Can there be much material left in Italo Calvino’s desk drawers? Since the death of the puckish Italian polymath in 1985, no fewer than six collections of his nonfiction have appeared in English, gathered into the autobiographical (The Road to San Giovanni, Hermit in Paris) or the literary-critical (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Why Read the Classics?).
So with this seventh collection, The Written World and the Unwritten World, covering a scattering of Calvino’s literary writings from 1952 to 1985 and translated by Ann Goldstein, we might expect scraps from the table. Sure enough, there’s some slight stuff here – a page on character names, say – but the surprise is that we get so much of substance.
The greatest value is in the first section, Reading, Writing, Translating. Calvino softens us up with a playful opener on the ambitions of holiday reading (“The Good Reader has decided that this summer he will really, finally, read that author”), and revels in the pleasures of a good book fair, “this boundless firmament of coloured covers, this dust cloud of typographical characters”.
We also get the lowdown on his favourite writers, a reliable if predictable bunch including Stendhal, Chekhov and Pushkin, but low on women, other than Jane Austen (no, wait: “I never read her but I’m glad she exists”) and Katherine Mansfield.
But a reader as acute as Calvino doesn’t find it easy to acquiesce with others’ readings of his own work. He writes to a critic who praised his book T Zero: “I’m pleased you find [it] ‘likable’; but the more unlikable a book… the more it counts; the more laborious it is to take in the more it counts.”
Yet this line is hard to square with his declaration elsewhere that “entertaining readers, or at least not boring them, is my first and binding social duty” – and, indeed, with the experience of reading Calvino’s fiction, which is always as welcoming as it is rigorous. This balance – knotty thoughts delivered with a light touch – is evident in all his mature work, from Invisible Cities to Mr Palomar.
Calvino expresses this tension between appeasing and challenging the reader another way, by saying that without the avant garde, literature dies, but that a “perpetual avant garde” is “equally annoying”. Thomas Mann, he argues, is really a 19th-century author, whereas William Faulkner shows the way forward: “Either we write like that or fiction is condemned to become a minor art form.” Meanwhile, Lolita is a great book because “it is so many things at once, because it can shift our attention in infinite directions at the same time” – a fine description of Calvino’s own fiction.
Calvino’s work was widely translated, and working on his translations was “the true way of reading oneself, of understanding what one has written and why”. He admits to being “a tormentor of translators” (which fits with his longtime collaborator William Weaver’s accounts of Calvino’s stubbornness in thinking he knew English well enough to choose the mot juste himself).
Not everything here is essential: some pieces flounder when stripped of context, such as a letter responding to an essay we don’t get to see, and whose references to the HegelianLukácsians and Bergsonism would require its own length in footnotes for the general reader to understand.
But there are plenty of delights. Calvino’s love for fantastical literature gets its own section, and the reviews of science books that make up the final part are unfailingly stimulating. These elements are aspects of Calvino’s curiosity about ways of seeing things. In the title essay, he reflects on his unease in the “real” world outside books, and asks himself, “Why do you want to venture into this vast world that you are unable to master?” The answer, of course, was to put it on the page, to aid the rest of us helpless readers in seeing it and understanding it too.
• The Written World and the Unwritten World by Italo Calvino, translated by Ann Goldstein is published by Penguin (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.