If you follow me on social media platforms, you might have noticed me getting ridiculously over-excited at the start of the month about a new book which was coming out. It arrived on 5th January, and is “The Written World and the Unwritten World: Collected Non-Fiction” by one of my favourite ever authors – Italo Calvino.

I’ve written before on the Ramblings about how I discovered him in my early twenties, when Mr. K presented me with a copy of Calvino’s seminal work, “If on a winter’s night a traveller”. That book changed me and my reading forever, and it’s one of the pivotal books of my life. I went on to read anything I could get my hands on by Calvino and have a *large* collection of what I thought was everything translated into English. I didn’t think there was likely to ever be anything new – until “Written World” appeared on the horizon. A new collection of previously untranslated, in some cases previously unpublished, non-fiction works, it promised to be a marvellous and unexpected treat; and reading it turned out to be pure delight!

The book is grouped into four themed sections, each containing a selection of articles, lectures, letters, introductions – well, a cornucopia of fascinating pieces. I thought the best way to look at the book would be to take each section separately and share some thoughts, because it really is a collection which is brimming with riches.

Reading, Writing, Translation

The opening piece from this section, which starts the book, is “The Good Reader” and it sets the tone beautifully. Pure Calvino, and surprisingly reminiscent of the start of “Traveller…” (although some 27 years before that came out), it takes a wry look at the good intentions we all have when planning reading and packing books for a holiday. Needless to say, those plans rarely come to fruition, but it’s nice to be reminded of Calvino’s ongoing concern for his reader, something that turns up throughout this section. I suppose that for many readers, this particular part of the book is going to be of the most interest, and it certainly is full of gems. The early pieces come from a time when there was much discussion of the Death of the Novel, a topic which recurs in several places; but Calvino is also concerned with Italian literature and international attitudes to it. He highlights the importance of the fact that Italy as a Catholic society, which set me thinking of the fact that much of Europes *is* Catholic, as opposed to the mainly Protestant UK and US; I hadn’t really thought about the different literatures in those terms before so that was particularly fascinating.

Translating is an art: the transfer of a literary text, whatever its value, into another language always requires some type of miracle. We all know that poetry is untranslatable by definition; but true literature, including prose, works precisely in the untranslatable margins of every language. Literally translators are those who stake their entire being to translate the untranslatable.

On Translation” was a particularly powerful piece about the art of, and importance of, translators; which in 1963 was probably ahead of its times and it was refreshing to see that Calvino understood how reading translated works from other cultures can aid understanding. Having translated himself (he discusses at one point the difficulty in dealing with Queneau and his punning), he has a sound understanding of what the art of translation involves, and obviously a healthy respect for it. He also takes to task the composers of ‘flap copy’ providing early criticism of the dreadful blurbs which apppear on some books. These pieces are laced with some wonderful humour which is a delight (“Sitting-Down Literature” was particularly enertaining), and there were so many nuggets of wisdom!

My Calvino collection before the new arrival…

On Publishing

A shorter section with six pieces, some introductions to series’ of books, and some proposals for the same. Very revealing as they let the reader peek into Calvino’s brain and see which works he thinks are classics, why he likes them and in fact what’s covered here could provide a marvellous reading list if anyone wants a project…

On the Fantastic

Another shorter section, containing some fascinating articles, introductions and papers. Calvino was, of course, a purveyor of fantastic fiction in various forms, and the pieces here see him exploring the roots of this kind of writing, fairy tales and fantasies of the past, as well as exploring a collection of Italian fantastic tales.

Science, History, Anthropology

You might think that this is an odd gathering of works from a fiction author, but Calvino was much more than that; and the scientific, in particular, is a thread running through his work (for example, “Cosmicomics“). There’s a reason he refers to C.P. Snow’s seminal “Two Cultures” as it seems to me that Calvino is often trying to pull together the arts and the sciences, and he obviously had a keen interest in scientific progress and discoveries. The works in this section range far and wide, with the focus most often on reviews of other works. However, I was particularly excited to see two pieces appear which featured Calvino’s character Mr. Palomar; the latter was the title of the last book published in the author’s lifetime, gathering together short pieces where Palomar observed something closely, trying to make sense of it. I hadn’t realised there were uncollected Palomars and if I read the source notes correctly, it seems that there was a series of pieces published in a daily newspaper in the 1970s. I can’t help wondering if there are any more out there…

Basically I am convinced that not only do major and minor authors not exist but authors don’t exist – or anyway they don’t count for much. In my view you’re still too concerned with explaining Calvino by means of Calvino, with tracing a history, a continuity of Calvino, and maybe this Calvino has no continuity, he constantly dies and is reborn; what’s important is whether in the work he does at a certain moment there is something that can interfere in the present or future work of others, as can happen with anyone who works, merely because, in doing so, he combines and accumulates possibilities.

Well, I’ve only scratched the surface and could go on and on about this book but I’ll try to draw my post to some kind of conclusion now. You’ll see that my copy of “Written” is not adorned with post-it notes as you might expect to be the case; that’s because there was so much I wanted to mark and remember from it that I resorted to carrying a notebook and writing down page numbers, thoughts, references and the like. It’s something I really should do more often with my reading, as there was so much to take in from this marvellous collection, and I would have struggled to keep a handle on it if I hadn’t had the notebook.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The question will no doubt be asked as to whether this is one of those posthumous collections which is scraping the barrel, and I would answer with a resounding “No!”. “Written World” collects together items from Calvino which add to his oeuvre, are wonderfully enlightening and thought-provoking, and which are a joy for any lover of his work to read. The pieces are presented chronologically within each section so the reader can follow the development of Calvino’s thoughts, and the book has a comprehensive list of sources at the back. It’s an essential book for any lover of the author’s work, and I read it as soon as it arrived – it was so important to me that it had to bypass Mount TBR…

I realise that I’ve not yet mentioned the translator of this volume, and the sterling work here is done by Anne Goldstein. She has quite a track record, in particular being responsible for the massive (and very heavy!) collected works of Primo Levi which I hauled around London after snagging a bargain copy… So a very strong pedigree and I would say she’s done wonderfully here, as the pieces read beautifully and ‘sounded’ to me like I expect Calvino to sound. It isn’t clear (not that I can see, anyway) who collected these works together in this edition, although Goldstein does thank Calvino’s daughter, Giovanna, for allowing her to work on the volume; so it may be that she was in control of what was published here. Whoever it was, I thank them…

So a marvellous, often emotional, always stimulating and unforgettable reading experience for me. We’re only in January, but I know that this wonderful book will featured in my books of the year post in December. “Written World” appeared on my horizons towards the end of December with no warning, and I was so excited; and all my anticipation was justified because reading the book was sheer joy. If you love Calvino, you must have this book; and if you’ve not tried him yet, read some of his fictions and then move on to these non-fictions – great riches await you!!