Only Italo Calvino could write about the topics in this book with such a light and whimsical air. Marcovaldo is essentially a collection of modern folktales that embody the spirit of city living in mid 20th Century Italy; economic fragility and the shift from rural to urban life are the threads that tie each story together. The writing style draws similarities to some of his earlier (and best) Cosmicomics at points, yet the world Marcovaldo inhabits is nothing extraordinary. In fact the real virtue of this book is its ability to take a series of seemingly mundane situations and put a fantastical spin on them. Calvino tells each of these very short tales with a wink and a grin; he is always poking fun at the mundanity of modern city living, and it’s this aspect that makes it a lot of fun to read.
Kafka once wrote that:
we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
But I think one of the best aspects of Calvino’s writing, even in a book like this which is definitely not one of his best, is that he doesn’t feel the need to stab us with his words. At times he’ll throw some cheeky lines at you which are impossible not to chuckle over, and at times he’ll playfully nudge you with his delightful prose until you realise he’s actually making a profound point. In this book Calvino’s writing isn’t the axe that cuts through the frozen sea within us, it’s the warm water that melts through the ice.
I feel like giving Marcovaldo 3.5* is probably a fair assessment based on the fact that it was so short and so lighthearted, but that doesn’t mean to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. Some of the passages were just beautiful to read, and the sense of scene and setting that Calvino creates through each of the seasons makes me certain I’ll pick up this book again at some point in the future. In fact I’ll probably end up rating it higher once I’ve read some of the stories for themselves rather than reading them in order as part of this collection. The thought of reading The City Lost in Snow in the middle of winter, or Mushrooms in the City in the spring is definitely something I’m looking forward to.
I’ll leave you with probably my favourite passage from the book. Only Mr. Calvino could make an industrial city at night come alive so brilliantly:
The darkness that now reigned at roof-level made a kind of obscure barrier that shut out the world below, where yellow and green and red hieroglyphics continued to whirl, and the winking eyes of traffic-lights, and the luminous navigation of empty trams, and the invisible cars that cast in front of them the bright cone of their headlights. From this world only a diffuse phosphorescence rose up this high, vague as smoke. And raising your eyes, no longer blinded, you saw the perspective of space unfold, the constellations of expanded in depth, the firmament turning in every direction, a sphere that contains everything and is contained by no boundary, and only a thinning of its weft, like a breach opened towards Venus, to make it stand out alone over the frame of the earth, with its steady slash of light exploded and concentrated at one point.