Calvino fa la conchiglia
- By Domenico Scarpa
(Fossilized ammonite mollusk. Photo by Adrien Vieriu)
Calvino fa la conchiglia
La costruzione di uno scrittore
[The making/building/construction of a writer]
Editor’s note: To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Italo Calvino on October 15, 2023, the journal California Italian Studies has published a special issue, edited by Anna Botta and Lucia Re, titled Calvino's Memos: Between the Old and the New Millennium. Including in this issue is a chapter in translation from the ground-breaking, magisterial study of Calvino’s corpus by Domenico Scarpa, Calvino fa la conchiglia. La construzione di uno scrittore, published earlier this year in Italy. What follows here is a translation of the book’s introduction.
Calvino fa la conchiglia tells the story of Italo Calvino. This opening sentence is already a stumbling block, given that it has two words—the noun “story” and the name “Italo Calvino”—that should both be understood as having multiple meanings. The personal history of Calvino consists of many interwoven and branching stories, and everyone who knows his books knows immediately they are so varied that one might well believe the name “Italo Calvino,” which appears unchanged on every book jacket, refers to more than one writer—perhaps three, four, or even more. For that reason, while planning and then writing this book, I was obliged to resolve, in the special case of Calvino, the usual problem for anyone who chooses to tell stories: what story to tell, and how to tell it.
The many, interwoven, branching stories of Calvino can be disentangled, pared down, and systematized, but in doing so one almost instantly understands how distorting it would be to retell them one at a time, from A to Z. And when it comes to the diversity of his books, while it is definitely true that they are diverse, it is also necessary to grasp their shared nucleus (and here too, there definitely is one) without losing their unique form. To take on this task (so evident yet so difficult to pull off), I was helped by the title, Calvino fa la conchiglia. So that’s the first thing to explain.
The words “Calvino fa la conchiglia” are the summary of a Calvino story: four words that form a sentence with a subject, a predicate, and a direct object; a person’s last name, the most simple action verb of all, and a form—natural and complex for whoever creates it, elegant and beautiful for whoever views it.
Calvino wrote “The Spiral” in 1965. He positioned it as the final story of his Cosmicomics because it seemed to him a landing point for his corpus, and, during the years that followed, he never changed his mind. The actual debut of Calvino the writer came in 1945, with the war just ended, and his death came unexpectedly forty years later, in 1985. “The Spiral” marks the exact midpoint of his journey.
“The Spiral” is an autobiographical story, even if the narrating “I” is named Qfwfq. (Calvino himself—according to his wife Esther Singer, who was called Chichita—pronounced this name “woof.”) The story is autobiographical even if its narrating “I” happens to be a primordial mollusk stuck to his reef. In its fifteen pages (the number needed for the first Einaudi edition), “The Spiral” is a story about the construction of a self, a constant narrative theme for Calvino and the inspiration for my book’s subtitle. The five words “La costruzione di uno scrittore” point to two sequences of events, each grafted onto the other. The first concerns what Calvino was constructing with his books and his work; the second considers the choices, the exigencies, and the contingencies by which he constructed—or accepted that a great variety of circumstances would construct—his public persona as a writer.
In this construction, additionally, there is a third sequence of events, one that concerns the book being introduced here. In its totality, Calvino fa la conchiglia also adds up to the making of a writer, so it would be appropriate to say something here about this genre of book. I can say that I attempted, in writing it, to find a means to ensure it wouldn’t fit in any single, definite genre. It is not a biography, even if it does tell the story of Calvino’s life, year by year, beginning in fact with his parents. It is not only a work of literary criticism, because I try to write criticism in the tone of someone who speaks directly to all sorts of readers. I would also like this book to be in some sense a history, a text which in each instance gives coordinates situating Italo Calvino & co. (the hero of this book isn’t a loner) in time and space, geographically and culturally.
I would define Calvino fa la conchiglia as a work of mixed method. The table of contents alternates between chronicle chapters and essay chapters. The chronicle chapters are its connective tissue, its through line: they tell Calvino’s story according to temporal intervals, for example his participation in the Italian Resistance between September, 1943 and April, 1945, or the trip to America when he crossed the threshold of the ’60s. Yet the worth of this distinction between chronicle chapters and essay chapters lies mostly in expositive clarity. The chronicles run from a point A to a point B and are paced accordingly, whereas the essays are themselves braided stories: generally they start off from some point which a chronicle chapter has just touched upon; from there they may take off, back and forth across the march of time, sometimes more than once, and they may also enlarge or tighten the focus in order to frame moments in history, political circumstances, literary alliances, and intellectual debates. The essay chapters may review one of Calvino’s books, a theme in his work, or his encounters, debates, even clashes; given that he had many interlocutors to engage with, it was simply a matter of choosing which to discuss. A series of chapters, titled “The Years Viewed from Above,” is also dedicated to Calvino’s landscape: this is a story told in installments about a single archetypal landscape, the Riviera di Ponente in Liguria.
A long book—a book filled to the brim, we might say—Calvino fa la conchiglia has been composed over a period of years, with articles and presentations published in a wide variety of venues. At the same time it is a book written from beginning to end only now, because it contains many new pieces, and those that already existed have been rethought and reexamined through rereadings, which were required, then restructured and recast, but most importantly rewritten from scratch—trying to assure that its voice is coherent and consistent.
And with that, let’s put an end to any further description; after all, the book must speak for itself. I’ll add only that it does try not to trip up the eye of the reader. These pages include no notes. Everything necessary to follow the book’s story—to orient oneself in time, in space, and among its characters—is on the page. Bibliographical references acknowledging sources are given at the end, organized so that the reader can find them quickly; they are listed there according to the first words of a cited passage or of the information provided. The book concludes with two indexes, one noting mentions of Calvino’s works and the other of proper names.
I wish you all pleasurable reading.
DOMENICO SCARPA is a literary consultant for the Turin-based Centro internazionale di studi Primo Levi, a regular contributor to the daily Il Sole – 24 Ore, and the editor of the final volume of Einaudi's Atlante della letteratura italiana, directed by Sergio Luzzatto and Gabriele Pedullà. He is also the translator of Jonathan Coe, Philippe Forest, and Cathleen Schine as well as the editor of works by André Breton, Italo Calvino, Fruttero & Lucentini, Natalia Ginzburg, Mario Soldati, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Translated by JIM HICKS