Today is the birthday (1923) of Italo Calvino, acclaimed Italian author (and in my top 10 of the 20th century). Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb of Havana, in 1923. His father, Mario, was a tropical agronomist and botanist who also taught agriculture and floriculture. Mario Calvino had emigrated from Italy to Mexico in 1909 where he took up a position with the Ministry of Agriculture. In an autobiographical essay, Calvino explained that his father “had been in his youth an anarchist, a follower of Kropotkin and then a Socialist Reformist.” In 1917, Mario left for Cuba to conduct scientific experiments, after living through the Mexican Revolution.
Calvino’s mother, Eva Mameli, was a botanist and university professor. Eva was born into a secular family, and 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 his father’s study on Saturdays to receive their weekly paycheck.
In 1925, less than two years after Calvino’s birth, the family returned to Italy and settled permanently in San Remo on the Ligurian coast. Calvino’s brother Floriano, who became a distinguished geologist, was born in 1927. 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 work in the cultivation of a variety of fruits and flowers including grapefruit, avocado, grapes, olives, and roses, eventually obtaining an entry in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani for his achievements.
The vast and luxuriant forests, ever present in Calvino’s early fiction such as The Baron in the Trees, derives from this legacy. In an interview, Calvino stated, “San Remo continues to pop out in my books, in the most diverse pieces of writing.” He and Floriano would climb the trees and perch for hours on the branches reading their favorite adventure stories. Less happy aspects of his 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.”
Calvino was an avid reader as a child, especially Kipling’s Jungle Books, but felt that his early interest in stories (and the arts in general) made him the black sheep of a family that held literature in lower esteem than the sciences. Because they were austere, anti-Fascist freethinkers, Eva and Mario refused to give 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 anti-conformist stance. In his mature years, Calvino described the experience as a salutary one : “it made me 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, a major Italian newspaper. The two teenagers formed a lasting friendship, Calvino attributing his political awakening to their university discussions.
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.
In 1941, Calvino dutifully enrolled at the University of Turin, choosing the Agriculture Faculty where his father had previously taught courses in agronomy. Concealing his literary ambitions to please his family, he passed four exams in his first year while reading anti-Fascist works by Elio Vittorini, Eugenio Montale, Cesare Pavese, Johan Huizinga, and Pisacane, and works by Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein on physics. Calvino saw himself as enclosed in a “provincial shell” that offered the illusion of immunity from the Fascist nightmare: “We were ‘hard guys’ from the provinces, hunters, snooker-players, show-offs, proud of our lack of intellectual sophistication, contemptuous of any patriotic or military rhetoric, coarse in our speech, regulars in the brothels, dismissive of any romantic sentiment and desperately devoid of women.”
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 Benito Mussolini’s puppet Republic of Salò in northern Italy. 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 battle name 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.”
Calvino settled in Turin in 1945, after a long hesitation over living there or in Milan. He often humorously belittled this choice, describing Turin as a “city that is serious but sad.” He abandoned agriculture for the Arts Faculty at university in Turin. A year later, he was initiated into the literary world by Elio Vittorini, who published his short story “Andato al comando” (“Gone to Headquarters”) in Il Politecnico, a Turin-based weekly magazine associated with the university. The horror of the war had not only provided the raw material for his literary ambitions but deepened his commitment to the communist cause. Viewing civilian life as a continuation of the partisan struggle, he confirmed his membership of the Italian Communist Party (ICP). On reading Lenin’s State and Revolution, he plunged into post-war political life, associating himself chiefly with the worker’s movement in Turin.
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 new 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) 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. 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 he spent two months in the Soviet Union as correspondent for l’Unità. While in Moscow, he learned of his father’s death on 25 October. 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 (1947–1949), Youth in Turin (1950–1951), and The Queen’s Necklace (1952–54), but they were not met with critical success. During the eighteen months it took to complete 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 (The Cloven Viscount) composed in 30 days between July and September 1951. The protagonist, a seventeenth century viscount cut in two by a cannonball, voiced 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 (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 standard Italian.
In 1957, disillusioned by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Calvino left the ICP. In his letter of resignation published in L’Unità on 7 August, he explained the reason for his dissent (the violent suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the revelation of Stalin’s crimes) while confirming his “confidence in the democratic perspectives” of world Communism. He withdrew from taking an active role in politics and never joined another party. Ostracized by the ICP party leader Palmiro Togliatti and his supporters on publication of La gran bonaccia delle Antille (Becalmed in the Antilles), a satirical allegory of the party’s immobility, Calvino began writing The Baron in the Trees. Completed in three months and published in 1957, the fantasy is based on the “problem of the intellectual’s political commitment at a time of shattered illusions.” He found new outlets for his periodic writings in the journals Città aperta and Tempo presente, the magazine Passato e presente, and the weekly Italia Domani. With Vittorini in 1959, he became co-editor of Il Menabò, a cultural journal devoted to literature in the modern industrial age, a position he held until 1966.
In 1962 Calvino met Argentine translator Esther Judith Singer (“Chichita”) and married her in 1964 in Havana, during a trip in which he visited his birthplace and was introduced to Che Guevara. On 15 October 1967, a few days after Guevara’s death, Calvino wrote a tribute to him that was published in Cuba in 1968 (and in Italy thirty years later). He and his wife settled in Rome in the via Monte Brianzo where their daughter, Giovanna, was born in 1965. Once again working for Einaudi, Calvino began publishing some of his “Cosmicomics” in Il Caffè, a literary magazine.
Vittorini’s death in 1966 greatly affected Calvino. He went through what he called an “intellectual depression” which he described as an important passage in his life: “I ceased to be young. Perhaps it’s a metabolic process, something that comes with age, I’d been young for a long time, perhaps too long, suddenly I felt that I had to begin my old age, yes, old age, perhaps with the hope of prolonging it by beginning it early.”
In the fermenting atmosphere that evolved into 1968’s cultural revolution (the French May), he moved with his family to Paris in 1967, setting up home in a villa in the Square de Châtillon. He was invited by Raymond Queneau in 1968 to join the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) group of experimental writers where he met Roland Barthes, Georges Perec, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, all of whom influenced his later works.
Calvino had more intense contacts with the academic world, with notable experiences at the Sorbonne (with Barthes) and the University of Urbino. He read classics by Honoré de Balzac, Ludovico Ariosto, Dante, Ignacio de Loyola, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Giacomo Leopardi. Between 1972–1973 Calvino published two short stories, “The Name, the Nose” and the Oulipo-inspired “The Burning of the Abominable House” in the Italian edition of Playboy. He became a regular contributor to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, spending his summer vacations in a house constructed in Roccamare near Castiglione della Pescaia in Tuscany.
In 1975 Calvino was made Honorary Member of the American Academy. Awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1976, he visited Mexico, Japan, and the United States where he gave a series of lectures in several U.S. towns. After his mother died in 1978 at the age of 92, Calvino sold Villa Meridiana, the family home in San Remo. During the summer of 1985, Calvino prepared a series of texts on literature for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures to be delivered at Harvard University in the fall. On 6 September he was admitted to the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, where he died during the night between 18 and 19 September of a cerebral hemorrhage. His lecture notes were published posthumously in Italian in 1988 and in English as Six Memos for the Next Millennium in 1993.
Here’s classic Calvino:
Sections in the bookstore
– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”
(If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler)
Calvino’s home town, San Remo, is in Liguria which is famous for being the birthplace of pesto. But this is more of a Genoese specialty than west Ligurian, where San Remo is (close to the French border). San Remo’s most popular specialties are baked bread items, including a special kind of foccacia. Less well known, even to tourists, are the home made dishes from local game. Here is a dish for wild rabbit (seems suitable for Calvino). This is very much a local dish using local ingredients – white Vermentino (Ligurian varietal), San Remo olives, and San Remo olive oil. You can manage with substitutions. You may not be able to find rabbit liver and kidneys either (in Argentina they come with a butchered rabbit). There is also a red wine version, using red Vermentino, but it is less popular. Roast potatoes are the usual accompaniment.
Coniglio alla sanremasca
1 rabbit (2 lbs/1 kilo) including the liver and kidneys
1 small white onion, diced
1 stalk of celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 large cloves of garlic
2 sprigs of rosemary (or 1 tsp dried)
3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1 ½ tsp dried)
3 cups (750 ml) Vermentino (dry white wine)
2 tablespoons of black olives in brine
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Cut the rabbit in 12 parts.
Heat a heavy skillet over high heat and brown the rabbit in batches, without oil.
Crush the garlic cloves with the flat of a kitchen knife and removed the skin. Place them with the diced vegetables in a clay pot with the olive oil and brown them over medium high heat. Add the rabbit and continue cooking for another 10 minutes until a crust forms in the pot.
Chop all the herbs . Remove the garlic and add the herbs, white wine, liver, and kidneys , and salt to taste. Cover and cook over low heat , stirring occasionally.
After about 40 minutes , add pine nuts and olives, and continue to turn the meat . If the wine is all evaporated , add a little wine to moisten. Cook another 10 minutes.
Remove the liver and kidneys, chop fine and return to the pot. Reduce what remains of the wine to form a glaze.
Turn off the heat, leave to rest for 5 minutes and serve.