Obituary Note: Roberto Calasso

Roberto Calasso, the Italian publisher, translator and writer "whose wide-ranging works explored the evolution and mysteries of human consciousness, from the earliest myths and rituals to modern civilization," died July 28, the New York Times reported. He was 80. Calasso "was a rare figure in the literary world--an erudite writer and polymath and a savvy publisher who was able to reach a substantial readership for books he released through Adelphi Edizioni, the prestigious Italian publishing house where he worked for some 60 years."

Calasso produced more than a dozen works over nearly five decades, including his first and only novel L'impuro folle (The Impure Fool), La rovina di Kasch (The Ruin of Kasch), Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony), Ka (Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India), La letteratura e gli dèi (Literature and the Gods), Il rosa Tiepolo (Tiepolo Pink), L'impronta dell'editore (The Art of the Publisher), Il Cacciatore Celeste (The Celestial Hunter), L'innominabile attuale (The Unnamable Present) and more.

"His books are about how the anthropology of stories is universal," said Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar Straus & Giroux, which published eight of Calasso's titles.

"Calasso carved out a new space as an intellectual, retelling myth as true, certainly as true as science," said Tim Parks, who worked with him on the English translation of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, in an interview. "His implication is always that we are as subject as our ancestors were to the forces that find their names in Zeus or Venus or Yahweh or Shiva."

In 1962, when he was 21, Calasso started working at the newly formed publishing house Adelphi Edizioni, and a decade later "he became editorial director and quickly developed a reputation for his distinctive tastes and his passion for publishing underappreciated writers like Robert Walser and the German poet Gottfried Benn," the Times noted, adding that eventually he became the "president of Adelphi and helped preserve its independence when he bought a majority stake in the company himself, thwarting a sale to the Mondadori Group, a major European media company."

"He was always finding writers who hadn't had their due and he was always good at publicizing them when he published a book," FSG's Galassi added. "He was kind of a literary magician."

Richard Dixon, who translated five of Calasso's books, said, "He's almost impossible to classify, because his range of ideas, his range of thoughts, goes so far and wide. He often puts together and juxtaposes ideas where the connection isn't always obvious.... Although Roberto could seem quite intimidating, there was something extraordinarily generous and kind about him."

Novelist Lawrence Osborne, who worked with Calasso on the Italian editions of four of his novels, described him as "quietly inquisitive.... For me he was the greatest European publisher of his time and one of our greatest writers--an exceptionally rare combination. Moreover, he was a true Florentine deep down, as I always thought, embodying the urbane tolerance and refinement of that city."

"A book is written when there is something specific that has to be discovered," Calasso wrote. "The writer doesn't know what it is, nor where it is, but knows it has to be found. The hunt then begins. The writing begins."

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