To Eugenio Scalfari—Rome
March 7, 1942
I accepted the praise you gave me at the start of your letter with barely restrained grunts of satisfaction. Although I am small, ugly and dirty, I am highly ambitious and at the slightest flattery I immediately start to strut like a turkey. The accusations you make later on are completely without foundation: the idea that there were thousands of youths with literary ambitions was something I knew even in the irresponsible days spent behind our school desks, and this thought has always filled me with terror: that I might be one of those people, that I might be only one of those people. And if I have decided to be merely a modest agronomist this was not just because my family’s destiny forbade me the contemplative life, but also and principally because I was terrified by the thought of one day meeting a crowd of people like me, each one convinced that he and only he was a genius. Up here in Turin I know only students of agriculture, medicine, engineering, chemistry: all good guys who are thinking about getting a job, without a head full of nonsense, no mirages of glory, often without much intelligence. And as far as they are concerned, I am one of them: no one knows who Italo Calvino is, who he wanted or wants to be. With these people there is little talk of dreams and the future, though they too certainly think about such things. This is what I am for the people of Turin, Pigati included, but except for Roero and Maiga, of course. Only in this way can the deluded man of Via Bogino live. I don’t know how you feel in the environment you say you’ve moved into. Apart from the fact that the literary or pseudo-literary world has always aroused a certain dislike in me, for me it would only be discouraging. But instead, living like this, I feel happy in the knowledge that I am different from those around me, that I see things with a different eye to theirs, that I know how to appreciate or suffer from the world in my own way. And I feel myself superior. I prefer being the obscure, isolated figure hoping for the victory that will see his name on everyone’s lips rather than being one of the pack just following the destiny of a group. And you certainly can’t say that this kind of behavior of mine is accommodating. I may be accommodating in life, I’ll let myself be carried away passively in the course of my actions, but I will not prostitute my art. Eh, am I not good?
8 March: I found this letter that I had started to write yesterday evening and I reread it with interest. Dammit, what a lot of drivel I managed to write! In the end it’s impossible to understand anything in it. But better that way: the less one understands the more posterity will appreciate my profundity of thought. In fact, let me say:
POSTERITY IS STUPID
Think how annoyed they’ll be when they read that!
Excerpted from Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, translated by Martin McLaughlin, published by Princeton University Press today, May 20th. © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.