Issue 164, Winter 2002-2003
In 1959, Random House published Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. Some rank it among the finest books of Calvino’s career, alongside Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies, not to mention his fabulous essays on the uses of literature. The Baron flaunts all the qualities of temperament and prose for which Calvino became famous: whimsical but concisely savage renderings of character; fable grounded in plausible detail; the precincts of need, fear, love as inhabited by a dreamy aesthetic.
The letters that follow were written in 1959, while Calvino was in New York on a Ford Foundation scholarship. He wrote them primarily to Daniele Ponchiroli, editor in chief of the Einaudi publishing house. The letters offer several pleasures, among them a series of prosaic and sober reflections that are in stark contrast to the droll and playful inclinations of his fiction. By all accounts, Calvino was taciturn by nature. His conversational style was arid and clipped, often laconic. He was a private man, disinclined to published autobiography. Even his essays, pegged as memoir, seem more polemic than personal, notwithstanding The Road to San Giovanni (published posthumously as memoir). What we do know about Calvino is that he was born in Cuba in 1923 and raised on the Italian Riviera. In 1943, he went into hiding with other Partisans. He became a Communist after the war, then renounced his membership in 1956. He worked in publishing, he wrote novels. In 1985, he died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage. According to Umberto Eco, Calvino’s last few words were “the parallels, the parallels.”
On board ship, 3 Nov. ’59
Dear Daniele and friends,
For me boredom has now taken on the image of this transatlantic liner. Why did I ever decide not to take the plane? I would have arrived in America buzzing with the rhythm of the world of big business and high politics, instead I will arrive weighed down by an already heavy dose of American boredom, American old age, American lack of vital resources. Thankfully I only have one more evening to spend on the steamer, after four evenings of desperate tedium. The “belle époque” flavor of liners no longer manages to conjure up a single image. That hint of a memory of past times that you can get from Monte Carlo or the spa at San Pellegrino Terme does not happen here, because a liner is modern: it may be something “old-world” in concept but they are built pretentiously now, and populated by people that are antiquated, old, and ugly. The only thing that you can glean from it is a definition of boredom as being somehow out of phase with history, a feeling of being cut off but with the consciousness that everything else is still going on: the boredom of Leopardi’s Recanati, just like that of The Three Sisters, is no different from the boredom of a journey in a transatlantic liner.
Long live Socialism.
Long live Aviation.