English Literature
Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino

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The Life and Legacy of Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was a renowned Italian author and journalist who played a significant role in the postmodernist movement of the 20th century. His works became widely translated, making him an internationally recognized figure by the time of his passing.

Born in 1923 in Santiago de las Vegas, a suburb of Havana, Cuba, Calvino's parents named him "Italo" to honor their Italian heritage. However, after moving to Italy, Calvino developed a dislike for his name, feeling it was too nationalistic.

In 1925, Calvino's family relocated to Sanremo, Italy, where they lived part-time at an experimental floriculture station. This experience deeply influenced Calvino's writing, as evident in his book "The Baron in the Trees" (1957), which features the flora he encountered as a child. Despite his parents being botanists and valuing science, Calvino always felt like an anomaly due to his love for literature. Moreover, his exposure to various ideologies, including Freemasonry, Republicanism, Anarchism, and Marxism through his parents' beliefs, shaped his thinking.

Contrary to most children in Italy at that time, Calvino did not receive a Catholic education as his parents strongly opposed the National Fascist Party in power. Instead, he attended Protestant elementary schools and a state-run secondary school, where he faced ridicule for not taking religious courses. It was during this time that Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of two major Italian newspapers, L'Espresso and La Repubblica, befriended Calvino, introducing him to politics.

In 1941, Calvino enrolled at the University of Turin, initially taking courses in the Agriculture Faculty. However, his interest in anti-fascist literature and playwriting prompted him to transfer to the University of Florence. Here, he found inspiration in playwrights such as Pirandello, Betti, O'Neill, and Wilder. Some of the anti-fascist writers that influenced Calvino's thinking include Vittorini, Montale, Pisacane, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein.

Despite not fitting in with his fellow students at Turin due to his disapproval of fascism, Calvino continued his studies in Florence until 1943. However, his studies were abruptly cut short when German forces occupied Liguria and installed Benito Mussolini as the leader of the Republic of Salo.

The Republic of Salo, also known as the Italian Social Republic, was a puppet state controlled by Germany but led by Mussolini. Calvino refused to serve in Mussolini's army and went into hiding. During this time, he became drawn to communism and joined the Garibaldi Brigades, an Italian Communist resistance group, in 1944. In retaliation, the Nazis held Calvino's parents hostage.

After Italy was liberated in 1945, Calvino returned to the University of Turin, this time joining the Arts Faculty. In 1946, his short story "Gone to Headquarters" was published in Il Politecnico, a Turin weekly magazine, by Elio Vittorini, an influential Italian writer. Calvino used his wartime experiences and political beliefs as inspiration for his writing, and that year, he officially joined the Italian Communist Party.

After completing his Master's degree, Calvino joined the Einaudi Publishing House, where he met many left-wing intellectuals and writers. He later left the publishing house to work as a journalist for L'Unita, a communist daily journal, and Rinascita, a Communist magazine. In 1947, Calvino published his first book, "Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno," which won him the prestigious Premio Riccione. This marked the beginning of his neorealist period, where he focused on power politics, competition, and conflict in international relations.

In 1949, Calvino published a collection of short stories, "Ultimo viene il Corvo," inspired by his experiences during the war. As his success continued to grow, Calvino gained widespread recognition and acclaim.

The Rise of an Iconic Italian Author

Italo Calvino's career as a celebrated author flourished when he returned to Einaudi in 1950 and started working as a correspondent for L'Unita in the Soviet Union the following year. His writing during this time captivated many, earning him the prestigious Saint-Vincent Prize for Journalism. However, despite writing three realistic novels between 1947 and 1954, none were particularly successful.

The Transformation of Italo Calvino's Writing Style

As the Cold War created turmoil, Italo Calvino shifted away from political writing and embraced fantasy and fable genres. This change was evident in his 1954 commission by Einaudi to write "Fiabe Italiane," a compilation of Italian folktales.

During 1955-1958, Calvino was embroiled in a controversial affair with Elsa De Giorgi, a married Italian actress. The publication of their love letters in 2004 by Corriere della sera, an Italian daily newspaper, caused a stir among readers. The Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956 left Calvino disillusioned and led to his departure from the Italian Communist Party, marking the end of his political activism. In 1957, he wrote "The Baron in the Trees," a fantasy novel that served as a commentary on disillusionment and political commitments.

While on a trip to the United States in 1962, Calvino fell in love with Esther Judith Singer, an Argentinian translator. They tied the knot in 1964 in Havana, where he also met and wrote a tribute to Che Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary from Argentina who later passed away.

The passing of his friend Vittorini in 1966 left Calvino devastated, viewing it as a transformative period. He moved to Paris in 1967 and joined the Oulipo, an experimental writer group that focused on constrained forms of writing. This experience heavily influenced his 1972 book, "Invisible Cities." The Oulipo, consisting of French authors and mathematicians, used mathematical problems to create constraints for writers, hoping to spark new ideas. Notable members included Oskar Pastior, Jean Lescure, and Jacques Roubaud, all of whom influenced Calvino's writing.

In the 1970s, Calvino's success continued, winning the Asti Prize in 1970 and the Feltrinelli Prize in 1972. He also became involved in academic circles at the Sorbonne and the University of Urbino, pursuing his interests. During this time, he wrote two short stories, "The Burning of the Abominable House" (1973) and "The Name, The Nose" (1976), both inspired by the Oulipo's use of computer-aided writing experiments. He also contributed to various journals and newspapers. In 1976, he won the Austrian State Prize for Literature, and in 1981, he received the French Legion D'honneur.

In 1985, Calvino was set to give lectures on literature at Harvard University. However, he fell ill and passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage before he could make the trip. Throughout his prolific career, Calvino wrote numerous books, short stories, and essays, showcasing his versatility in genre, style, and purpose. Some of his notable works include "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" (1979), which uses the second-person point of view to immerse the reader into the story, and "Invisible Cities" (1972), which blurs the lines between reality and fiction. His debut novel, "The Path to the Nest of Spiders" (1947), is a coming-of-age tale set during WWII. Calvino's writing remains timeless and continues to inspire readers and writers alike.

After reading Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale in 1928, Italo Calvino took inspiration and left his own notes on how to create more enjoyable stories. This was a shift from his previous political writing towards the fantasy fiction genre.

Cosmicomics (1965)

Cosmicomics is a compilation of twelve short stories that combine scientific facts with imaginative tales. Narrated by Qfwfq, the stories explore themes of memory, distance, relationships, and science. Popular stories from this collection include "The Distance of the Moon" and "The Form of Space".

"You see, I only thought of the Earth. It was the Earth that shaped each of us into who we were, rather than someone else. Up there, far from Earth's grasp, it was as if I were no longer myself, and she was no longer She for me." (The Distance of the Moon).

Collection of Sand (1984)

In Italo Calvino's series of essays, Collection of Sand, he delves into the study of objects, exploring topics such as why humans collect sand and the relationship between maps and narratives. Through each essay, he poses questions such as "what was the significance?" and "why do objects hold meaning beyond their purpose?". His writing showcases a childlike curiosity, discussing objects without the constraints of time and space.

"Perhaps by simply observing sand as sand, and words as words, we can gain a better understanding. We can see how the world, worn down and eroded, still finds its foundation and a model in sand." (Essay 1).

Italo Calvino: Writing Philosophy

Throughout his lifetime, Italo Calvino's writing evolved and covered various genres, such as Neorealism, Fantasy Fiction, and Oulipo. These genres were heavily influenced by his philosophical beliefs, with Neorealism reflecting his Marxist theories and communism, Fantasy Fiction born from his disillusionment with communism, and Oulipo showcasing his love for constraints and rules.

Calvino's works of fantasy, such as Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities, gained recognition for their postmodern style. His writing rejects theories and ideologies, while also challenging traditional concepts of art. In these works, he blends imagination, memory, and reality, creating literature filled with wordplay, ambiguity, and experimentation. Invisible Cities, in particular, showcases Calvino's talent for crafting fantastical places that evolve and change over time.

Despite the genre, Calvino's distinctive writing style is marked by qualities such as lightness, whether in terms of weightlessness, abstraction, or visual light.

"And just like that, Cosimo vanished. He didn't even give us the satisfaction of seeing him return to earth as a corpse. On the family tombstone, there's a plaque commemorating him, with the words 'Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò - Lived on Trees - Always loved the Earth - Departed for the sky." (The Baron in the Trees, Chapter 30).

The Concept of Lightness in Italo Calvino's Writing

In The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino explores the idea of lightness through the story of Cosimo, who becomes weightless as he floats away on a balloon. This symbolizes the importance of letting go of burdens in both writing and life. Calvino believed that this act of releasing heaviness is crucial for moving forward and experiencing true freedom.

Quickness and Fluidity in Calvino's Writing

Calvino's writing is characterized by its quickness and fluidity. He avoids wordy and lengthy paragraphs, instead opting for a simpler, more concise writing style. His attention to word choice and expressions aims to engage readers through dynamic storytelling that often jumps between different storylines.

In Cosmicomics, his short story "The Distance of the Moon" tells a love story where the characters jump between the Earth and the moon. Calvino's fluid writing style is evident as he presents a question, offers an explanation, and then describes the outcome. This captivates readers, keeping them hooked until the end.

The Art of Concealing Information to Inspire Imagination

In his works, Italo Calvino not only uses precise language, but also strategically withholds information, inviting readers to use their imagination to fill in the gaps and create their own interpretations. By planting subtle ideas and concepts, Calvino crafts stories with infinite possibilities and endless storylines.

In his acclaimed novel "If On a Winters' Night a Traveler," two characters read a never-ending story, forcing readers to rely on their imagination and making each reading experience unique and personal.

Exploring the Intersection of Science and Language

Calvino often incorporates scientific facts into his writing, using them as a source of inspiration. Through clever word choice and humor, he seamlessly weaves these facts into his opening lines, allowing readers to interpret the meaning for themselves.

In the preface of "The Form of Space," Calvino discusses the concept of gravity and then cleverly uses it as a metaphor for falling in love in the first line of the story. This playful use of double meaning is a recurring theme in Calvino's works, making them both thought-provoking and entertaining.

Insights into the Life and Legacy of Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino is celebrated as one of the most influential Italian postmodernist writers of the 20th century. His involvement in politics and culture solidified his position as a central figure in Italian society. His works have inspired numerous authors and continue to enchant young readers in Italy, especially his collection of Italian fairytales.

Although born in Havana, Cuba in 1923, Calvino spent most of his life in Italy. His experiences during World War II and his involvement with the Italian Communist Party greatly influenced his writing, blending elements of neorealism, fantasy fiction, and Oulipo.

Important takeaways from Italo Calvino's writing

  • Calvino's contributions to postmodernist literature continue to be highly regarded.
  • He passed away in 1985 due to a cerebral hemorrhage.
  • Calvino was a successful Italian writer and journalist.
  • His distinctive writing style is characterized by lightness, fluidity, movement, precise word choice, and unique narrative structures.

In Conclusion

Italo Calvino's writing embodies the concept of lightness, both physically and mentally, freeing readers from burdens through his stories. His imaginative and fluid storytelling invites readers to use their imagination and continues to inspire writers and readers alike, solidifying his legacy as a significant figure in the world of literature.

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