In Memory of Roberto Calasso

Jonathan Galassi

Roberto Calasso died this year in July at the age of 80. His latest publication, The Book of All Books, was the tenth book in a series, a narration that moves through the Bible as if through a forest, where every branch—every verse—may offer some revelation. Jonathan Galassi writes about first meeting Roberto Calasso and the process of working with him over the years. 

I first met Roberto in the 1980s, at the home of Roger Straus. The guests that evening included Alberto Moravia and his wife Carmen Llera and Edna O’Brien—Roger’s pals—and Calasso was very much at home with them, a live wire, allegro and mischievous. Though a generation younger than Roger, he was already a longstanding member of the happy few club of international publishers, self-selected literary grandees still sailing along on the fumes of their authors’ reputations. Their enjoyment of each other and of the work they did, were both intimidating and infectious.

Calasso by then had been cutting a wide swath in Italian publishing for a good twenty-five years. He’d joined Adelphi, a scholarly house founded by a pair of friends, as the name implies, in the early sixties, and had brought it great energy and panache, eventually making it his own, by following the advice of the company’s legendary founding guru and guiding spirit Roberto (Bobi) Bazlen: to publish “only books we really like.” The books Roberto really liked were literary—far-flung, sophisticated, and above all, written—and Adelphi came to have a major impact on the Italian scene. Fashionable Milanese ladies had tables in their salotti that fairly groaned with Adelphi titles dressed in their elegant, severe covers. Some said they were the only books they read.

Being a latecomer to the party, as the new kid on the block is, Calasso knew that best-selling writers like Moravia and Morante, Calvino and Eco were out of range for a company with shallow pockets like his. He went searching elsewhere, notably in Bazlen’s beloved Mitteleuropa, and made hay with authors like Joseph Roth, Elias Canetti, and Milan Kundera. It was said he preferred his authors posthumous, and he had huge successes with, for instance, Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels which had been languishing in someone else’s warehouse. It was a matter of attitude and finesse, “sprezzatura,” the Italians call it—in the service of a cosmopolitan understanding of literature as a conversation across cultures and generations. And it could be great commerce. too. To see Roberto at the Suhrkamp Verlag luncheon during the Frankfurt book fair fielding offers for Sandor Marai’s Embers, a romance about pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian chivalry which he made into a world-wide bestseller, was to understand how far an astute nose and a pitch-perfect sense of style could take a canny publisher.

At Frankfurt, he would show up at FSG’s minuscule booth late in the afternoon, dressed in the typical Italian bourgeois’ Anglophile uniform of tweed jacket and flannels, looking for all the world like the rumpled professor he could easily have been. He’d pore through our future lists hunting for writers who could strike sparks on his eclectic but always coherent list. Many of our American offerings didn’t quite fit, or were already sold; his own recommendations, repeated year after year, tended to focus on Italian writers of great quality—Campo, Ceronetti, Manganelli, Ortese—who were usually too “specialized,” i.e., too profoundly Italian, for our readership, though we tried a few. No matter; it was the hunt, the excitement aroused by the author’s inimitable voice, that drove the conversation.

As it did with Roger, Roberto’s natural competitiveness could have a dampening effect on his camaraderie with homegrown colleagues—something that has been one of the joys of our trade for my generation. Their true peers, they felt, were elsewhere, in other countries and other eras. More than anyone, Calasso understood the eternal simultaneity of literature, how the conversation remains ongoing—the major theme, in fact, of his own prodigious books which make up a masterly multi-volume investigation into Greek and Indian and Hebrew myth, Kafka and Tiepolo and Baudelaire—which is dedicated to teasing out the enduring presence of the divine, the uncanny, the inexplicable in human art and life. The gods, as he called them, are always present in Calasso’s world, projections of our immortal needs and desires and aspirations.

My last communication from Roberto arrived in early July—two short books just issued by Adelphi. Bobi is a trenchant memoir of his old mentor and of his early years as a publisher. The other, Meme’ Scianca, written for his children, describes his own boyhood in an anti-fascist household in wartime Florence, perhaps his most personal and self-revealing work. I was unaware, as I have since learned, that Roberto had been ill, but the fervor and speed with which these books seem to have been written suggests that he was racing against time to have his final say.

At the back of Adelphi’s paperbacks, their perfect design unchanged for decades now, is a list of recently published titles. Among the latest 250—the whole extends to close to 800—are books by writers from Marina Tsvetaeva to Oliver Sacks, from John McPhee to Curzio Malaparte, from Alexander Pope to Thomas Bernhard. A few of the books that Roberto really liked—for the Adelphi list bears the unmistakable mark of the breadth and the boundaries of his interests, which ranged from ancient religion to modern physics. It’s difficult indeed to imagine the world of letters without Roberto Calasso; but the books he championed, for all of us, were in the best of hands.

–Jonathan Galassi, President of Farrar Straus & Giroux

Roberto Calasso was the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni in Milan and the author of a decades-spanning, multi-volume work which up to now comprises The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., Tiepolo Pink, La Folie Baudelaire, Ardor, The Unnamable Present, and The Celestial Hunter, many of which were published by FSG. FSG will published two more books in Calasso’s magnum opus, The Book of All Books (November 2021) and his The Tablet of the Destinies in 2022. Roberto Calasso died on July 28, 2021.

Jonathan Galassi is the President of Farrar Straus & Giroux.