Bedridden with the flu on a recent writing retreat, I had resigned myself to focus on recovery rather than to get any writing done. I had not expected, between the coughing fits and the fever chills, to find new inspiration from a familiar source. But there it was, sitting eye-level on the third shelf of a corner bookcase at a stranger’s vacation rental, all 128 pages of glory: Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo, translated by William Weaver.
My experience with Calvino is uneven. On more than one occasion, my awe of the Italian author’s way with words outpaced my ability to keep up with the quickness of his intellect. I gave up halfway through The Castle of Cross Destinies because my mind could no longer hold the labyrinth of interconnected narratives together, and while I admired and strove to emulate the stylings of his Cosmicomics, many of those journeys across time, space, and imagination remains beyond my comprehension.
Yet when Calvino’s work connects, he leaves an impression upon me unlike any other author. Even as I have professed my love for Invisible Cities in detail here on Ekostories, I feel like I have barely grazed its surface; it is a dream I dream of time and again. Despite having only recently finished it, I find myself feeling similarly about Marcovaldo, a series of linked shorts about an unskilled labourer with an eye for nature, chasing hopes for a better life through the revolving seasons.
Spring: Marcovaldo’s Eye for Nature
Living with his wife and children in a nameless industrial city, Marcovaldo is a blue-collar worker who longs for escape from his dreary existence. He is at heart a dreamer, attuned to nature’s small miracles, but is burdened with the constant realities of debt and drudgery. Nevertheless, he throws himself wholeheartedly into little adventures, simply for a chance to connect with the natural world. He delights in finding mushrooms sprouting out of pavement. He takes his children to the town’s outskirts for green space and fresh air. He explores the countryside and discovers a secret pool, teeming with fish.
Yet each of these spring stories, coloured by the season’s themes of renewal and beginnings, takes on a surprising twist. Eating the harvested mushrooms lands Marcovaldo a stay at the hospital to get his stomach pumped. The idyllic fields at the edge of town is actually the grounds of a sanatorium. Effluent from a paint factory upstream have rendered all the fish in the pool poisonous. In each tale, Calvino subverts the sentiment that nature is wholly benign, always curative, and the simple antidote to the ills of modern life. Like cartoonist Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt, Calvino seizes upon nature’s indifference and his protagonist’s ignorance for hilarious effect. Through each of these vignettes, Calvino reveals himself as both a romantic and realist, seeming to acknowledge that while modernization is irreversible, better awareness can highlight and perhaps curb its destructive excesses: pollution, profiteering, and most crucially, blind consumerism. The latter grows into a strong and recurring theme in the later stories.
Summer: Marcovaldo in the City
As a lifelong urbanite, I sense a kindred spirit in Marcovaldo. I appreciate his eye for the nature in urban environments. I love the explanations he provides to his children, who are even more innocent and naïve than he is. Reading his adventures reminds me of my childhood encounters with nature, in patchy yards, by abandoned lots, on polluted beaches, all human-affected ecosystems where the richness, wonder, and mystery of the living world shone through undiminished. As science writer Emma Marris noted in her book Rambunctious Garden, nature does not have to be pristine or wild to yield life-changing experiences:
“Nature is also the birds in your backyard; the bees whizzing down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan; the pines in rows in forest plantations; the blackberries and butterfly bushes that grow alongside the urban river; the Chinese tree-of-heaven or “ghetto palm” growing behind the corner store; the quail strutting through the farmer’s field; the old field overgrown with weeds and shrubs and snakes and burrowing mammals; the jungle thick with plants labeled “invasive” pests; the carefully designed landscape garden; the green roof; the highway median; the five-hundred-year-old orchard folded into the heart of the Amazon; the avocado tree that sprouts in your compost pile.”
It is life itself, with its vitality and spontaneity, its non-purpose and creative force that defies routine and breaks free the imprisoning effects of city living that Marcovaldo is drawn to. That deeply resonates with me.
While Marcovaldo’s affinity to nature provides him with the impetus to embark on adventures in the dull haze of summer, many of them ultimately prove disappointing. Once again, Calvino uses his wit to subvert expectations. In “Park-bench vacation,” Marcovaldo envisions sleeping in the open air on a park bench would be a delight, but is instead kept up all night by quarreling lovers, blinking traffic lights, and the sounds and stinks of garbage collection. In “A journey with the cows”, he envies his son Michelino’s excursion with pasturing herds up in the mountains, but learns later that Michelino had no chance to enjoy the scenery because he was forced to work the entire time. In “Moon and Gnac”, his children break a neon advertisement sign for cognac that had obscured the moon and stars, only to have the sign be replaced by a bigger, brighter sign that steals away the entire night. Always Marcovaldo’s humble dreams are swept away by the larger trends of society. Yet he continues to dream, and I cannot help but love this naïve character. There is a Chaplin-esque quality to Marcovaldo; he is the fool whose gift is to see colour in a grey world. Constantly foiled in his attempts to secure lasting success and happiness, he never becomes disheartened, continuing to pursue and savour life’s small moments and pleasures, even if they prove fleeting.
Autumn: Marcovaldo Changes
Two of my favourite tales from the collection stem from Marcovaldo’s excursions in the fall. “The lunch-box” comes early in the collection; Marcovaldo experiences a range of emotions while eating packed leftovers for lunch. Unscrewing the lid in anticipation, he thinks fondly to the flavours of his wife’s cooking before remembering their frequent domestic quarrels. Unable to enjoy the food until the last few bites, he is overcome with sadness when the food is gone. Later on in “The rain and the leaves”, Marcovaldo begins tending a potted plant from work, only to have it respond in appreciation by growing to an enormous size before casting off its leaves into the wind.
In a few short pages, these two stories manage to marry a deep sense of whimsy with rich insights about the contradictory and ephemeral nature of life, befitting autumnal notions of change and melancholy. What I also love is that these two tales show Calvino’s transition as a storyteller as he shifts from grounded realism to more imaginative stylings, all the while preserving his narrative subtlety and sensitivity. Marcovaldo is essential reading for anyone interested in Calvino as a writer, featuring stories from his roots, showcasing his trajectory into the fantastical and surreal.
Winter: Marcovaldo with Calvino
The shift from realistic tales to more fantastical ones is not the only change that occurs in Marcovaldo. Early stories revolve around Marcovaldo and his impoverished circumstances; he constantly worries about keeping a roof over his family’s heads and struggles to put food on the table. Later tales show Marcovaldo buoyed by a booming economy; while he is by no means wealthy, he is afforded some modest comforts. He rides his motorbike out after work; his family moves from a basement room to an attic suite; he develops a passion for Technicolor films. Yet this rising tide in fortune for all is shadowed by a form of distorted consumerism, the hollowness of which Calvino plays to both comic and terrifying effect. In one adventure, Marcovaldo and his family pretend to shop at a supermarket to feel prosperous, only to find themselves trapped in a cycle where the only escape is to literally sacrifice their goods to the mechanized maw of consumption. In another, Marcovaldo finds himself employed as a corporate Santa, delivering presents to spoiled children who gain no joy from their accumulated mountains of material goods. Through an accidental fire, his company becomes inspired to market toys designed to destroy other toys as a means to ramp up consumption. Reading these adventures after another holiday season, I find Calvino’s satire has lost none of its bite, even after all these decades.
Despite these increasingly cautionary tales, Calvino still manages to weave in his humour, stemming from what seems to be a poetic sensibility to life. There remains a timeless and gentle quality to these latter fables; Marcovaldo maintains his charms as a lovable loser, while his children remain blissfully ignorant of the corrosive cynicism associated with modern living. Towards the end, Calvino throws in one final twist. In the closing paragraphs of the last winter tale, he pulls the focus back, away from Marcovaldo and his mundane toils, away from the city and its cold, false wrappings, and instead situates the reader in an ancient forest where a jack-hare in snow is pursued by a wolf in shadow. Beautiful and haunting, this ending hints to a grander perspective beyond human control and concerns, with each animal perhaps alluding to the primordial interplay between light and shadow, life and death.
In his exploration of The Daughters of the Moon for The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, another story with an equally daring ending, Robert Coover muses that only a writer with a vigorous imagination like Calvino could get away with such leaps away from conventional form. It is this potential for flight, for lightness and quickness, that draws me always back to Calvino, even if I feel sometimes like his Marcovaldo, a fool wandering the strange and surreal worlds dancing just beyond his grasp.
- Interactive Storytelling: thatgamecompany’s Flower
- A Boy and His Plants: The Curious Garden
- Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
- Journey to the Far Side: There’s a Hair in my Dirt!
- Place and Memory: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities
Calvino, Italo. Marcovaldo. Originally published © 1963 by Giulio Einaudi Editore. English translation by William Weaver © 1983 by Martin Secker & Warburg Limited.
Marris, Emma. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. USA: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011.
Featured Image from La Malablogger.