The Ideal and the Infernal City

Princeton University Press has published a beautiful edition of Italo Calvino’s letters, and our copy has arrived at Central Library. Calvino was a cosmopolitan figure: in addition to his work as a writer, he was an editor at the publishing house Einaudi, based in Turin. He carried on lively, brilliant correspondence with many major figures of his day, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco, and crime writer Leonardo Sciascia, whose works he helped publish. Even a brief glance through his correspondence will have you regarding your inbox with deep shame.

In one of my favorite letters, he tells no less than Michelangelo Antonioni–very tactfully of course–that his book is a mess and needs a ton of work. Calvino’s letter to Vidal (who wrote a long admiring piece on Calvino for the New York Review of Books and was one of his first U.S. advocates) showcases the warmth, intelligence, and humility that shine throughout this collection. He has an impressive ability to view his work in a much larger literary context, and unlike so many writers today, was not preoccupied with broadcasting his persona through the world: “A text must be something,” he wrote in 1971, “that can be read and evaluated without reference to the existence or otherwise of the person whose name and surname appear on the cover.”

Not sure he would approve of the giant head on the cover, then! — although to the designer’s credit, on our edition, the head is concealed with a half-sleeve.

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My personal favorite work of Calvino’s is Invisible Cities, so I was especially intrigued to read this passage in a letter to Claudio Varese. If you have not read Invisible Cities,you may want to do so immediately before pressing on:

I notice that all critics dwell on the final sentence (and you do it very well) as if that were the conclusion–and of course by placing it at the end I myself have privileged it over the other conclusions that the book suggests as it goes along–but I think one can dwell also on the other sentences that have an emphasis of this type. The final italic passage itself has two conclusions, both of the same order of importance: one on the ideal city (which is seen as discontinuous and immanent, and no critic has concentrated on this so far), and the other on the infernal city. [Letter to Claudio Varese, Jan 20, 1973]

so in an attempt to restore some of the balance, the Ideal City …

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“At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed from the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe that the search for it can stop.”

— Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.

(Photo: NASA image of Midwestern U.S. during Aurora Borealis, 2011)

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