Salman Rushdie: The Imaginary Real
In 1981, Italo Calvino’s book If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler was published in England to what I remember as a more or less resounding silence. Very few people in England had ever heard of Italo Calvino, even though this was relatively late in his distinguished series of books. I remember ringing the London Review of Books and saying, “Are you planning to review If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler?” and they said, “Whose book is that?” I said, “It’s by Italo Calvino,” and they said, “Who’s that?” I was horrified and asked if I could write not just a review of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler but a larger piece introducing the readers of the London Review of Books to the work of this writer so little known to them.
So I wrote the piece, and somebody sent it to Calvino. Shortly after that, I very briefly became flavor of the month in England because a book of mine won a prize. And everybody in the world was ringing me and asking me to do things I didn’t want to do. In the middle of this I was telephoned by David Gothard, a friend who ran the Riverside Theater in Hammersmith, London, who told me that Calvino had agreed to do a reading (a rare event in England) and would like me to introduce him. Then he began to tell me that while he knew I was very busy, and of course my schedule must be full, nevertheless he would be grateful . . . All that time I was trying to interrupt to tell him that I wanted to accept. It took me really quite a long time.
This was the first occasion on which I met Calvino. I went along to the Riverside to do sound checks, and I suddenly realized on my way that I was in the terrifying position of being the only person who’d written something new for the evening, and I was going to have to say it in Calvino’s presence. I began to sweat. When I got there, he greeted me and then said, “Have you written something?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Show it to me.” And I thought unprintable things, but handed over these little cards, thinking, “If he doesn’t like it, what the hell do I do?” Fortunately, early on I had made a reference to The Golden Ass of Apuleius and that settled him down. “Apuleius,” he said. “Very good.”
He gave it back, and as a result I was able to make my introduction. I think Calvino perhaps didn’t realize the degree of affection there was for his writing in England. I have never seen a theater so crowded. There were people hanging from the rafters, literally. There were people who had come with dog-eared copies of every book written by Calvino. It was an amazing demonstration of admiration and affection, and I’m sure he was very moved by it. I was, and it wasn’t even my work.