Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923 – September 19, 1985) was an Italian writer and novelist. Calvino began his career as a communist, but in 1957, resigned from the party. His early works were influenced by his participation in the Resistance during World War II, but from the 1950s he became primarily a writer of fantasy. Calvino was a member of Oulipo. Oulipo is an acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, which translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature." It is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians which endeavored to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960, by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, but included novelists like Georges Perec and Calvino, and poets like Oskar Pastior or Jacques Roubaud, also a widely-known mathematician.
The term littérature potentielle can be roughly translated as: "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy." Constraints are used as a means of triggering ideas and inspiration, most notably Perec's "story-making machine," which he used in the construction of Life: A User's Manual. As well as established techniques, such as lipograms (Perec's novel A Void) and palindromes, the group devised new techniques, often based on mathematical problems such as the Knight's Tour of the chess-board and permutations. In Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, the first chapter and every odd numbered chapter are in second person, and tell the reader what they are doing to get ready to read the next chapter. Alternating between second-person narrative chapters of this story are the remaining (even) passages, each of which is a first chapter in ten different novels, of widely varying style, genre, and subject-matter. All are broken off, for various reasons explained in the interspersed passages, most of them at some moment of plot climax.
Born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, to botanists Mario Calvino and Evelina Mameli (a descendant of Goffredo Mameli) and brother of Floriano Calvino, a famous geologist, Italo Calvino soon moved to his family's homeland of Italy, where he lived most of his life. He stayed in Sanremo, Italy, on the Italian Riviera, for some 20 years and enrolled in the Avanguardisti (a fascist youth organization of which membership was practically compulsory) with whom he took part in the occupation of the French Riviera. He suffered some religious troubles, his relatives being followers of the Waldensian Protestant Church. He met Eugenio Scalfari (later a politician and the founder of the major newspaper, La Repubblica), with whom he would remain a close friend.
In 1941, he moved to Turin, after a long hesitation over living there or in Milan. He often humorously described this choice, and used to describe Turin as "a city that is serious but sad."
In 1943, he joined the Partisans in the Italian Resistance, in the Garibaldi brigade, with the battlename of Santiago, and with Scalfari, he created the MUL (liberal universitarian movement). He then entered the Italian Communist Party.
In 1947, Calvino graduated from Turin's university with a thesis on Joseph Conrad and started working with the official Communist paper L'Unità; he also had a short relationship with the Einaudi publishing house, which put him in contact with Norberto Bobbio, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese, and Elio Vittorini. With Vittorini, he wrote for the weekly Il Politecnico (a cultural magazine associated with the university). He then left Einaudi to work mainly with L'Unità and the newborn communist weekly political magazine Rinascita.
He worked again for the Einaudi house from 1950, responsible for the literary volumes. The following year, presumably in order to verify a possibility of advancement in the communist party, he visited the Soviet Union. The reports and correspondence he produced from this visit were later collected and earned him literary prizes.
In 1952, Calvino wrote with Giorgio Bassani for Botteghe Oscure, a magazine named after the popular name of the party's head-offices, and worked for Il Contemporaneo, a Marxist weekly.
In 1957, Calvino unexpectedly left the Communist party, and his letter of resignation (soon famous) was published in L'Unità.
He found new outlets for his periodic writings in the magazines Passato e Presente and Italia Domani. Together with Vittorini he became a co-editor of Il Menabò di letteratura, a position that he held for many years.
Despite the previously severe restrictions for foreigners holding communist views, he was allowed to visit the United States, where he stayed six months (four of which he spent in New York), after an invitation by the Ford Foundation. Calvino was particularly impressed by the "New World:" "Naturally I visited the South and also California, but I always felt a New Yorker. My city is New York." In the States he also met Esther Judith Singer, whom he married a few years later in Havana, during a trip in which he visited his birthplace and met Ernesto Che Guevara.
Back in Italy, and once again working for Einaudi, he started publishing some of his cosmicomics in Il Caffè, a literary magazine.
Vittorini's death in 1966, had a heavy influence on Calvino and caused him to experience what has been defined as an "intellectual depression," which the writer himself described as an important passage in his life: "…I ceased to be young. Perhaps it's a metabolic process, something that comes with age, I'd been young for a long time, perhaps too long, suddenly I felt that I had to begin my old age, yes, old age, perhaps with the hope of prolonging it by beginning it early."
He then started to frequent Paris (where he was nicknamed L'ironique amusé). Here he soon joined some important circles like the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) and met Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss, in the fermenting atmosphere that was going to evolve into 1968's cultural revolution (the French May); in his French experience, he also became fond of Raymond Queneau's works, which would sensibly influence his later production.
Calvino also had more intense contacts with the academic world, with notable experiences at the Sorbonne (with Barthes) and at Urbino's university. His interests included classical studies (Honoré de Balzac, Ludovico Ariosto, Dante, Ignacio de Loyola, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergérac, Giacomo Leopardi) while at the same time, not without a certain surprise from the Italian intellectual circles, he wrote novels for Playboy's Italian edition (1973). He became a regular contributor to the important Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
In 1975, he was made Honorary Member of the American Academy, the following year, he was awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He visited Japan and Mexico and gave lectures in several American towns.
In 1981, he was awarded the prestigious French Légion d'Honneur.
In 1985, during the summer, Calvino prepared some notes for a series of lectures to be held at Harvard University during the fall. However, on September 6, he was taken to the ancient hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, at Siena, where he died during the night between September 18 and 19, of a cerebral hemorrhage. His lecture notes were published posthumously as Six Memos for the Next Millennium, in 1988.
(dates are of original publication)
Gore Vidal: "Italo Calvino has advanced far beyond his American and English contemporaries. As they continue to look for the place where the spiders make their nests, Calvino has not only found this special place but learned how himself to make fantastic webs of prose to which all things adhere."
All links retrieved April 1, 2013.
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