When Italo Calvino was becoming a big name in the English-speaking world in the 1970s and 1980s, he was seen as a somewhat rarefied figure: an Italian master of French-style abstraction who seemed to observe life from a serene ironic distance. And because of the timing of his death – at 61, after a cerebral haemorrhage, in 1985 – the prevailing image of him outside Italy has more or less stayed that way. His witty meta-novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979) has for years been used to teach the rudiments of postmodernism, while Invisible Cities (1972) – “a totally decadent book”, he wrote casually in a letter – has acquired the status of a fetish among architects, urban theorists and purveyors of art-speak. Yet the role of chic metropolitan guru wasn’t one that Calvino sought or felt comfortable in. An agronomist’s son from the Ligurian Riviera, he started out as a writer under the auspices of the Italian Communist party, having joined while fighting as a partisan during the second world war. Hemingway and Chekhov were his first literary models and, early on, he was stymied by his unsuccessful efforts to write a novel documenting social conditions in industrial Turin.
more from Christopher Tayler at the FT here.