By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Italo Calvino was born in Cuba (in 1923) but grew up in San Remo on the Ligurian coast. His first, raw-edged, novel The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (1947) drew on his experiences with the partisans in the hills and valleys behind the town. As he writes in a 1964 preface to that book, “I was from the Western Ligurian Riviera. In polemical spirit I obliterated the whole tourist coastline from the landscape of my home town . . . : the palm-fringed promenade, the Casino, the hotels and villas. It was almost as though I was ashamed of it”.
In July 1945 he wrote to a friend in Rome “San Remo is in a real mess from the constant naval and aerial bombardments”. (This is from the new edition of Letters 1941–1985, which will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.) By 1947 things are looking up: “This is a wonderful town where you can still bathe at this time of year” (January!). In 1950 he reveals to Natalia Ginzburg that San Remo “is the only place in the world where I can live in studious and fruitful peace and solitude . . . . I spend the afternoons on some rocks here, belly in the sun, reading Thomas Mann, who writes very well about things that are completely incomprehensible to me”.
More than once Calvino reveals that he always says “’Born in San Remo’. An exotic birthplace [i.e. near Havana] is not informative of anything.” He writes with fondness of the town, in the autobiographical Road to San Giovanni: “There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe even twice a day, and those were the years between ’36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me . . . . I would go to the cinema in the afternoon, slipping out of the house on the sly, or with the excuse that I was going to study with some friend or other, since during the school term my parents allowed me very little freedom”.
He has “one cinema in particular” in mind, “the oldest in the town and one connected with my earliest memories of the days of silent films” (see below – the cinema itself is clearly closed for August).
His “period” as a film buff went “pretty much from Lives of a Bengal Lancer, with Gary Cooper, and Mutiny on the Bounty, with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, up to the death of Jean Harlow, . . . with plenty of comedies in between”.
The novelist draws interesting parallels between his experiences and those of the director Federico Fellini, whose work “very closely approximates my own cinema-goer’s biography . . . . he and I are almost the same age, and . . . both come from seaside towns, his on the Adriatic, mine in Liguria, where the lives of idle young boys were pretty similar (although in many ways my San Remo, being a border town with a casino, was different from his Rimini”.)
Calvino, who died in 1985 (his dates, incidentally, closely match those of Philip Larkin), won’t have seen the lifesize statue in the town centre of the New York-born Italian TV host Mike Bongiorno, who for several years hosted the Sanremo Music Festival in the Casino. The town favours the spelling of its name as one word – and has named one of its thoroughfares, below, after its most distinguished son. As Calvino wrote to Umberto Eco in 1962, in response to an article by the prolific polymath: “What is the stuff about the San Remo Festival? Never heard of it!”
But the Casino is of course still there, and very handsome it looks too. Parked outside on the Friday afternoon I recently walked past it was a black Bentley with Qatari diplomatic number plates. Different times.