Subject closed

Image: João Nitsche


Commentary on the book by Italo Calvino

In his brief presentation of Subject closed, Italo Calvino points out that it was youthful ambition that led him to draw up the project to build a new literature that would also be useful for building a new society. And he adds that the texts gathered there will reveal the transformations that this project has undergone over time.

This is a good initial proposition, to instigate a careful reading of these 42 texts of varied themes, of different lengths, and which comprises a period of 24 years, from 1955 to 1978, since, at the same time that the reading these “discourses on literature and society” from the perspective of the transformation of a project, another suggestion is implicit: to accompany this transformation in other spheres. For example, in the individual history of Italo Calvino within the more general history of Italy and the world.

The image of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – the greatest symbol of all the political transformations that have taken place since the October Revolution of 1917 – unwittingly intrudes into our field of argument. But here, speaking of Calvin, the fall of the wall is an anachronistic fact. As he died in 1985, his wall was another. Due to numerous disagreements, he left the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1957. The apex of these differences was the support, on the part of the PCI leadership, for the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union (1956), which, in the political chronicle Italian, became known as the "fatti d'Ungheria”. Even before the existence of the wall (1961), these facts had already emitted their din.

Only the first text of Subject closed, "The lion's core", 1955, predates Calvino's departure from the PCI. The second, “Nature and history in the novel”, is already from 1958. If he writes, in 1980 – date of publication of Subject closed in Italy –, about the project of building a new literature and a new society, it is because this feeling still animates the ex-communist militant. Even if the world is anything but what the good intentions of his youth had designed.

Italo Calvino was already a fully recognized writer in 1980. His affirmation began in 1952, with the publication of The viscount split in half. Hence, due to this long trajectory, what Subject closed What we have in store is the pleasure of accompanying phases and facets of a writer who organizes forms of interventions that, at the same time, favor the elevation of public debate and exemplify his work as a man of culture.

Em the extremismo (1973), for example, Calvino, with the sharpness of Giacomo Leopardi and the calmness of Jorge Luis Borges, claims to avoid the term “extremism” because he considers it imprecise, in addition to the fact that, due to his initial training in PCI, who considers extremism a deviation, the term also had for him the negative meaning that almost everyone gave it. He then opines that non-violence is more extreme than violence. So Gandhi and Tolstoy are extremists, as are those who choose to do any civil service rather than serve in the army. "Vegetarians are the most extreme extremists."

Em Os beatniks and the system (1962), Calvino attacks illusions and naivety, reaffirming the values ​​of reason and civilization: “... we are living in the time of barbarian invasions. It's no use looking around, trying to identify the barbarians in some categories of people. The barbarians, this time, are not people: they are things. They are the objects that we believe we own and that own us; it is productive development, which should be at our service but to which we are becoming slaves; are the means of diffusion of our thought, which seek to prevent us from continuing to think”.

It would be worth raising some points of Calvino's exemplary reading of The bride and groom (1840-1842), by Alessandro Manzoni. However, here it would perhaps be more pertinent to claim for the Brazilian reading public a worthy translation and edition of this book that Otto Maria Carpeaux, after Benedeto Croce, defined as a masterpiece of universal literature.

Not to say that everything is flowers, but that one learns from all flowers, in Literature as a projection of desire (1969) it is interesting to follow Calvino trying to grasp some element of Anatomy of Criticism to establish your comment. He tries it from one angle, another, and yet another. It is worth saying that this is the normal experience of the essayist, and that, in the case of Calvino, who is a great essayist, this operation is usually crowned with complete success. But here, perhaps due to a reciprocal repulsion, the book of clergyman Northrop Frye ends up escaping him.

Finally, it remains to be noted that the reader of Subject closed You should read this and all of Calvino's other books, always suspecting the “lightening up” that the cultural industry has made and still makes of the Ligurian author. At the same time, knowing that Italo Calvino was fully aware of the possibilities of this use, having himself been the director of the then most prestigious Italian publishing house, Einaudi. And that he accepted the game, mixed the wheat with the chaff as a strategy to win over readers. Risky game, no doubt, but, among those who were not heard, of an extremist coherence, and he, the author read, the gain is ours.

* Anselmo Pessoa Neto is a professor of Italian literature at UFG. Author, among other books, of Italo Calvino: the must-see passages (UFG).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 5, August 2009.


Italo Calvino. Subject closed. Translation: Roberta Barni. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 384 pages.



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