Calvino and His Cities

William Weaver

I first met ltalo Calvino in Rome, sometime in the early 1960s. Our meeting was unplanned; but, appropriately, it took place in a bookshop, the high-ceilinged yet somehow intimate Libreria Einaudi (now gone), which then stood at the curve in the Via Veneto where the cafes of Dolce Vita memory give way to more sober government buildings and undistinguished middle-range hotels. I was browsing happily when my friend Gian Carlo Roscioni, then an editor for Einaudi, the publishing house, came over to me and said: "Calvino is here and would like to meet you."

I recognized the tall, enviably thin and handsome Calvino from his photographs. Actually, I think I had even seen him once or maybe twice, at some large Roman literary bashes, which he attended infrequently, partly because he was never a bash sort of person and, more to the point, because he had never been a Rome resident for any length of time.

But now he was living in the capital, associated in some way with the Rome office of Einaudi, who had just recently brought out his latest book Le cosmicomiche. A few minutes after our introduction, Calvino asked me if I would be willing to translate this new book; and—though I hadn't read it (a fact about which I remained cautiously silent)—I immediately said yes.

This was the simple beginning of a complex relationship and of my long journey through the world of Calvino, which was to last until his death. Only this beginning was simple; after that, things quickly became complicated. The American publisher who had accepted the book and then commissioned the translation committed suicide; his successor rejected the book; and Cosmicomics, as it was now called, was sent to an embarrassingly large number of New York houses before Helen Wolff, at Harcourt Brace, read it and enthusiastically offered to bring it out. Another beginning, another long and exciting association.

After Cosmicomics Calvino produced a kind of sequel in the same vein: Ti con zero, which I also translated. As I worked on these books, I met Calvino now and then, to discuss this or that little problem of translation. Though we were almost exactly coeval (both born in 1923, that year that also produced Maria Callas), we were in many respects quite different. The son of scientists, Calvino had a scientific and technical vocabulary that I lacked almost completely; in my family, of writers and lawyers, the emphasis was solely humanistic: even the task of replacing a blown fuse would require the assistance of an outside technician (fortunately both of my older sisters married engineers).

But Calvino and I shared a consuming passion for words and for using them, deploying them, stretching and tightening them. And our conversations were always a pleasure for me, though Calvino was anything but a conversationalist. In literary circles, hostesses exchanged horrified stories of his agonizing silences, which could freeze an entire dinner table. Calvino—it seemed to me—did not enjoy talking with me about his writing except at the basic, dictionary level of our working encounters. During one of these, a meeting at his house in Square du Chatillon in Paris, I unwittingly overstepped the bounds; I casually asked him if he was working on something new. Calvino froze, cleared his throat nervously, hemmed, hawed, then finally muttered, almost growling: "I'm thinking about some cities." I quickly redirected the talk to the problems at hand.

Though I was only in that Paris study once, I remember it as a spare, somewhat clinical space, distinguished by Calvino's precision, his characteristic neatness: his desk was as impeccable, as well-ordered as his dress. The same kind of order, it seems to me, informs his work. He liked to make outlines, lists, scalette—little ladders—as the Italians call them (and his chapter lists, in his spare hand, did resemble ladders). Thus his invisible cities are fitted into categories: trading cities, thin cities, continuous cities, arranged according to a mysterious, Calvino-invented system that has evoked pages of exegesis by eager scholars.

In later years, at Calvino's last residences, the large apartment in the heart of Rome or his beloved summer place at Roccammare on the Tuscan coast, I would spend days with him, again in the midst of that order that not even the winning ebullience of Chichita, his Argentinian wife, could disturb.

In the garden of the summer place (described in some of the Mr. Palomar stories), Calvino suffered the attack that, in the space of a few days, led to his death in a Siena hospital. Reluctant to disturb Chichita at that tragic time, I simply sent flowers and a couple of notes. Then, I read of his death in the paper, with the announcement that he would be buried in the litde graveyard at Castiglione della Pescaia, close to his last house. Only family and close personal friends would participate, the paper said.

I was torn. Though I am no lover of funerals, I would have liked to pay my last respects to the writer who had played a crucial role in my life, but I was unable to make up my mind: Was l or was I not a close personal friend? I couldn't say. I had known Calvino for almost twenty years; though we had seen each other no more than a few dozen times, I had spent months and months of those two decades living with his work, retracing at a language's distance his achievement. How much closer can you get to a writer?

I decided not to go. Then, on television, I saw a few shots of the ceremony and recognized several famous authors who surely were far less close to Calvino than I had been. I was concerned that Chichita (with whom I did feel a close personal friendship) would think me unfeeling.

I let a few weeks go by, until one day when I was in Rome, discovering she was also in the city, I called her up and we had dinner. I explained my absence from the cemetery. "I didn't think I was a close personal friend," I said frankly.

Her answer was quick and curt: "Italo didn't have any close personal friends." And she added: "He lived entirely inside his own mind."

Though Calvino made a number of journeys, and sometimes wrote about them (for example, the wry, keen pieces on Japan in Mr. Palomar and the haunting Mexican title story of Under the Jaguar Sun), his most profound travels took place inside that bold, vigorous, unique mind.

And there—donning the exotic garb of Marco Polo—he traveled to his invisible cities, cities of ideas, or perhaps ideas masquerading as cities. Calvino's descriptions of real places—Japan, in fact, and Mexico, among them—are always beautiful, lucid, original: but even the best of these cannot match the bejewelled, haunting accounts of the cities that only Calvino could create from words, type, paper.

For several reasons Harcourt Brace was in no hurry to have the translation. Both Cosmicomics and T-zero had received splendid reviews (the former also won a National Book Award for translation), but the sales were no more than respectable. I remember a conversation at this time in Helen Wolff's office. There was a copy of the Italian edition of Le cittá invisibili on the desk before her. She had excellent Italian, and had read the book.

So had I, and I poured out all my irrepressible enthusiasm: the magic of the prose! the elegance, the wit, the pathos! Helen's response was chilling. "Yes," she said, "but who's going to buy it?" And, to my horror, I realized she was actually considering the possibility of turning it down. A woman of great sensitivity and humanity, Helen was also a canny business-woman who, I sometimes thought, could do double-entry bookkeeping in her head.

In the end, she didn't turn the new work down, and while Invisible Cities—like the earlier books, and the later—never reached the best-seller lists, it has never been out of print and sells every year its respectable number of copies. Calvino was not a writer of hits; he was a writer of classics.

So, to translate Le cittá invisibili, Helen gave me all the time I wanted; and I took advantage of this lack of pressure, devoting the better part of a year to the job, doing a city at a time, occasionally going back to one or another to polish it, before continuing with the next.

I did the translation in my sprawling, comfortable house on a hill between Arezzo and Siena, far from any visible city, cloistered inside my own mind, or perhaps—as I hoped—inside Calvino's.

Translating Calvino is an aural exercise as well as a verbal one. I t is not a process of turning this Italian noun into that English one, but rather of pursuing a cadence, a rhythm—sometimes regular, sometimes wilfully jagged—and trying to catch it, while, like a Wagner villain, it may squirm and change shape in your hands. This tantalizing, if finally rewarding task could not be performed entirelyat the typewriter. Frequently, I would get up from my desk, pace my study, testing words aloud, listening to their sound, their pace, alert also to silences.

But reading aloud when you are alone in a room is an arid business, and unless you have invincible self-discipline, you can easily lapse into gabble. Fortunately, during the winter and spring when I worked on this translation, I had a perceptive audience. An American friend of mine, the young conductor Charles Darden, was taking a master course in Siena; and almost every weekend he would drive the twenty miles or so to my house, bringing some work with him. My study was separated from the living room (and the piano) by a glassed-in area, a kind of jardin d'hiver, full of potted plants and musty , earthy odors. There was a door at either end of this space, but even when they were closed, I could hear, as I worked, the muted sound of the piano. Charles is an aggressive pianist: he does not really play the instrument, he conducts it.

When I heard him interrupt his studying, I would take a sheaf of pages—perhaps a second draft—into the living room and, when he had made coffee for us both, I would read aloud my morning's work. Sometimes this reading would be repeated at the end of the afternoon, when a glass of wine had replaced the cups of coffee. I would read, Charles would listen. He rarely made suggestions, but his alert presence obliged me to read carefully, studying the impression made by each sentence.

So by the end of the spring, I was ready to deliver the typescript to Helen Wolff, and to send an extra copy to Calvino. Each had a few suggestions, as I recall, easily dealt with. Occasionally, in our long collaboration, Calvino and I would disagree (he felt the allure of neologisms, of technical jargon, and he would become stubbornly fixed on a word like "input," which makes me wince even as I type it). But with Invisible Cities all was harmonious, as it should be for a book that is pure music.

In every one of these pieces, Calvino's powerful imagination is present in all its abundance and its range from lightness to earthy weight (we must not forget some of the dire cities, like the redundant Zirma, with its subway full of obese women, or like the cold, reflected Valdrada). But, fanciful as these cities are, we can on rare occasions encounter them in the real, bricks-and-mortar world. Have you never shared Marco Polo's experience in Adelma, seeing—in the faces of strangers you pass on the street—a disturbing resemblance to friends or relatives? I certainly have. And once, in Houston, visiting a friend, I said: "As you go to your office, drop me downtown and I'll loaf and window-shop until my lunch appointment." "Houston has no downtown," he replied. I was in Calvino's Penthesilea, and it was in Texas.

Calvino used to joke about his self-contradicting name: ltalo, the Italian, and Calvino, the Calvinist. Perhaps there is a contradiction also in the title of this book. These cities may have been invisible to the sedentary emperor, but as the tireless Marco Polo made him see the most remote places, so Calvino recreates them for us, and—no matter how distant—they are eminently, unforgettably visible.