In an unnamed north Italian city there is an unskilled worker named Marcovaldo with his wife Domitilla and many children. In the early 1950s the economy is particularly bad and Marcovaldo’s job at Sbav and co barely puts food on the table. But Marcovaldo is irrepressible, indulging in flights of fancy all the while looking for the natural world. By the 1960s the economy seems to be doing well, but Marcovaldo’s family still struggles and the newfound prosperity mostly succeeds in blotting out the simple things that he enjoys.
Marcovaldo is a series of twenty stories arranged in the cycles of seasons (Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter) that play out over a decade in the city. Other than being set in the same city and following the fantasies of Marcovaldo, a simple man who tries to help people, there is no overarching plot to this book. As such, Calvino relies on the strength of the individual stories, but I found them to be somewhat inconsistent. They are brilliant and poignant at their best, such as in “Mushrooms in the City” where Marcovaldo harvests mushrooms to eat and “Moon and GNAC” where modern advertising that features blinking lights obscures the moon. But others, such as “A journey with the cows,” where his son became a cowherd temporarily, the morals were resonant with the rest of the collection, but the story itself was somewhat lackluster.
There is an underlying economic narrative and an exploration of humans and their environment. The themes Calvino draws on are serious, but he spins them out with typical lightness and sense of whimsy. The sense of wonder is heightened because Marcovaldo is not corrupted by the gravity of the world, approaching everything with childlike wonder.
I enjoyed Marcovaldo and some of the individual vignettes were remarkable, but its very levity and lack of a strong plot meant that I didn’t revel in the story as much as I have with some of Calvino’s other books.
Next up, I started reading Albert Camus’ The Plague this afternoon.