(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Italo Calvino, like his elder countryman, novelist Ignazio Silone, joined the Communist Party to resist Fascism but later left it, disillusioned with political solutions; like Federico Fellini, he broke from the neorealism popular in post-World War II Italy to follow the unpredictable path of invention. Calvino has made a blend of fable and science fantasy his peculiar forte, naming such writers as John Barth and Donald Barthelme as his fellow “experimenters,” Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway among his influences.

In his preface to the 1976 edition of his first (and last) neorealist novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1957), Calvino, in true Calvino fashion, elaborately beginning over and over again to explain his early attraction to and his ultimate dissatisfaction with direct experience as a vibrant avenue for artistic expression, manages to place himself and his work in historical perspective. His initial artistic response to the sociopolitics of World War II and its aftermath was not unique nor was his ensuing shift; it was inevitable, for Calvino has stated, most recently in his lecture “The Written and the Unwritten Word” that his efforts in writing are not directed merely toward the making of books but at changing himself, “the goal of all human endeavor.” Likewise, he insists that those writers who most affect the reader with their authenticity, who seem to be speaking from “the summit of an absolute experience” offer approaches to the real not the real itself. The best writing expresses not the familiar, the lived through, or the understood but the complexity of the unknown, and the expression of this becomes a transparency of that which is just beyond, escaping from the reader.

The creation of an aesthetic landscape derived from Calvino’s experience of the Resistance, the journey up from a tourist coast through city narrows, vineyard terraces and hills, up to the forest of pine and chestnut and finally to the Ligurian valleys toward the Alps beyond, which shaped The Path to the Nest of Spiders profoundly affects Marcovaldo (published in Italy in 1963 as Marcovaldo: Ovvero, le stagioni in città) as well, for although Marcovaldo is inexorably situated in the city, the exercising of his various survival schemes often leaves him raised to a perilous height above the antlike machinations of the city. Its lights collect in pointillistic fashion in the far below of Marcovaldo’s view. He may never succeed by the standards advanced and applauded in the city, but he does triumph or “rise above” himself through the whimsy of his literalistic simplicity.

To see the city from the hills may not be the answer after all. In “Spring: The Good Air,” Marcovaldo and his family travel by crowded tram from their neighborhood, farthest from the hills, to reach the base of the slopes and climb a stairway past walled gardens and trees in search of the public health doctor’s prescription of “good air” for the children. The day breezes by, the whole family breathes and bites the air as they climb nearly to the top of the hill. Far below, scattered lights begin to appear in the city, and Marcovaldo feels a tinge of nostalgia pull him toward the promise of city life. Just as fleetingly, he is saddened at the futility of returning to the stagnation, when he learns that the beautiful place of trees he has sought and enjoyed is part of the grounds of a sanatorium. Cherries gathered by the patients have been popped into his children’s mouths. This idyll is more of a wasteland, potentially more dangerous it seems than the cobweb of the city, so Marcovaldo hurriedly drags and carries the children to the comparative safety of home.

The city has a chameleon character; it is open to interpretation, involved in its own definition. In it opens a world in which anything might happen: At once itself and its story, it presents an irascible text worth the struggle to decipher. Marcovaldo, blind to the allure of the usual stuff—“billboards, traffic-lights, shop-windows, neon signs, posters”—uncovers the extraordinary subtext no one else enjoys. It is Marcovaldo who sees the woes of leaves, impossible mushrooms abloom in sidewalk cracks, cows herded through the night streets, even migrating woodcocks that make a rule of navigating around the city—all this and more. Marcovaldo’s sight is so rare, so “ill-suited to city life,” that he is able to open a window upon waking and see that the winter city has vanished, has been transformed into a sheet of white paper.

With the snowfall, defining boundaries and landmarks have been erased; differences between sidewalk and street have ceased, leaving Marcovaldo liberated to trudge the unbroken crust unmindful of the old taboos which lie (or may not lie) beneath the snow. Marcovaldo delights in this new zigzag world, unlike the world as it is known—which is, as Calvino reminds one in his lecture, “a world already conquered, colonized by words, a world that bears a heavy crust of speech.” This new world is closer to the “unwritten” world, crisp as a sheet of paper awaiting lines and scribble.

Assigned to shovel out the sidewalk of Sbav and Co. and finding it impossible to know which white shapes are composed...

(The entire section is 2178 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Commonweal. CXI, April 6, 1984, p. 222.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 27, 1983, p. 3.

Maclean’s. XCVI, September 19, 1983, p. 62.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, January 22, 1984, p. 8.

Newsweek. CII, November 28, 1983, p. 105.

Observer. August 28, 1983, p. 25.