Marcovaldo

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2178

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...

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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 merely of snow and which conceal objects, Marcovaldo begins to wax existential, observing that in only one case, his own, is there certainty, because it is obvious that he is not the same as the children’s snowman. Unforeseeably, at that instant, three hundred pounds of snow fall right on Marcovaldo from the roof-shovelers. The children now have two snowmen, a silent one and a live one who gobbles down the carrots they supply for his nose. Later, when Marcovaldo, dressed as his company’s Santa Claus in the last story, “Winter: Santa’s Children,” goes home to surprise his own children, they easily recognize him as their father. It would seem that no disguise can stifle the life of Marcovaldo. The story of the snow, however, has one more transformation to undergo: One sneeze from the soaked and ailing Marcovaldo catapults the entire courtyard of snow, leaves only “the things of every day, sharp and hostile.” The world of possibilities, presented with the snow, can come to a close as suddenly as it opened. In either case, it appears to operate by its own curious rules beyond mortal control.

Marcovaldo’s experience with the unwieldy snow is but one of several encounters with the natural (or what is left of the natural) world in the city and on its outskirts. It is difficult to leave the city, and whenever this seems to have been accomplished, the unspoiled has already been sullied somehow, the scar of the city has already been felt on the land to a fault, on the water, the air, the forest. In his attempt to sleep under the stars, away from the snores of his family, Marcovaldo resorts to a park bench only to be disturbed by a loud lovers’ quarrel, the bright blinking of a traffic light that obscures the moon, the blare of a welder’s torch. When at last he finds respite beside a fountain and sleeps as if on a mossy riverbank, a stench of garbage reaches into his dreams, distorting a family-dinner scene into a feast of rancid rat and bloated cat. Sleep spoiled, he grapples through a bed of flowers and rests with the scent of buttercup to his nose just in time to rise for work.

In the story “Spring: Where the River Is More Blue?” Marcovaldo, attempting to provide pure nourishment for his family during a treacherous time of food contaminated with chemicals or otherwise unfit, turns fisherman. His search for clear water leads him to a tiny blue pool outside the city. There, he lands a large blue fish only to be informed that it has been poisoned by a nearby paint factory. The fish returns to water and swims away.

In several other stories, Marcovaldo finds himself the victim of his generous cures. The sharing of bounteous mushrooms lands him, his family, and a number of unfortunate city-dwellers in the hospital as does his patented wasp-sting treatment for the ills of rheumatism, arthritis, and lumbago; in another mishap, a rabbit stolen for stew is discovered to have been injected with the germs of a deadly disease. When Marcovaldo tries to follow the doctor’s advice he is equally unsuccessful as in “Spring: The Good Air” and “Summer: A Saturday of Sun, Sand, and Sleep,” where he takes a hot-sand treatment for his own rheumatism. Choosing a barge for his therapeutic burial and falling asleep, he wakes with a high-flying start when the barge, having drifted down-river, lodges on a sandbar. As he sails into the air, Marcovaldo muses that there is not even an inch of water for his landing, for he has wound up at the swimming area where the whole surface teems with splashers or floats. He has at least a fifty-fifty chance of taking someone else down with him.

Survival instincts sometimes outwit all the odds, as in the incident of the poisoned fish. Just as the satiric bite of these stories underscores a worthy struggle which has the strength to both tickle and instruct one, Marcovaldo sometimes comes out on top, or at least avoids, by luck or Providence, the worst consequence. His oldest son, Michelino, seems to have inherited this ability to sidestep adversity through innocence of vision.

After reading a fairy tale in which a woodcutter’s son chops firewood in the forest, Michelino, who has never seen a forest, finds a strange forest on the edge of the highway and brings the fuel home so that the family will not freeze. The sawed-up billboards do indeed provide heat. This fairy-tale result is brought about in part by the vanity of a potential arresting officer who, although he is so nearsighted as to be legally blind, refuses to wear glasses because he fears that they would undermine his authority. In the last story, Michelino perceives the misery of the richest child in town as genuine poverty and bestows on him the meager gifts he has been collecting for the less fortunate. Michelino must be the son of Santa Claus.

It seems that Marcovaldo is always rescued from the absolute despair of the deadly city, and his inadvertent journeys upward are brief glimpses of a transcendent reward beyond this city-world. In these twenty seasons corresponding to the poverty of Italy in the 1950’s and the illusive prosperity of the 1960’s, the various evils of progress—pollution, conspicuous consumption, governmental complexity, slums—increase their sway over human prowess, and if Marcovaldo is to survive the inevitable, he must trust the transformative power of his imagination. A vicarious journey to India provided by a motion picture turns into a real journey when Marcovaldo emerges from the theater to find the world utterly erased by thick fog in the story “Winter: The Wrong Stop.” Wandering to what he thinks is his usual tram, Marcovaldo finds “himself suspended in a space impossible to imagine: at times, up above, red and green lights appeared, arranged in irregular figures, like constellations.” He hurtles into a void, thinking himself dead until he winds up, surrounded by turbaned Indians, on what he believes to be a bus. It is actually an airplane headed for Singapore by way of Bombay. The film has become real (or Marcovaldo has entered the film) through the “nothingness” created by the fog. The fog allowed his inner vision full sway.

The subtle void into which the imagination must play its line to insure the human spirit’s survival waits again for Marcovaldo and his family when they visit the supermarket in “Winter: Marcovaldo at the Supermarket.” Shopping for recreation, unable to afford food, Domitilla, Marcovaldo, and their children pile carts full of items and lose their way attempting to bypass the checkers, to replace all the food before the store closes. Racing through the labyrinthine alleys and up escalators from floor to floor of the store, Marcovaldo leads them through a hole in the wall onto a teetering scaffold seven stories above the street. Miraculously, the void turns benevolent and opens its mouth to receive their booty. From their perspective, they look down once again and see the signs below them that advertise to consumers. They have escaped the burden of their spoils, but they are still hungry.

The duel of white and black, light and void, hare and wolf traces from the first spring to the last winter cycle of these stories. It is finally the duality of the word and the real expressing itself in a fusion of healthy imagination with the world. To readers of Calvino’s more recently written books, from Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968) to Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981), Marcovaldo’s translation presents a socially compassionate, a conservationist Calvino, and provides an integral stepping-stone in the growth of his aesthetic.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32

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.

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