And from the very beginning of his career to the very end, he was also a publisher, associated with the leading Italian house of Einaudi. His work brought him into contact with just about every major Italian writer and cultural figure of the postwar period; many of them were his friends and collaborators, from Cesare Pavese and Carlo Levi to Michelangelo Antonioni and Pierpaolo Pasolini.
This intense activity, this committed and versatile service to letters, is the main impression that the reader takes away from Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985. A big book at nearly 600 pages, it still represents just a fraction of the correspondence published in Italian, and there are large areas of Calvino's life that go uncovered – this is not one of those books of letters that can double as a biography.
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."