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Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985

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There are no love letters included, for instance, nor anything to his parents or relatives; indeed, just about anything "personal" is left out. At the same time, Calvino writes in such granular detail about postwar Italian literature, with references to the titles, authors, characters, and plots of hundreds of works, that anyone who is not a specialist in that literature will probably feel a little adrift. (The notes, while numerous, are not nearly full enough for the general reader's purposes – an adequately annotated edition would probably be twice as long.) 

Yet this austerity feels only appropriate for a man whose ideal way of life, he confides in one letter, would be to spend 12 hours a day reading. Several times in the "Letters," we hear Calvino dissuading people from trying to interview him or write his biography, on the grounds that – as Barthes was saying around the same time – the very idea of an "author" was dead, or should be: "To be able to study a writer, he must be dead, that is – if he is alive – he must be killed… Furthermore, already the existence of the work is a sign that the author is dead, happily dead if the work is worthwhile; the work is the negation of the writer as empirical living being." 

Rather than an individual genius, Calvino wanted to be thought of as a member of a culture and a collective. "Life and works?" he writes to an Englishman proposing to devote a study to him. "I'm afraid I don't think I really have a life on which something can be written. All I have is a series of works that form part of the general context of literary works in our time. I am more and more convinced that literature is made up of works, genres, schools, discussions, problems, collective work in order to solve certain problems… If a critic writes about a problem and makes reference to one (or more) of my works in relation to that problem, this gives me the sense that my work is not pointless. Whereas the prospect of my bust crowned with laurel appearing along with the other busts in the hall of famous writers gives me no joy at all." 

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