I discovered the work of Italo Calvino in the late nineties, while a student at Bard College in Annandale, New York. An excerpt from Invisible Cities served as epigraph to an essay assigned for a course on critical theory; I no longer remember the essay, but I remember tracking down a copy of Invisible Cities and reading it, over the course of several days, in something like a state of intoxication.
The name of the translator was familiar, because William Weaver’s classes on Italian literature and translation were listed in Bard’s own course catalog. I knew little of the language, but with a friend who shared my interest in Calvino’s work, I approached Professor Weaver and asked if he would sponsor an independent study on the topic. He was known to be attentive and generous with his time, yet it seemed to me as though he had been waiting for someone to make this very request.
Professor Weaver was soon Bill. We met for several hours in his study each week, fire crackling on the hearth. I didn’t drink coffee then, and at our first few meetings I declined his offer of espresso. Then I saw that this disappointed him. Not because he timed the making of the espresso so that it would be ready just as we arrived, and brought it downstairs on a little tray, but because it was part of a ritual of hospitality, meant to welcome me as I arrived over the border into the language and culture that was so vital to his life and his work.
And so with head buzzing from the unprecedented rush of caffeine, I listened as Bill Weaver wove stories of that life, that work. I picked up a little Italian, but it was, in these sessions, through stories that Bill did most of his teaching. He told us about serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during the Second World War. And with great humor, he described some of his earliest jobs as a translator, writing Italian subtitles for American B movies. He told us about Italo Calvino himself, and about his own process in translating his works and others, Umberto Eco and Eugenio Montale and Alberto Moravia, others too many to list.
We did not read all of Calvino’s work that semester—Bill told us from the start that we would discuss only the books which he himself had translated. That left us with no lack of material. Cosmicomics, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Mr. Palomar, t zero, each a puzzle, a revelation, detailing journeys to the beginning of the universe and to the moon, books within books, stories within stories. Bill Weaver’s love of language was evident in all his lessons—he spoke of sentences as living things, to be released rather than pinned down.
To hear him describe it, his relationship with Calvino was occasionally tempestuous, but the two clearly loved and respected one another. Italo, he said, once presented him with a print of Saint Jerome, and inscribed it to him with the words: To Bill, translator as saint. I have often cited Calvino as a major influence on my work, but William Weaver’s influence is no less profound. He put his own spirit into the translations, and his care and insight have helped make those volumes classics of the English language.
William Weaver died this week at the age of ninety. He has been much on my mind these last months, in part because I find myself back on the Bard College campus, a visiting faculty member in the Written Arts Program. I often drive or walk past his old house, now the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities. I haven’t visited yet, but I hope they still use the old fireplace.
Regarding Calvino’s work, there was one point to which Bill Weaver circled back again and again. Though the author experimented with many styles and structures, he said, one could always identify him in his sentences, in the consistency of his vision, which dwelled even in the minutest detail.
Something similar could be said, I think, of William Weaver. The consistency of his warmth, his generosity, and his humor, in service to his keen intellect, is a model to which an artist and teacher might aspire. His contributions to literary culture are immeasurable. I am grateful to have known him, and to have learned from him.
William Weaver's A TENT IN THIS WORLD, a largely autobiographical novella published in 1999.