Curator of miracles in Milan: How Roberto Calasso mastered the art of publishing

As a spellbinding teller of great myths, Calasso has no equal.

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The Independent Culture

"Stories are the most durable texture of life for us. Not forms of societies, but stories. Stories are really what keeps everything together, in a way. When you are abandoned by stories - when you go back beyond the invention of writing, beyond the literary tradition - you feel of course lost: because one needs stories."

Roberto Calasso, a writer about the foundational myths and tales of human society who has no equal in the sparkle of his storytelling and the depth of his learning, has become a bit of a legend himself. The author and publisher sits in his apartment in central Milan flanked by a few of the 20,000 books stored here. As we talk, he gets up from time to time to hunt through the rooms of this personal library for a precious volume. In every case, he knows just where it sits. Another nearby flat harbours a further 20,000 books, with roughly the same number again at the offices of Adelphi: the pioneering Italian publishing house he has worked for since its creation in 1962, and steered as editorial director and then managing director since 1971.

"What are the dead for us," wrote Calasso in The Ruin of Kasch, his first sustained effort to channel stories from the past, "if not - first and foremost - books?" His writing makes these lost voices speak again, in magical, uncanny and something even sinister ways. He reanimated the Greek myths in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988) - his breakthrough book for a broad global readership - and then did the same for the narrative traditions of his beloved India in Ka.

Before those panoramic chronicles of myth came The Ruin of Kasch (1983), with its startlingly original take on the traumatic impact of modernity in the wake of the French Revolution. La Folie Baudelaire (Allen Lane, £35), now published in a translation by Alastair McEwen that captures all the shot-silk hues of Calasso's elegant, gnomic and epigrammatic prose, returns to that 19th-century "landscape of the new" through glittering tableaux of the Parisian poet's life and work, and the art of his peers, from Ingres to Degas.

Calasso, always a rigorous arbiter of taste, will probably accuse me of reading too many Anglo-Saxon trash bestsellers. All the same, there is something irresistibly Dan Brown-ish about a visit to his literary labyrinth. On a grey November day, I ring a bell beside a sturdy arched gateway that looks as if it could withstand a medieval siege or two. Ushered in through a small door within the door, then led across a dark courtyard, damp from the autumnal drizzle, I climb up into this vast forest of books to meet the magus in his lair. Inside, relaxed and affable, the fabled polymath demystifies his awesome reputation as the guardian, and spellbinding transmitter, of occult lore. Besides, some kinds of arcane knowledge baffle even him. When researching a profile, the fact-checkers from the New Yorker turned out to be "immensely interested in the fact that I had so-called 'Roy Orbison glasses'". For once, the reference eluded him.

Whatever his blind spots about soulful crooners of the Sixties, how many other free-range intellectuals can match Calasso for the breadth of his erudition and his boldness in bringing it to new audiences? In Britain, George Steiner; in this city of Milan, Umberto Eco. Arguably, with his immersion in Indian as well as European art and belief, Calasso spans more ground than either. Remarkably, he has also spent half a century not in academe but as a busy publisher.

Born in 1941, Calasso was raised in Florence, the son and grandson of eminent academics: his father was a legal scholar; his grandfather a philosopher and publisher. When he was 12, the family moved to Rome, where he studied literature with the great Anglophile scholar Mario Praz. Calasso wrote his postgraduate thesis - researched in Beatles-era London - on the role of hieroglyphics in the work of Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich. From 1962, he had also joined with his mentor Roberto Bazlen on the quixotic pursuit of Adelphi Edizioni, which today publishes 90 books each year.

When we meet he has just flown back from New York after Superstorm Sandy; before that came the annual ritual of the Frankfurt Book Fair. "I don't want to give too sharp a judgment," he says of the state of his beloved trade, and art, "but things could be better". This champion of the independent house with sky-high standards greets the prospect of Penguin's merger with Random House as "not rejoicing news". In an essay on "Publishing as a literary genre", Calasso explains how, since the days of Aldus Manutius in Venice c.1500, every great publisher's composition of a coherent list has been a work of art itself, with all the books as "links in a unique chain, or the segments in a serpent of books, or the fragments of a single book". In this way Adelphi itself has grown down the decades.

To Calasso, mythographer and bibliophile, every book comes with its own story attached. Take Baudelaire, the first non-Italian poet he loved, and a figure he still reveres as the writer-thinker who designed "the keyboard of the modern" and played it as a virtuoso. He first came across a beautiful edition of Baudelaire "in the library of my grandfather. And I stole it." His grandmother noticed the loss: "She obliged me to give it back, and she gave it as a gift to my mother. Then my mother gave it to me, just before she died." In the family microcosm, as on the wider stage of his work, art and ideas must pass down a human chain.

From generation to generation, these chains of stories become in Calasso's eyes well-nigh unbreakable. Famously, he shows in his retelling of myths how notions of the sacred and divine endure even in the most stridently secular of societies. Writing about Rimbaud in La Folie Baudelaire, he states that "The gods can appear or disappear from human sight, according to the places where they settle. But they always are - and they watch." The gods; not God.

As he speaks about the way that Freud (along with Nietzsche, one of his guiding spirits) wrestled with the idea of monotheism, Calasso stresses that "To do away with the gods in their essential plurality was the first step in a new direction" towards the world that we live in now. Yet what is repressed will return: a keystone principle for him. "The resistance to monotheism is much stronger and more natural than we imagine," he says. "You start from the divine, and not from the God - the God is a very much later invention."

The Greek and Indian deities whose capricious doings he recounts can disturb the modern mind as much as they delight it. Sacrifice, the heartbeat of Calasso's thought, has proved an especially scandalous notion to some critics. "It is possibly the most difficult theme you have to deal with," he says. If you deny the centrality of sacrifice in human culture, it will erupt again. "The modern world pretended, in all its forms, to get rid of [sacrifice] and it hasn't… At the same time, sacrifice as a ritual has been abandoned in a way that is irreversible." Yet it endures, for instance in the "murder-suicide" of Islamist "kamikazes" today: "You cannot consider it an act of war. It is something different." In Britain, where the rites of Remembrance place ancient ideas of sacrifice at the core of public life, we should grasp Calasso's thread.

His respect for the subterranean power of the divine has little to do with orthodox creeds. Organised faiths today "are more for me like big or small political parties… very rarely is there a feeling of something I would call 'religious' anywhere. Certainly not in the Western world. The country where you feel more near a religious perception is of course India." There, "you feel there is a continuity of gestures you don't find anywhere else, and these gestures often go back to Vedic India." But even in the salons, galleries, bars and brothels of Baudelaire's Paris, Calasso detects the voices and shapes of old gods. The poet was, for him, "the most archaic of the moderns"; and the one who lit with ancient flames an imaginative passageway into our world.

To Calasso, Baudelaire was "the great brain in that period - he was a thinker hidden between the lines of his art criticism, his poems, his notebooks". Baudelaire also stands at the threshold of the era of "decadence" that we inhabit now. Calasso uses the term in Nietzsche's wide sense: "It's not merely an aesthetic category. It goes beyond. It belongs to an age in which you have lost common ground under your feet, but at the same time you are in touch with so many other worlds - which is a great charm, a great fascination."

That decadence remains our destiny, as the hallowed tales that we tell gather up the broken fragments of the sacred. "If we want to have a common ground in our mind," says Calasso, surrounded by the batteries of books that help fight against the ruin and exile of modern experience, "we will never find anything better than stories."