first novel – The Path to the Nest of Spiders, published in 1947 – took a neorealist stance that he struggled to carry forward. Instead he began writing the books he wished to read, taking fascinations of his childhood as inspiration. From this, his later writings began to broach ideas of consciousness, perspective, and the meeting of science and art – both viewed as instruments of knowledge. His writing moved away from politics believing that writers should remain above politics, writing what “ordinary politicians don’t say”. In lectures he gave, he urged students to pursue overambitious and unimaginable projects, to ensure literature’s continuing function. To Columbia students he said he wished to find in his literature “new forms to suit realities” ignored by other writers. As such, Calvino’s novels are a reflection of his experiments to combine the abstract, space, and the clarity of new perspective.
He began writing the books he wished to read, taking fascinations of his childhood as inspiration
Italo Calvino broadened the scope of 20th century literature, pushing the boundaries of the imaginable. Although at times questioned in his novelistic capabilities by critics, he took literature away from the post-war neorealist positions of the time. His worlds of fantasy and fables toyed with scientific ideas and challenged the reader, encouraging philosophical and esthetic debate. His work, I am sure, will remain an important pillar of literary history.