Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino (1923-985) was an Italian author and journalist who made a huge impact on the postmodernist movement of the 20th century. By the time Calvino died, he was internationally renowned with his work becoming the most widely translated contemporary Italian writing. 

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Table of contents

    Biography of Italo Calvino

    Italo Calvino was born in 1923 in a suburb of Havana, Cuba called Santiago de las Vegas.

    Italo Calvino+ Havana/italo calvino facts+StudySmarterCalvino was born in Havana, Cuba, pixabay.

    Calvino's parents were both from Italy and named Calvino "Italo" to remind him of his heritage. He disliked the name after moving to Italy stating it felt too nationalistic.

    In 1925, Calvino and his family moved to Sanremo, Italy living part-time at an experimental floriculture station which greatly impacted Calvino's writing. His book The Baron in the Trees (1957) features many of the flora he was exposed to as a child. Calvino's family valued the sciences, as both his parents were botanists, and Calvino always felt the odd one out with his love of literature. Calvino was exposed to many ideologies due to his parent's beliefs including Freemasonry, Republicanism, Anarchism, and Marxism. Due to Calvino's parents, who hated the National Fascist Party in power at the time, he wasn't given a Catholic education as was common. Rather, he attended Protestant elementary schools and a state-run secondary school. He was often mocked for having to justify why he did not attend religious courses. It was at this school he became friends with Eugenio Scalfari, founder of L'Espresso, and La Repubblica, two major Italian newspapers, who exposed Calvino to politics.

    In 1941, Calvino was enrolled at the University of Turin. Despite taking courses in the Agriculture Faculty, Calvino read anti-fascist literature and began taking interest in becoming a playwright. He would often find inspiration in playwrights such as Pirandello, Betti, O'Neill, and Wilder.

    Italo Calvino+ Turin/italo calvino facts+StudySmarterCalvino attended the University of Turin before transferring to the University of Florence, pixabay.

    Some of the Anti-Fascist writers Calvino enjoyed reading include Vittorini, Montale, Pisacane, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and even Albert Einstein.

    Calvino never fit in with the other students at Turin, claiming he saw himself as immune to their fascism. In 1943, he transferred to the University of Florence to continue his agricultural studies. However, his studies were cut short when German forces successfully occupied Liguria and set up Benito Mussolini as the leader of the Republic of Salo.

    The Republic of Salo, also known as the Italian Social Republic, was a German Puppet state led by Benito Mussolini. Despite having Italian leadership, the state was militarily controlled by Germany. The Republic of Salo was in existence until the end of World War 2 in 1945

    Calvino refused to serve in Mussolini's army and went into hiding. it was during this time he became interested in Communism, believing it to be the most organized political ideology. In 1944, with encouragement from his mother, Calvino joined the Garibaldi Brigades, an Italian Communist resistance group that fought against the Fascist Regime. Nazi's held Calvino's parents hostage for his resistance.

    When Italy was liberated in 1945, Calvino returned to the University of Turin but joined the Arts Faculty rather than the Agriculture Faculty. In 1946, Elio Vittorini, an Italian writer, published Calvino's short story "Andato al comando" or “Gone to Headquarters” (1946) in the Il Politecnico, a Turin weekly magazine. Calvino used his trauma from the war as well as his political beliefs to fuel his writing. He officially joined the Italian Communist Party that year.

    After graduating with a Master's, Calvino went to work at the Einaudi Publishing House. Here he met many left-wing intellectuals and writers. He left Einaudi Publishing House to work as a journalist for L'Unita, a communist daily journal, and Rinascita, a Communist magazine. In 1947, Calvino published his first book Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947) which won him the Premio Riccione. This was the beginning of Calvino's neorealist period.

    Neorealism is a theory that focuses on the role of power politics, competition and conflict, and limited cooperation in the realm of international relations.

    In 1949 he published a collection of short stories that were inspired by his experiences with war called Ultimo viene il Corvo (1949). Calvino was becoming incredibly successful and reached acclaim. He returned to Einaudi in 1950 and went to the Soviet Union as a correspondent for L'Unita in 1951. His articles from this time awarded him the Saint-Vincent Prize for Journalism.

    Despite writing three realist novels between 1947 and 1954, none reached success. In the 1950s, Calvino began to drift away from political writing in favor of the fantasy and fable genres due to the turbulence he felt during the Cold War. In 1954, Calvino was commissioned by Einaudi to write the Fiabe Italiane (1956), which was a collection of Italian folktales

    Between the years 1955 and 1958, Calvino became involved in an affair with a married, older Italian actress named Elsa De Giorgi. In 2004, the love letters Calvino wrote to her were in the Corriere della sera (an Italian daily newspaper) which created controversy over the late author.

    In 1956 the Soviet Union invaded Hungary which left Calvino disillusioned. He left the Italian Communist Party and left behind his active political life. In 1957 he wrote The Baron in the Trees (1957), a fantastical commentary on political commitments in the face of disillusionment. In 1962, after a trip to the United States left him mesmerized by New York, Calvino met Esther Judith Singer, an Argentinian translator. They were married in 1964 in Havana. On this trip, he met Che Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary from Argentina, and even wrote a tribute to him after Guevara's death.

    In 1966, Vittorini died leaving Calvino depressed. Calvino believed this to be a time of transformation for him and moved to Paris in 1967. There he joined a group of experimental writers known as the Oulipo, who focused on constrained forms of writing. Calvino's time with the Oulipo influenced his 1972 book, Invisible Cities (1972).

    The Oulipo was a group of French authors and mathematicians who used constrained structures in their writing to inspire ideas within the writer. Many of the constraints were derived from mathematical problems. Oskar Pastior, Italo Calvino, Jean Lescure, and Jacques Roubaud are some famous writers who were involved with Oulipo.

    From the 1970s on Calvino continued to enjoy success. He won the Asti Prize in 1970 and the Feltrinelli prize in 1972. He became involved with academic circles at the Sorbonne and the University of Urbino where he cultivated his interests. Calvino wrote two short stories during this time, The Burning of the Abominable House (1973) and The Name, The Nose (1976), which were inspired by Oulipo's conventions of using computer-aided writing experimentation. He also continued writing for journals and newspapers. In 1976 he won the Austrian State Prize for Literature and in 1981 won the French Legion D'honneur.

    In 1985, Calvino was supposed to go to Harvard University to deliver lectures on literature. However, before he was able to embark on his journey, he fell ill and was admitted to the hospital in Siena. On September 19, Italo Calvino died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

    The Books of Italo Calvino

    Italo Calvino was a prolific writer with works ranging in genre, style, and purpose. Below are some of his most famous works with some quotes.

    Italo Calvino+ books/italo calvino facts+StudySmarterCalvino wrote many books, short stories, and essays, pixabay.

    If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979)

    This novel, or anti-novel, by Calvino follows two readers, a man and a woman, who are themselves reading a series of ten short stories. The novel jumps between storylines and shifts perspectives. Calvino uses the second-person point of view to make the reader feel like the protagonist of the story. It follows themes such as change, coincidence, chance, and blurring the lines between reality and fiction. It can be considered one of the greatest post-modernist achievements in literature.

    Reader, prick up your ears. This suspicion is being insinuated into your mind, to feed your anxiety as a jealous man who still doesn't recognize himself as such" (13.24).

    Invisible Cities (1972)

    The book consists of 55 prose poems that describe imaginative cities as told by Marco Polo. The book is framed in a way where Marco Polo is having a conversation with Kublai Khan. Calvino also includes discussions on topics throughout the book about culture, time, memory, and language. It falls under the travel literature genre which is a genre that includes any type of outdoor or travel guide. Rather than describe real cities, however, Calvino decides to create fictitious ones. Invisible Cities is directly influenced by the Oulipo movement that Calvino joined in 1967 as one can tell from the text's controlled and almost mathematical writing style.

    Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories" (Chapter 1).

    The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947)

    The Path to the Nest of Spiders was the first novel written by Calvino. It is a coming-of-age story that follows Pin who joins an Italian Partisan group against the backdrop of WWII. The novel received mixed reviews with some critics claiming it is naive, while others believe it to be a complex portrayal of politics from the perspective of a child. Calvino wrote the novel during his politically active period following his membership with the Italian Communist Party.

    The Baron in the Trees (1957)

    Italo Calvino+ The Baron in the Trees/italo calvino facts+StudySmarterCosimo climbs up a tree and never comes down for the rest of his life,

    The story follows an 18th-century Italian nobleman named Cosimo who in an act of rebellion climbs a tree. He refuses to come down and lives the rest of his life in the tree. In the tree, he learns philosophy and mathematics. He even has love affairs and adventures with pirates. Calvino wrote the novel when he became disillusioned with the Communist party. It is a satirical commentary on political commitments.

    That wish to enter into an elusive element which had urged Cosimo into the trees, was still working now inside him unsatisfied, making him long for a more intimate link, a relationship which would bind him to each leaf and twig and feather and flutter" (Chapter 4)

    Italian Folktales (1956)

    The book includes 200 Italian folktales. Calvino wrote the book after he was inspired by Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (1928). Calvino, despite using traditional folktales as told by folklorists, left many notes on how he would alter the stories to make them more enjoyable. This was written when Calvino was drifting away from political writing in favor of the fantasy fiction genre.

    Cosmicomics (1965)

    Cosmicomics is a collection of twelve short stories that build imaginative stories off of a scientific fact told in the preface. Ten of the stories are narrated by Qfwfq. The most well-known stories from Cosmicomics are "The Distance of the Moon" and "The Form of Space". The stories include themes such as memory, distance, relationships, and science.

    I thought only of the Earth. It was the Earth that caused each of us to be that someone he was rather than someone else; up there, wrested from the Earth, it was as if I were no longer that I, not she that She for me" (The Distance of the Moon).

    Collection of Sand (1984)

    Italo Calvino+ sand/italo calvino facts+StudySmarterThe first essay in Collection of Sand is a meditation on sand, pixabay.

    In this series of essays by Calvino, objects are studied such as why humans collect sand and the relationship between a map and the narrative. The ultimate question Calvino asks throughout each essay is "what is or what was the point?" and "why do we find meaning in objects aside from their purpose?". Objects are discussed outside the realm of time and space, giving the tone of the essays one of childlike curiosity.

    Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model" (Essay 1).

    Italo Calvino: Writing Philosophy

    Italo Calvino's writing evolved throughout his lifetime. While under the umbrella of postmodernism, Calvino's work ranged from Neorealism to Fantasy Fiction to Oulipo. The genres in which Calvino writes in refer back to his philosophical beliefs. Neorealism reveals his belief in Marxist theories and communism, Fantasy fiction grew out of his disillusionment with communism, and Oulipo shows a stage of experimentation with a philosophy based upon rules and constraints.

    Postmodernism— a style of writing from the mid to late 20th century that distances itself from theory and idealogy while also rejecting the concept of art. It evolved from Modernism.

    Calvino is most famous for his fantasy writing such as Cosmicomics and his Oulipo-inspired Invisible Cities. In both, he weaves imagination and memory with reality to create works of literature that are steeped in wordplay, ambiguity, and experimentation. Invisible Cities in particular shows how Calvino can create fantastical places but allow them to grow and change as any normal city would over time.

    Calvino, regardless of genre, had a distinctive writing style that is based on a few key qualities. Calvino valued the concept of lightness in his writing whether that meant weightlessness, abstraction, or visual light.

    So vanished Cosimo, without giving us even the satisfaction of seeing him return to earth a corpse. On the family tomb there is a plaque in commemoration of him, with the inscription: ‘Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò — Lived on Trees — Ever loved earth — Went into the sky" (The Baron in the Trees, Chapter 30).

    In this excerpt from Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, we see the concept of lightness in the form of a body losing its earthly weight and the body of Cosimo floating away on a balloon showing its weightlessness. This is just one way that Calvino reveals to his readers that letting go of heaviness in writing or life, is the best way forward. It is freeing.

    Another quality of Calvino's writing is its quickness and fluidity. Calvino avoided bulky and wordy paragraphs and chose a simpler, cut-down style. He liked to use precision in his choice of words and expressions. He wished to engage the reader by exciting them with movement within a written piece, oftentimes jumping storylines.

    In Cosmicomics, Calvino wrote a short story titled "The Distance of the Moon" in which a love triangle is formed between people jumping between Earth and the moon.

    "Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for; I'll explain it to you. We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket. Moon milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese."

    Notice the fluidity in how Calvino writes. He sets up the question. States an explanation is coming. Explains how it is done and why. And then describes the result. It reads quickly and engages the reader. He chose words very carefully to create a simple yet engaging few sentences.

    Calvino, despite the use of precision in his choice of words, liked to conceal information from the reader to encourage the imagination to fill in the gaps. He would plant ideas into the reader's head, creating stories that have infinite storylines.

    If On a Winters' Night a Traveler (1979) has a base storyline that is read by two readers in the book. The story they read has no end and they have a relationship. If On a Winters' Night a Traveler provides endless open-ended stories that require the reader to rely heavily on their imagination.

    Calvino would also sometimes preface his stories with a scientific fact before writing opening lines that relate to that fact either through word choice or humor. This allows the reader to derive their meaning from the work rather than Calvino providing that meaning for them.

    In the preface of "The Form of Space", Calvino explains how understanding the mathematics of gravity is almost common knowledge. He then opens the first line of the short story with "To fall in the void as I fell", which is a reference to gravity but also a reference to falling in love with someone. This is an example of the playfulness and double meaning found in many of Calvino's works.

    Facts on Italo Calvino's Works

    Calvino is considered one of the most important Italian post-modernist writers of the 20th century. His political and cultural involvement meant that he is a central figure in Italian culture. His work has influenced and inspired authors for decades, and his book of Italian fairytales is still red to young children all over Italy.

    Italo Calvino - Key Takeaways

    • Italo Calvino was born in Havana, Cuba in 1923, but lived the majority of his life in Italy.
    • Italo Calvino is known as one of the greatest 20th-century post-modernist writers. His experiences with WWII, the Italian Communist Party, and his love of fantasy all influenced his many books, short stories, and essays.
    • Calvino wrote in many genres throughout his lifetime including genres such as Neorealism, Fantasy Fiction, and Oulipo.
    • Calvino had a distinctive writing style that included characteristics such as the concept of lightness, fluidity, movement, precise wordage, and interesting story frameworks.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Italo Calvino

    What was Italo Calvino known for? 

    Italo Calvino is known for his achievements in the postmodernist literary genre. 

    How did Italo Calvino die? 

    Italo Calvino died of a cerebral hemmorhage.

    Who is Italo Calvino? 

    Italo Calvino is an Italian postmodernist writer and journalist. 

    What is Italo Calvino's style? 

    Calvino had a distinctive writing style that included characteristics such as the concept of lightness, fluidity, movement, precise wordage, and interesting story frameworks. 

    Is Calvino postmodern? 

    Yes, Calvino is a postmodernist writer.

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