Brain Pickings

Italo Calvino’s Poetic Résumé

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“Prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old.”

Our cultural cult of the diaries, personal correspondence, and daily routines of famous authors, despite the practical insights on the craft of writing often found in those, seems to be largely an exercise in unabashed creative voyeurism. But might there be more to it, some kernel of magic that reveals itself to those willing to look?

From Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved author’s timeless wisdom on writing and his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life — comes a timeless reflection on our fascination with famous authors’ lives, wrapped in a poetic meta-manifestation:

In a 1967 letter to a class of schoolchildren who had been assigned to study one of Calvino’s anthologies, Calvino corrects a biographical inaccuracy about his place of birth and offers a broader reflection on the “facts” of an author’s life:

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.”

[…]

As for the anthology that says I was born in Santiago in Chile, that is clearly a mistake. The authors of that anthology will have read somewhere that I was born in “Santiago” and will have immediately thought of the Chilean capital rather than of an unknown village on the island of Cuba like Santiago de las Vegas. So that is how this mystery is explained. This helps to show one thing: what is written in books can be true up to a point and mistaken up to a point. One must never trust books totally, instead one must check what is right and wrong in them, as you have rightly done. I congratulate you and your teacher on this and send my warmest greetings and best wishes.

And yet, this being Calvino, two years later he revisits the subject of what is essential to know about a writer’s life. In a letter from the fall of 1969, he sends Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci his wonderfully poetic “CV”:

HERE IS MY CV.

I was born in 1923 under a sky in which the radiant Sun and melancholy Saturn were housed in harmonious Libra. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in what was in those days a still verdant San Remo, which contained cosmopolitan eccentrics amidst the surly isolation of its rural, practical folk; I was marked for life by both these aspects of the place. Then I moved to industrious and rational Turin, where the risk of going mad is no less than elsewhere (as Nietzsche found out). I arrived at a time when the streets opened out deserted and endless, so few were the cars; to shorten my journeys on foot I would cross the rectilinear streets on long obliques from one angle to the other—a procedure that today is not just impossible but unthinkable—and in this way I would advance marking out invisible hypotenuses between grey right-angled sides. I got to know only barely other famous metropolises, on the Atlantic and Pacific, falling in love with all of them at first sight: I deluded myself into believing that I had understood and possessed some of them, while others remained forever ungraspable and foreign to me. For many years I suffered from a geographical neurosis: I was unable to stay three consecutive days in one city or place. In the end I chose definitive wife and dwelling in Paris, a city which is surrounded by forests and hornbeams and birches, where I walk with my daughter Abigail, and which in turn surrounds the Bibliothèque Nationale, where I go to consult rare books, using my Reader’s Ticket no. 2516. In this way, prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old. That’s all.

Four years later, Ricci would go on to publish Calvino’s novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

It is impossible to overstate just how sublime and richly insightful Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is in its entirety.

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