Europe, America, Utopia: Calvino on Hemingway
“In Hemingway one finds almost all of what was meant by America.”
By Maria Popova
“I continue to maintain that I have never loved any writer as much as Hemingway, even though his character can be vulgarized,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his letters in 1964. In another letter, he pointed to Hemingway as the author who most influenced his own early work. In fact, the evolution of his relationship with Hemingway reveals a great deal about both writers and, beyond that, about some of the most central concerns in twentieth-century literature and in the writerly soul in general.
Calvino believed that the Russian-American engendered the “communistization” of Italian intellectuals in the avant-garde, and the dissolution of that alliance during the Cold War affected Italian culture just as profoundly. In a 1950 letter to the literary critic Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us his thoughts on writing, America, abortion and the meaning of life, and his poetic resume — 27-year-old Calvino wrote that Russia and America, more than actual countries or political ideologies, functioned as placeholders for “a collection of Italian data and aspirations” and were “two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias,” the sum of which added up to what many intellectuals considered the true objective of the Italian Resistance. But it was Hemingway whom Calvino saw as the anchor of the American part of the equation. In the same letter, Calvino considers writing an article about Hemingway and cracks open his conflicted thought process:
In [Hemingway] one finds almost all of what was meant by America. The virginity of its history, its technique (knowing how to do things), freedom and fullness of love, the open air, a direct democracy in human relations, courage. And, as writing, one finds in it the maximum help for developing one’s technique: H.’s language is technical and functional, in which there is nothing that is without immediate, rational utilization, there is no abstraction, solipsism or fanciness (as had previously been the case in the great but obscure Faulkner). But H. is an “America” that fails to find its “Russia.” It finds instead (and the problem is it goes looking for it) its “Europe.” This is H.’s decadentism. And he finds it on the basis (and as a diversion and explanation) of the elements from the worst side of America (which is as real as the other side) that are in him: alcoholism, ignorance, emptiness. And, as a barbarian, he has highly refined intuitions regarding European barbarism-civilization; he enters the Olympus of our most refined irrationalism, he the “technical” writer: but what is that to us now? We could have sent any old Montherlant to see bullfights. It was something else we wanted from him, something else now that what comes back more and more to our eyes — to the point of covering the aspects we sought and loved in him and still seek and love in him — now that what comes back, as I was saying, are the other aspects. . . These matter to us less and less now, so it is something else, then, something that is now beyond him… beyond him (where?) that we are looking for now. As you can see, these are very difficult ideas to express. And note that these things came to my mind as I was writing, and every time I’ve begun writing about this damned man what came to mind were different things, and certainly when I come to write this article I’ll write things that are different again, and now I need to keep the rough copy of this letter otherwise I’ll forget everything.
In another letter to Motta a month later, Calvino revisits the subject of Hemingway:
Hemingway — notwithstanding (or rather precisely because of) the fundamental American emptiness that he notices all around him and of which he too is a part — Hemingway who feels the need to go back to the basic relationships of man with things: fishing well, lighting fires well, establishing relations between a man and a woman well, and between men and other men, blowing up bridges well (except that he lacks the general perspective, and becomes futile and gets bored; what do bull-fights matter to us, even when well done?)
Four years later, at age 31, Calvino formulated and formalized his thoughts on Hemingway in the essay “Hemingway e noi” (“Hemingway and Ourselves,”) found in the anthology Why Read the Classics?, which also gave us his 14 timeless definitions of what makes a classic.
For a first-hand impression of Hemingway’s literary convictions, see his thoughts on writing and the dangers of ego, his advice to aspiring writers, his short, somewhat embittered Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and his young self’s irreverent ideas of heaven and hell.
Published November 19, 2013