I have to confess at the outset here that I’ve never managed to get very far reading Italo Calvino. I took a course on world literature once at university in which Calvino loomed large as a pre-eminent example of a postmodern author, but I just couldn’t get into his books — and not merely because they have a habit of keeping a reader at bay. If on a winter’s night a traveler, for example, is famously a book about its reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveller but never quite succeeding to do so. At least I think that’s what happens since I didn’t make it very far in. A few years later I tried another Calvino classic, Invisible Cities, and if I recall that encounter soon ended with me throwing my copy across the room in despair.
I’m happy to report that I’ve had a bit more luck with some of his non-fiction in the interim and enjoyed much of what I read in preparation for this post. Calvino’s output, however, is not really the point — not for my purposes anyway. While his contemporary, Roland Barthes, famously declared the death of the author vs the text, I have found the reverse to be true inasmuch as writers themselves can often hold some fascination even if I haven’t managed to wrap my head around their books.
This is particularly true when it comes to a writer’s clothing. I don’t know, for example, that I’d say I was a big fan of Hemingway or Kerouac, but I’ve admired their clothing enough over the years to write at length about both of them for this site. The same now holds in the case of Italo Calvino, whose books I’ve never managed to finish but whose wardrobe I have studied at length.
I’ve always been intrigued by people who don’t necessarily dress quite how you would expect them to. Think of Charlie Watts, say, whose blues-infused tunes never quite seemed to match his Savile Row finery. Or William S. Burroughs, whose feral literary output and whirlwind existence are rarely hinted at in his funereal garb. Calvino has always fit in precisely this category for me.
Given his literary antics and narrative playfulness, I half expected Calvino to roll around dressed in outlandish and eye-catching gear like a David Hockney or even a late-career Elvis. Or, sticking within literary circles, like fellow genre-bending wordsmiths in the mould of David Foster Wallace or China Miéville. Or at the very least (and perhaps somewhat more reasonably) in the figure-hugging tailoring associated with his Italian ancestry in the manner of some whilom Pitti peacock. Instead, you find a man with disarmingly simple attire: tweed suits, simple sport coats, comfortable sweaters, and, more often than not, a necktie — all the homespun hallmarks of a garden variety mid-century author, in other words.
Calvino’s taste in apparel — if not in art — was therefore surprisingly conservative. More traditional than avant-garde, more British than Italian, more normore than po-mo, albeit almost always animated by his impish and endearing smile, perhaps the only hint that there was more to this conventional facade than meets the eye.
His attire also usually seemed a touch shabby, just the way you want an author’s clothes to be. As Nathanial Hawthorne once put it, ‘Those who make their dress a principal part of themselves will in general become of no more value than their dress,’ which may or may not ring true, but feels particularly apt in the case of writers. While there is a rich tradition of dandy authors — Mark Twain, Tom Wolf, and Fran Lebowitz, to name just a few — a writer with their head in the clouds as opposed to their clothes, so to speak, certainly seems far more fitting than the reverse. And in the case of Calvino, his simple appearance only served to amplify the radical quality of his work.
That work itself is also not devoid of some attention to the realm of clothing. While I can’t speak much to the content of his fiction (as confessed previously), there’s no question that Calvino’s all-embracing curiosity also encompassed the world of clothing. In his autobiographical collection of essays, The Road to San Giovanni, for example, he recalls the uniform he wore as a partisan in a Garibaldi Brigade in northern Italy during WWII, and dwells several times at some length on the clothing he remembers his father wearing in his youth.
The passage that has stuck with me most in this regard, however, comes from an essay called ‘The Redemption of Objects’ (included in Collection of Sand) in which he argues that ‘the human is the trace that man leaves in things’. In other words, Calvino prompts us to think about the extent to which people are made up of the things they produce and surround themselves with. As he puts it, ‘every man is man-plus-things, he is a man inasmuch as he recognizes himself in a number of things, he recognizes the human that has been in things, the self that has taken shape in things’.
There are perhaps no objects in which the self takes shape more literally than in the clothes we wear. Reading Calvino again prompted me to think about my own clothes not as separate from me, but as a more robust part of myself that I might otherwise have realised. As something I don’t simply put on, but that I take on in order to become myself. It’s an evocative idea that has stuck with me just as keenly as all the author photos have of the man who came up with it.
I might just have to return to those novels again after all.
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