Italo Calvino is always fun to read. While Marcovaldo
does not have the Borgesian or post-modern tropes of Invisible Cities
or If on a winter's night a traveller
, it is a heart-warming collection of brilliantly crafted stories, the pinnacle achievement being the lovable naivete and inventive imagination of the titular Italian, Marcovaldo. The whimsy and lyricism of Calvino's prose is worthwhile enough to embark on the too-short modern voyage of this short book, though it has much else to offer as well.
The character of Marcovaldo is a man caught between two abysses. He lives in a northern industrial city of Italy in the postwar 1950's through 1960's (though the particular city is never mentioned, and likely is an imagined city, I imagined it as loosely based on the industrialized city of Turin) which bridged the eras of poverty with economic boom. Marcovaldo is the lovable-loser, a character trope very popular in post-modern/post-modern fiction, as a break with the great thinkers and heroes of previous literary movements and from the classical characters of Hamlet, Odysseus, etc. He works at a shipping firm, doing menial work which he does not enjoy but which puts meager food on his family's table. He has a wife and five children which share his whimsy and naivete, though they are much more accustomed to the modern world in which they live. Marcovaldo is torn between the world of beauty which he feels is impossible in city life, the beauty of nature and of romantic notions, and the world, the reality, which constantly makes demands on him, awakes him rudely from his reveries.
This Marcovaldo possessed an eye ill-suited to city-life: billboards, traffic-lights, shop-windows, neon signs, posters, no matter how carefully devised to catch the attention, never arrested his gaze, which might have been running over the desert sands. Instead he would never miss a leaf yellowing on a branch, a feather trapped by a roof-tile; there was no horsefly on a horse's back, no worm-hole in a plank, or fig-peel squashed on the sidewalk that Marcovaldo didn't remark and ponder over, discovering the changes of the season, the yearnings of his heart, and the woes of his existence.
Each story represents a short aphoristic anecdote, taking place in one season of one of the five-years encompassed in the collection (spring-summer-autumn-winter). Most stories are very short, and every one is charming in a whimsical if not magical way. A number of the stories stand out to me after having finished: Marcovaldo dreams of sleeping out beneath the stars, among nature, but after sneaking out with his pillow, he is held at bay by an arguing couple, then is distracted by a traffic light, the smell of a cabbage truck, etc. until he finally can get to sleep only to moments later be woken at dawn. Another story has him jealously hoarding the secret of some wild mushrooms growing along the road, only to find another has discovered them as well - he relents and invites everyone to join in picking them, only for everyone to get sick from the poisonous fungi. Marcovaldo's romantic imagination is constantly foiled by the reality in which he lives. Where he sees fresh, wild mushrooms he finds poisonous ones, where he sees a river surfeit with fish he finds them poisoned by an upstream paint company, a mountain escape is the grounds of a sanatorium, the romantic sleep beneath the stars: no sleep at all.
There are two layers to the message of Marcovaldo
: on the one hand, Marcovaldo is representative of a flawed view of the world, and the unhappiness and disappointment inherent in unreasonable attachment to the past, or out of reach ideals. Sometimes I wish I had been born in 1900, gone to literary salons and fashionable soirees, rode in hansom cabs. But that is an overly romanticized vision of a past era, and era gone. And it is gone because the world I live in now is better, much more accommodating, far fairer, and people in general are better off. Sure I may never know what it's like to collect love letters in a small gilt-rim cigar box, or go to an illustrious debutante ball and gossip in the corner beside a girandola mirror, but on the other hand, t-shirts are so much more comfortable than those starchy collared shirts and breast-coats, so, there's that. While Marcovaldo's attachment to a natural world which is far beyond the city limits, and beyond his practical grasp, he is never disheartened, and that is what makes him so lovable. He is a fool, but a very lovable fool.
On the other hand, there is a tension between the advantages of industrialization and the beauty and benefits of naturalization. Calvino is far from supporting an unindustrialized world, one without cities, one made for the Marcovaldos of the world; but he is also condemnatory of the excesses in industrial cities: pollution, traffic, waste, blind consumerism. The character of Marcovaldo is deliberate in his ridiculousness, but so are the many citizens of the silly city somewhere in Northern Italy. Those who resist industrialization seem as ridiculous as those who violently support it. Calvino sees it as an inevitablity, though one which requires a better balance. Cannibalistic consumerism infringes on the natural beauty, but it is capable of a beauty of its own, and the urban images which Calvino fills these pages with illustrate that potential beauty.
Marcovaldo went back to look at the moon, then he went to look at a traffic light, a bit farther on. The light flashed yellow, yellow, yellow, constantly blinking on and off. Marcovaldo compared the moon with the traffic-light. The moon with her mysterious pallor, also yellow, but also green, in its depths, and even blue; the traffic-light with its common little yellow. And the moon, all calm, casting her light without haste, streaked now and then by fine wisps of clouds, which she majestically allowed to fall around her shoulders; and the traffic-light meanwhile, always there, on and off, on and off, throbbing with a false vitality, but actually weary and enslaved.
The city has a coldly modern art to it, a "false vitality" - it is art, it can only imitate life. To Marcovaldo there is not value to this false beauty, it is unnatural and mechanical. But Calvino's descriptions of it show that though it does not fit the ideal, there is some art to be had in the man made world. Man is like the traffic light in the city, morning:on, evening:off, in to work then back to home, enslaved to routine, chained to the consumerism which drives him. The city is not an ugly place, but rather is the prison of a stifling life. Marcovaldo, for all his dislike of the city, is not an unhappy man, though he is plagued by modern troubles, and though he is constantly made the fool of his own gambits, he is a many happy in his childhood-in-middle-age. He has not lost the innocence of youth, not lost that vitality or winsome hope for adventure, invention, imagination. Though Calvino supports a sojourn in nature, he does not completely condemn the world which is reality, the world with winking traffic lights. More important that escaping the city is escaping routine, being spontaneous, being enthusiastic, loving life for what it has to offer and not grudging it for what it lacks.