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How Well do we Really Want to Know an Author?

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Publishing publicists are keen for authors to have as high a public profile as possible (as are plenty of authors themselves.) As this New York Times article demonstrates beautifully, this cult of self promotion isn't exactly a new phenomenon.

But what about the drawbacks of this style-over-substance approach when it comes to reading the books themselves? I've read plenty of books and manuscripts by people I know, and it'd be disingenuous to insist this knowledge of the person behind the story had no influence on how I would experience the story.

Why am I thinking about this? Two reasons. The first of which is Italo Calvino's Hermit in Paris, a loose collection of autobiographical writing and interviews from the fifties through to the eighties, with much reflection on his earlier life.

As well as much of his later fiction, I've read some of Calvino's non-fiction before (His Six Memos for the Next Millennium is my favourite book on writing), but in these his voice was always present--a big part of the enjoyment of reading them, of course--yet the man himself was not. The meat of Hermit in Paris is Calvino's travel diary of formative time spent in America, and, more importantly, in New York. The diary was written when he was around thirty seven, as a series of letters to his colleagues at the Einuadi publishing house in Turin, where he worked as both a publicist and editor, so I think it's safe to assume they give as honest representation of a writer as you're likely to come across, in that he was writing to people who knew him well personally, as well as knowing his writing.

The thing is, although I rather liked the Calvino I got to know in this diary, he was rather at odds with the author I knew before starting out on the book. I was aware that this alteration of perception was likely once I embarked on the journey of reading the book, but he's one of the few authors I really feel the urge to know well. The good news is by the time I got to the end of the book, this new Calvino (from the American Diary) and the one already established in my head had merged satisfactorily for me, thanks to the other pieces included in the book. Calvino's note for the book (published posthumously) stressed the point that his opinions and beliefs were of the moment, which is a given, but it was useful to have the author's reminder there in front of me.

Calvino maintained that an author's distance was a crucial factor in the appreciation of the work, but although he went to reasonable lengths to maintain this distance himself, as a personality, for anyone with more than a passing interest in his output, even now he's no longer alive, he is by no means an anonymous factor when considering his books.

My second reason for thinking about this subject? Well, it relates to my experience last summer of Tate Britain's exhibition on Vorticism.

For those not familiar with it, Vorticism was a short-lived Futurist-inspired British avant garde art movement established shortly before the First World War. The movement's key figure was Wyndham Lewis, who was much influenced (and supported) by Ezra Pound. Pound and Lewis took Pound's Imagism guidelines and applied them to visual art, with Pound coining the term Vorticism to represent the resultant work.

I knew little about Pound (and less about Wyndham Lewis) before starting work on the project, save that he was a challenging poet, and a fascist.

Interestingly it was reading Hermit in Paris (Calvino grew up in Italy under Mussolini and it is well documented that he fought for the Partisans during WWII), that gave me the impetus to learn a bit more about Pound, and for pretty much the first time in my life, attempt to understand how such a large swathe of Europe could have fallen under the sway of fascism in the lead up to World War II.

For those in Europe reflecting on WWII, certainly up until my generation (a generation whose grandparents and older relatives have firsthand adult experience of the war) there's generally an in-built default position of anti-Nazism (let's be clear: this is a GOOD thing), but I would argue that this blanket education of why Hitler wasn't good news obscures the social causes of what led not only to its political rise, stopping the general populace from questioning why such a huge number of people tolerated fascism as part of their everyday lives.

I think most Europeans have some kind of innate understanding that World War I provided the breeding ground for WWII. But, oddly, I've only just begun to make explicit connections about how this occurred. You may view this as personal ignorance on my part, but I'd lay money on there being a large amount of reasonable, intelligent people whose knowledge is as unexamined as my own.

Pound was of course a hugely fallible man, but he was also no idiot. He helped launch the careers of TS Eliot, James Joyce and many others, before becoming disillusioned with London after WWI and moving first to Paris and then on to Italy, where he supported Mussolini's fascist regime (which Calvino by the time of WWII was of course actively opposing). Calvino meanwhile become a militant Communist following the war, and has an interesting, incredibly honest essay about how he squared his Communism and support for the USSR with Stalin's atrocities. (Calvino did not leave the Italian Communist Party--and political activism--until 1957.)

As with Calvino, Pound's life can be viewed as one of stages. Just to round out my picture, I've read some of Pound's poetry. And I admit, knowing what I do of him, it's quite difficult to place aside the context when reading that the poems were crafted by a deplorable fascist. But I gave it a good go. After all, it's what Calvino would have wanted.