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 this 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, but 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.

A year later, in October 1982, Italo and his wife Chichita were invited as guests of honor to the Booker Prize dinner. And I was invited as well, as the outgoing Ms. World, so to speak, because I’d won it the year before. They don’t usually like inviting writers to the Booker Prize dinner—they invite as few as possible. The only writers who get there are the six on the short list and the person who won it the previous year. The Booker people forgot to announce that Italo was there, so that nobody knew he was present. After they’d flown him from Italy at great expense and put him up and given him a chauffeur-driven car and so on, they just didn’t bother to say he was in the room.

The year was notable for two other things. One was that the Booker was won by a book called Schindler’s Arc, which was published as fiction, even though in its introduction the author Thomas Keneally said that he’d tried to eschew all fiction. And it then won the Booker Prize for fiction—a completely Calvinoesque enterprise. As a result Schindler’s Arc, republished in America as nonfiction, garlanded with the Booker Prize for fiction and retitled Schindler’s List, of course, became a very important text. The other thing that happened in 1982 was a little dispute between Britain and Argentina, which depending on where you came from you called the Falklands War or the War of the Malvinas, and since Chichita came from Argentina, we know what she called it. I remember her coming up to me in the moments before we all had to sit down for dinner, very displeased, and she said, “What will I do? They have asked me to sit next to an English admiral.” Further example of the subtlety of the evening. I said to Chichita, “Well, as far as I can see there’s only one thing you can do. You have to be very rude.” She said, “Okay,” and every so often during the evening I would look over from my table to where Chichita and the admiral were sitting. The admiral was very stiff and rather silent, and Chichita was very mobile and fantastically voluble. The admiral plainly had a bad night.

There’s one other memory I have of Italo. He came to do an event at the Italian Institute in London and we had dinner together afterwards. It so happened that it was the day on which García Márquez won the Nobel Prize. And I remember asking Italo, who was the same age as García Márquez, if he had heard the news from Stockholm. “Yes,” he said, “it’s a scandal.” I said, “Well, Italo, you know, García Márquez, he’s a good writer. Surely it’s a good thing.” And Calvino said, “Yes, García Márquez, he’s a good writer, but he can wait.” And he then went on to say that to give the Nobel Prize to García Márquez before giving it to Borges was like giving it to the son before the father.

One of the things Calvino’s writing showed me is that there is a mistake about what we call realism in the novel. That is to say, most people who write about realism in the novel talk as if realism were a set of rules. As if naturalistic conventions had to be obeyed, and as long as you kept to those rules what you were writing was something called realism. It seems to me that those conventions, the tools you use, have more or less nothing to do with whether your work is realistic or not, and this is what Calvino’s writing shows us. Pieces ranging from the metaphysical to the fanciful to the concrete to the comical are all realistic, in that they show us more about what it is to be a member of the human race or alive on the earth or going about our day. They are realistic in intent. That is the point about realism which Calvino demonstrates and that almost all literary critics fail to notice. It’s got nothing to do with technique, it’s got everything to do with intention, with what the writer is trying to do. A naturalistic novel about adultery in the English upper classes seems to me like magical realism, you know, like fantasy, and certainly like escapism. Whereas Calvino’s books—fantastic, fabulistic, playful—seem never to lose sight of what is real and what is false. That is the greatest lesson I learned from him.

All writers build roads from the world in which they live to the world of the imagination and I think Calvino more than anyone else was interested in that road: How is it built? What are its bricks? How do you get there from here? By what journey does one reach Wonderland, or Alphaville, or Oz? What is their relationship to the world we live in, and literally how do you build the road?

I think that was an amazingly consistent enterprise in his vision, and to illustrate it I want to tell an extraordinary story Chichita once told me about the death of Calvino. And I tell it not because I want to say something gloomy but because it seems to me to be a story of incredible beauty, a story which could perhaps only have happened to Calvino. It has to do with his last words. He emerged from a coma almost for the final time, and spoke the words, “Vanni di Marsalia, fenomenologo…” Vanni di Marsalia, phenomenologist. And in the pause between these words, Chichita heard “comma.” Now the question arose, who was Vanni di Marsalia and why might Italo have been thinking about him? It was difficult to find anybody with that name in Italian history, but eventually in an old file of some of Calvino’s earliest writings, writings that he had done for the Piedmont edition of L’Unità when he was a young radical writer, Chichita discovered that he had invented a Marxist Utopia of sorts with the name Marxalia. And at some point the “x” in Marxalia had become an “s,” and this had become Marsalia. The extraordinary idea that Calvino in his last moments should have returned to his earliest writing, going back to the world of his beginning and ending on a comma—seems to me to be quite beautifully Calvinoesque. It’s a measure of the greatness of his imagination that its coherence lasts even into this last, incoherent moment.