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In an interview collected in Ferdinando Camon’s Il mestiere di scrittore: conversazioni critiche (The Writer’s Craft: Critical Conversations), Italo Calvino described a dream for “a completely different sort of journal.” This journal would be something more like the serialized novels of Dickens and Balzac, with writers working on commission on a wide range of topics and themes. It would employ the “I” of Saint Augustine and Stendhal. And it “should be a kind of Peanuts but not a comic strip, serial novels with a lot of illustrations, an attractive layout.”
At the Review, we’re fascinated by ideas for what magazines can be—no matter how outlandish. And so we were delighted when we came across Calvino’s four-page plan for a journal, from a typescript dated 1970, translated by Ann Goldstein and published below. It’s eclectic, wildly ambitious, smart but not too self-serious, and totally unrealized. What else could you ask for?
This journal will publish works of creative literature (fiction, poetry, theater) and essays on particular aspects and problems and tendencies exemplified by the works published in the same issue. It will follow the discourse of Italian literature as it unfolds, through the work of writers who are young or not so young, new or with something new to say.
The journal will make it clear that it’s a discourse—many discourses together, which can be articulated in a general conversation—that runs from book to book, from manuscript to manuscript, and will find the thread of this discourse even where it seems to be merely a messy tangle.
It’s the right moment to try to “get our bearings on” many matters, and understand how we can move beyond. Many things have changed in the world in these years; Italy is also changing, and it is not very skilled at either renewing or preserving itself. (To hold on to the things you want to hold on to when all the rest is moving, all you can do is find the right way to move them.)
So the journal will review the new relationship today between language and dialect; and the new relationship between the south and what is no longer the south or even in the south, and what of the south has moved into the north; and the new relationship between things that are important to say and the need to start speaking in verse at a particular moment; and the problem of inserting into the structure of the story as it has been evolving so far the rhythm of life of those who work in the big factories six days a week; and how at a certain point it became difficult to talk about the war; and how at a certain point it became difficult to talk about love; and how at a certain point it becomes difficult to talk about people with potentially high vitality and morality rather than about people who are slightly dull and slightly sad and slightly mediocre.
These are all problems that can be profitably observed by the writer endowed with an independent poetic force, as well as by one endowed with merely an aptitude for bearing witness. And they are all very “Italian” problems, but precisely those which can compel us to break out of the shell of narrow local description in which Italian literature has a tendency to ossify.
Not that things are better outside of Italy, however. At first glance we might say that the lively discourse about literature in Europe and America even shortly after the Second World War, a discourse about man’s relationship with the world, a philosophical and moral and historical and civic discourse, which literature opposed to theoretical discourse as a way of verification or antithesis, this discourse—entirely interrogative and voluntary—seems stuck there. On the one hand there are tendencies like the French “new school” that are too technical and seem to want to make literature conform to the type of problems—more rigorous perhaps but much more limited—that have so far belonged to the figurative arts; on the other are the young self-important champions of unconditional revolution like the Americans of the Beat generation. This is how it seems at first glance; but in reality there hasn’t been a total burning of bridges (and abandonment of all the most fertile fields, for a new shore where there’s little left to chew on). We believe that deep down that discussion continues, and that all the new facts—French, English, American, Polish, Spanish, along with the Italians who are not so separate from this picture as they seem—need only to be seen in perspective, not all flattened.
We reject the image of a teeming, formless world of pure objectivity such as the overpopulated Earth might appear to the first Martian who arrives. We want the literature we’d like to discover or invent to mirror earthly humanity intent on a new relationship between the individual, others, space, time, what exists, what doesn’t exist, for when we find ourselves on the spaceship, on the interplanetary station, landing on Mars.
terror (false function: crying)
reintegration of justice—reparation for a wrong—redemption—metamorphosis that establishes a new order
“rhymes” in fiction
“stanzas” in fiction
house from outside
house from inside
familiar house that becomes hostile
journey of initiation (elsewhere—purgatory)
real places (what they can mean as novelistic and symbolic places): Chicago, Rome, Milan, Shanghai, sewers, the concentration camps, school, the stock exchange, et cetera
how things are done (technical handbooks)
the definition of a character (human types)
the dimension of memory
the character as:
object of identification
object of desire
object of loathing
how to read:
a lullaby or nursery rhyme
a Buddhist legend
a chanson de geste
nineteenth-century serial novel
car accident with compensation claim to the insurance agency
memoirs of a general
a “clinical case”
how does the oral tradition survive today?
the obscene joke
the political joke
thus all types of stories not in a narrative form:
bestiaries herbals lapidaries
stories condensed into images:
the plates illustrating arts and crafts in the Encyclopédie
major stylistic categories:
common language—personal language
as a convention
as local moods
the old-fashioned—the modern
The various themes can be exemplified by:
(a) new Italian novel (serialized?) commissioned ad hoc
(b) recent foreign novel (serialized?) chosen ad hoc
(c) little-known classic or old popular novel et cetera (anthologized and summarized?)
(d) classic retold by a contemporary writer (commissioned)
(e) anthologized examples with didactic framework
(f ) bibliographical reviews
In every issue there could be:
(1) an episode of a
(2) an episode of b
(3) an episode of c
(4) a d
(b and c can be disregarded and can fill possible gaps in a. Anyway something new should begin in every issue. After three or four episodes, if the novel isn’t finished, we can break it off and send readers back to the book.)
(II) STORY AND NEWS STORY
(5) a news item (death of Pinelli; Casati Stampa; Gadolla): three or more writers are asked to tell it
(6) an area of Italian current affairs analyzed as a “narrative field”: characters, settings, roles, actions, vocabulary, et cetera (e.g., the judiciary; Reggio Calabria; immigrants), assigned to one or more journalists
(7) an area of international current affairs analyzed in light of the meanings it has for us (e.g., Israelis-Arabs-Bedouins in mutual exchanges of oppressed-oppressor functions): assigned to a semiologist, a geographer, a sociologist, a historian, et cetera
(III) THEMES AND PROBLEMS
Presentations of themes or genres (see the list of themes and “how to read”) with anthologies of examples and bibliographical surveys. These themes or genres should be sorted (in the same issue or alternating) according to the subject they are most relevant to:
(8) theme relevant to literature
(9) theme relevant to popular literature
(10) theme relevant to anthropology
(11) theme relevant to the current sociological-political context
(12) presentation of an author (with anthology and bibliography) (classic or popular or contemporary) relevant to one of the themes of the issue
(13) an author or a literary fact that has nothing to do with our themes in the rest of the issue (for example: Francis Ponge) to create a contrast, open a completely different horizon of reading, to demonstrate that we could also be wrong or that the important things are completely different
(14) the great illustrators (from the nineteenth century), foreign and Italian
(15) a contemporary graphic artist (invited to take up some pages with his offerings)
(16) contemporary painters and the story: interview with a painter or sculptor (neo-Dada or Pop or neo-Expressionist, et cetera) to see the relationship of the artist’s figurative world with writing, narrative, et cetera
(V) THE BIBLIOPHILE—THE COLLECTOR
The general orientation of taste is toward popular editions, not luxury editions; we turn toward the collector of old Sonzogno editions.
(17) how to collect books of … (editions on the market; foreign editions; antiquarian)
(18) presentation of a first edition of a classic that has a visual interest; or of a series; or of serialized novels et cetera
(19) presentation of a journal chosen from among the most important from the visual point of view (Minothaure) or thematically interesting (La Ruota, A. G. Bragaglia’s pantheist journal)
Translated by Ann Goldstein.
To be published in a collection of Calvino’s essays, The Written World and the Unwritten World, in a new translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, by Mariner Classics in January 2023.
The novels of Italo Calvino (1923–1985) include Invisible Cities, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and The Baron in the Trees. He also published numerous collections of fiction, folktales, criticism, and essays.
Ann Goldstein has translated widely from Italian, including the works of Elena Ferrante, Primo Levi, Alessandro Baricco, and others.