By Way of an Autobiography

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

By Way of an Autobiography

Grand Bazaar (Milan), September-October 1980.

You ask me for a biographical note—something that always embarrasses me. Biographical data, even those recorded in the public registers, are the most private things one has, and to declare them openly is rather like facing a psychoanalyst. At least I imagine so: I have never had myself psychoanalyzed.

I will start by saying that I was born under the sign of Libra, so that in my character equilibrium and unbalance mutually correct each other’s excesses. I was born when my parents were about to come home after years spent in the Caribbean; hence the geographical instability that makes me forever long for somewhere else.

My parents’ knowledge was all concentrated on the vegetable kingdom, its marvels and its virtues. Attracted by another kind of vegetation, that of the written word, I turned my back on what they might have taught me; but wisdom in what is human also remained foreign to me.

I grew up from infancy to youth in a town on the Riviera, huddled in its microclimate. Both the sea contained in its gulf and the massive mountains seemed to me protective and reassuring. I was separated from Italy by a narrow strip of coast road, and from the world by a nearby frontier. To leave that shell was for me to repeat the trauma of birth, but I only realize that now.

Having grown up in times of dictatorship, and being overtaken by total war when of military age, I still have the notion that to live in peace and freedom is a frail kind of good fortune that might be taken from me in an instant.

Given this incentive, politics took up perhaps too great a part of the preoccupations of my youth. I mean too great for me, for what contribution I might have made, since things that seem distant from politics count far more as influences on the history (even political) of countries and of people.

As soon as the war was over, I felt the call of the big city more strongly than that of my provincial roots. I found myself hesitating for a while between Turin and Milan. My choice of Turin certainly had its own reasons and was not without consequences. Now I have forgotten both reasons and consequences, but for years I told myself that if I had chosen Milan, everything would have been quite different.

I set my hand to the art of writing early on. Publishing was easy for me, and I at once found favor and understanding. But it was a long time before I realized and convinced myself that this was anything but mere chance.

Working in a publishing house, I spent more time with the books of others than with my own. I do not regret it: everything that is useful to the whole business of living together in a civilized way is energy well spent. From Turin, a city that is serious but sad, it often happened that I would slip down to Rome. (Incidentally, the only Italians I have ever heard speak of Rome in other than negative terms are the Turinese.) And so Rome is probably the Italian city where I have lived longest, without ever asking myself why.

The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner. Therefore, Paris is the city where I found my wife, set up home, and raised a daughter. My wife is a foreigner, too, and when the three of us are together, we talk in three different languages. Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one’s mother’s womb.

I realize that in this autobiography I have dwelt chiefly on the subject of birth, and talked about the later stages as of a continuation of my first seeing the light; and now I tend to go even further back, to the prenatal world. This is the risk run by every autobiography felt as an exploration of origins, like that of Tristram Shandy, who dwells on his antecedents and, when he gets to the point of having to begin to recount his life, finds nothing more to say.