If an autumn night a reader ….
In Rome Calvino spent the last five years of his life, in his house in Campo Marzio.
Pasolini wrote: “the cities that Calvino dreams about, in various forms, take origin invariably from the clash between an ideal and a real city”. In this perspective, therefore, Rome, the best known of all metropolies, the one in which everything, past and present is within the reach of eyes, feet and hands, is the last, and the first, hierachically, of the invisibile cities met and evoked by Calvino.
Cities of which he catches the greatness, the charm and the weight of a past we have to face in order to search for that “lightness” full of sense and meaning which is the distinctive essence of this author.
If an autumn night a reader were thinking of Calvino, his fame, his controversial but undeniable actuality, the discussions at times harsh that make his work still being debated as if he had published today a new book… well, the aforementioned reader would be, in the end, pushed to reflect on the new or old “cosmicomiche”. Calvin was a “pianist” of the word.
He has been able to adapt flexibly to the needs, issues, and agreements of the music of his being and of the world. This is probably one of the possible keywords: world. Primarily for the authentic and genetic international spirit, that was his. Not only for his birth in the Caribbean Cuba, but also for the ability to explore continents, languages and different mentalities and make them his own. Extremely Ligurian in this, with one foot on land and one towards the sea, calm or stormy, clear or thick and dark. But Calvino wrote of the world mainly because he had refused to place himself in the proverbial ivory tower. He has traveled and lived in real cities, highly visible, with his look of smart sailor, between smile and irony.
Of New York, Paris, Rome and many other places seen and experienced, he took the myth without abdicating to reality, proposing and revising, brick by brick, a form of truth that suggested without cutting and tearing, retaining the ability to range between present and past, between the serious and playful dimension, deeply human, philosophically childish. These oxymorons and paradoxes feed his writing and the attraction it exerts. So broad as to include its counterpart, the positions of some detractors who still refer to his texts, analyze them and dissect them, invariably demonstrating a thorough understanding of tissues and arteries of a body so multifaceted like the one we are talking about. Calvino has the gift and the punishment of generating divergent judgments. My own circle of literary friendships perfectly reflects the sharp dualism of the judgments about this author.
A friend of mine, for example, highly educated and prepared, formidable drinker, not at all saint and quite talkative, not many nights ago stuck me at the table for dinner for more than two hours to tell me, among other things, that in his opinion the entire production of Calvino is worthless (although he said it in a more colorful way, abunding in four letter words) and that he saved only “If a winter night,” just as an atypical text, almost a non-novel, a sort of hybrid Frankenstein, or a divertissement, in short, a “weird stuff” out of scheme. A few days later, under the logic of alternation, another friend of mine, a writer and journalist, reiterated passionately, on the contrary, her love, not for me but for the said Calvino. More than love it is true faith, with secular and yet almost fundamentalist connotations.
The journalist from the great communication skills had even created a club, a Pickwick Papers Club of young writers full of hope, who, inspired by the style and themes dear to Calvino, had written an anthology of short stories entitled “Consistency”, with echoes long and passionate which reported the Lezioni Americane she idolized and recited like verses of the Bible or the Koran. Well, in spite of the Italian controversies in the style of “Don Camillo” and “Peppone”, the journey of Calvino continues, like the wake of his success, not only due to his ability to create attention and be talked about, but also and above all for his gift to intercept and engage diverse audiences. The pleasure of reading him that does not diminish the depth of thought. The accusation of “lightness” is perhaps the most beautiful cameo which Calvino can produce, because according to his own words “being light is not being superficial, but flying above things, without having boulders on the heart.” All this is to stress that his strength in all likelihood is the ability to generate variety in uniformity and consistency in the insubstantial: opposing judgments but attracting the same attention. A large sample of opinions, mostly negative, was collected and reported in a recent article in “Il messaggero” by Paolo Di Paolo.
The article, broad and deep, aims to show the inconsistency of some judgments. One of the key points is that in which Di Paolo underlines that people forgive the writers their excesses, follies and oddities but rarely their success. This is a crime that is not redeemed, except in the very rare cases of writers died young, possibly saints or martyrs to some idea, even better if suicide. Calvino instead had success, ran after it and caught up with it. Gradually, starting with a steady pace, then adapting to the times. One of the key activities was to take the advice of the entourage of the Einaudi: to move from realism to fantasy literature. Many other writers would have been outraged, they would have built bunkers and barricades in defense of their setting. Calvino took the advice and transformed it in his own strength. It seemed as if he had been waiting for that moment, or rather as if he had accepted it as part of himself, and went on to tell what he felt through his narrative inventions of machines made of castles, viscounts, numbers and formulas created from scratch, places apparently non-existent but in reality rooted in each man and woman. He had the chameleon-like ability to talk about himself becoming one of his characters, objects and places, including Marcovaldo and Palomar.
Calvino was born in Cuba, but he remains there only until the age of two years. The time to absorb from that area of the world and of the mind a sense of insecurity, a tenacious melancholy, and a thirst for adventure, made up of encounters, gestures, words, stories, true and invented, exaggerated and accurate, as always it happens in that part of the continent in which reality has the will and the strength to become magic. His father, an agronomist from Sanremo, professor of mathematics and sciences, leads Calvino in Italy at the age of two years. The young man finds himself halfway between the sea and the land, also in the sense of soil, studied and measured with a scientific criterion, and the other side of the sea, the attraction of elsewhere.
Calvino later revisited several times Cuba with his wife, the Argentine translator Esther Judith Singer, married in 1964. On that occasion he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whom, after his death in Bolivia, he devoted a few pages. Alongside Cuba, in front, in a dialogue which is complex and fertile, America. In early November of 1959, the thirty-six years old Italo Calvino leaves for America. He defines New York, “the most spectacular vision that is given to see on this earth.” There, more than anywhere else, the trip not only speaks of the person but it is the person. During the two months he spends in New York, Calvino realizes the deep desire of his characters, and his: to observe the world without being seen, being invisible and yet tangible, not merely oniric . He looks America like his father would have observed and measured a complex and uneven terrain, full of contrasts, barren and fertile, full of wonder and desolation. From its “observations” will arise the essays collected in the book An optimist in America, published by Einaudi. In the spring of 1961, the book is ready, but Calvino stops it in the second draft. He realizes that the book is too far above the commonplace acquired in Italy through Hollywood movies: “Maybe – he says – we should teach Americans what is America.” Calvino feels American, perfectly at home in a land of contrasts, in constant evolution. He is a happy man over there. His letters to Italian friends exude cheerfulness. To Elsa Morante he writes: “By New York I was absorbed as a carnivorous plant absorbs a fly.” Imagination feeds itself and devouring regenerates a new, very lively objects. American cities, large, hard, but unstoppable in the swarm of life, are the model of invisible cities, each bearer of an idea, a model, a potential.
France, another chapter. Calvino lived in Paris from 1967 to 1980. It is the city of his maturity, the place where he notes the physical presence, detectable through the five senses, of lightness: the keyword, and, more than ever, the magic. Paris is a story eternally facing backwards, to the history and grandeur of the past but with an ethereal foot suspended in the air, similar to that of a dancer of the Folies Bergères, into the future. Rationality is intoxicated by scents of champagne and humor explodes, sensual, in every possible sense. It is useful to stop also, with a step back, in Turin, a significant stage of his youth. The Piedmontese capital reveals, in its streets and in the geometric precision of gestures, one of the contrasts at the basis of the writing and thought of Calvino: the city has a force and a linearity that “invites to logic, and through the logic” opens “the way to madness “. It is no accident, incidentally, that Turin is the Italian capital of the mystery and the occult.
Rome, however, apparently staid and domestic, actually somehow provokes in Calvino a prudent admiration. Especially because some of the literary writers of the capital, which he believes may have been living in Rome only in the hope of absorbing a greatness that was alien to them. In Rome, the writer spent the last five years of his life, staying in Piazza Campo Marzio. Re-reading a few pages devoted to Palomar in Rome we perceive death omens that seem almost besiege the hero fleeing the crowd. In “L’invasione degli storni,” there’s a plot device of psychological effectiveness and genius: the eternal city viewed “with the eyes of a bird.” The past centuries and the fleeting moment. Calvin-Palomar avoids confronting the real city. Looks up, out of the usual perspectives, wondering if “the sky reminds us that the balance of nature is lost? Or because our sense of insecurity casts wherever threats of catastrophe?” Pasolini wrote: “the city that Calvino dreams of, in myriad forms, invariably arise from the clash between an ideal and a real city.”
From this perspective, therefore, Rome, the best known of the metropolis, one in which everything, past and present is within the reach of the eyes, feet and hands, actually is the last, and the first in hierarchical order, of the Invisible Cities encountered and evoked by Calvino. And if Calvino is seen as “cold writer”, accused of being unable to show and feel the sense of the tragic and the sacred, it is precisely because his vision, absolutely secular, devoid of religion, prompts him to give up the luxury of illusions, those in which indulge those who exalt a glorious past or the distant future of redemption. In Calvino there is no illusion. The only possible joy is that of a reality made legendary by the present energy and fantasy that does not pretend to clothe itself in mystifying vestments.
In this brief overview of the human and literary steps of one of the most popular Italian authors read all over the world, I’ve tried to “glide on things from above without boulders” or ideological preconceptions. I have tried to offer a further key for reading his literary output. Attempt a bit crazy, given the vastness and variety of ideas and themes to be studied and considered. It was almost as seeking the paths of spider nests, just to borrow the title of his first novel. Foolish attempt, and hence ultimately compatible with the attitude of an author who has been able to find the true nature of the places and people, in the act of highlighting the unpredictable human folly, without preconceived barriers of before and after, whether and ever. Calvino sought self-affirmation, without sacrificing consistency to what he believed and what he did not believe, without dogmas and constraints. His success is not a fault and can not be seen as a limit. Perhaps indeed it is further proof that, to talk about reality, there is no space greater than the fantasy. It is the testimony that each individual is a city of dreams and words, invisible until we accept the mystery of the union of smile and reflection. That game teaches us that every life has only itself and is part of a myth and a mystery. Calvino remembers, with his books, each rampant, halved, “cosmicomic”, incessantly traveling individual, that the game needs to be lived and told, day after day. Because life is a place that changes moment by moment, and we must live it in the act, think and imagine: “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds a past that he did not know to have.” So, back to the quote from which we started: “If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork […] in a network of lines that intersect in the moonlight”, asked again: “What story down there awaits end? “, the answer is always different, always new and individual, and it is in the story itself, seen and unseen; in a mysterious and linear, deep and eternal light.