Italo Calvino on the “Curse” of the First Book
by Jacqueline Winter Thomas
This [The Path to the Nest of Spiders] was my first novel, almost my first piece of writing. What can I say about it today? I will say this: it would always be better not to have written one’s first book.
As long as your first book remains unwritten, you possess that freedom which you can use only once in a lifetime. Your first book already defines you, while you are really far from being defined. And this definition is something you may then carry with you for the rest of your life, trying to confirm it or extend or correct or deny it; but you can never eliminate it.
Moreover: for those who began writing young, after one of those experiences with “so many things to say” (the war, in this case and in many others), the first book immediately becomes a partition between you and experience; it severs the ties that bind you to events; it burns up the treasure of memory—what would have become a treasure if you had had the patience to preserve it, if you had not been in such a hurry to spend it, to squander it, to impose an arbitrary hierarchy on the images you had stored up, separating the favorites, the presumed containers of poetic emotion, from those others that seemed to concern you too much or too little for you to be able to portray them—setting up, in other words, arrogantly, another transfigured memory in the place of the general memory with its vague outlines, its infinite possibilities of rediscovery… Your memory will never recover from this violence you have done it in writing: the favored images will be consumed by their premature promotion to literary themes, while the images you wanted to keep in reserve, perhaps with the secret intention of using them in future works, will wither, because they are cut off from the natural wholeness of vital, flowing memory. The literary projection, where all is solid and fixed for good, has now occupied the field, has faded and crushed the vegetation of memories where the life of the tree and that of the blade of grass are reciprocally conditioned. Memory—or rather experience, which is memory plus the wound it has left in you, plus the change it has worked in you that has made you different—experience, first nourishment also of literary work (but not only of that), true wealth for the writer (but not only for him), now, as soon as it has given shape to a literary work, declines, is destroyed. The writer finds himself once again the poorest of men.
And so I look back, to that season which appeared to me crammed with images and meanings: the partisan war, the months that were worth years and from which for a lifetime one should have been able to extract faces and warnings and landscapes and thoughts and episodes and words and emotions. And everything is distant and misty, and the written pages are there, in their shameless confidence which I well know is fraudulent, the written pages already arguing against a moment that was still a present, massive fact, which seemed stable, given, once and for all, experience—and they are no use to me. I would need all the rest, the very things that are not there. A written book will never console me for what I destroyed in writing it: that experience which, if cherished through the years of a lifetime, would perhaps have served me to write the last book, though it sufficed only for me to write the first.
— Italo Calvino, June 1964, Preface to The Path to the Nest of Spiders
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver