Marcovaldo or the seasons in the city – Italo Calvino

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.

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Next up, I started reading Albert Camus’ The Plague this afternoon.

March Reading Recap

I finished three books last month, another very busy stretch in a particularly busy semester. I only finished the third because of spring break.

Exile and the Kingdom, Albert Camus
Five short stories by Camus, none of which share characters, form, or narrative structure, but all of which are linked by the anxieties of modern man. With one main exception, each story deals with the interaction between people and society, but from the margins. “The Adulterous Woman” escapes her cold marriage in the dark of night in order to experience the desert, “The Artist at Work” seeks refuge from the press of admirers and friends, and the schoolteacher in “The Guest” finds himself at odds with both the state and the rebels when he tries to express humanity. The stories were engaging, thoughtful, and melancholy, but if you like Camus they are worth reading. The settings are themselves antiquated, but the messages all-too relevant.

The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino
Cosimo Piuvasco, heir to the Barony of Rondo, was twelve when he last set foot on ground. He rebels against the rule of his parents and the culinary monstrosities prepared by his sister and takes to the trees, where he lives out his life, corresponding with intellectuals, protecting the fields, hunting, and carrying on love affairs. The story is told through the narration of Cosimo’s younger brother, who relays the curiosities of his brother’s existence. Calvino weaves in elements of Aristophanes’ Clouds, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and a myriad of other adventure tales in order to relate this fanciful story of arboreal existence. This is a delightfully whimsical story that didn’t contain the weight or gravitas of a lot of other books, but I enjoyed it all the more for it. The Baron in the Trees was probably my favorite read of the month simply because it was just so much fun to read.

The Deaths of Tao, Wesley Chu
The second book in Chu’s series, of which I reviewed the first book, The Lives of Tao, here. Chu keeps most of the trademark elements that made the first one so much fun to read, including the pacing and the fight scenes, but complicates the story through structure, content, and characters. The story is set several years past the events of The Lives of Tao and it is no longer the fairly straightforward hero’s journey archetypal story since, for the most part, the heroes have come of age and are now down to the mature task of saving the world…and, of course, things aren’t going particularly well on that front. The Gengix have now taken to conducting experiments in order to make life on earth conducive to their needs, as well as becoming ever less subtle in their methods. I preferred the first book, I think, not because it was worse–by most measures it was a better more sophisticated story–but because it was not as refreshing as the first one was. I still enjoyed it a great deal and look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

Since March ended, I read a collection of stories called The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Next up is Drew Magary’s preapocalytic novel The Postmortal.

August Reading Recap

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
A series of conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. For the most part, Invisible Cities is Marco Polo describing to the Khan the peculiarities of the cities he saw on his journeys; much of the rest is the Khan taking the reigns of the imaginary descriptions. Thematically the book examines cities (both form and function), communication across language, and Truth in the sense of whether there is a Form behind everything to which specifics must be added or whether every possibility exists in the universal city from which particulars are removed to form the specific city. It is possible to structurally chart the individual stories within the book and it is possible to just read each individual story for the imaginative descriptions of the cities, many of which are wonderful little vignettes, but I had trouble tying the two together. As has my experience with most post-modern literature, my inability to reconcile the form and the content leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Invisible Cities is still worth reading, it just was not among my favorites–which was a recurring theme for my August reading.

The Castle , Franz Kafka
A book that is not likely to rise on my list of favorite books, this statement should not diminish the brilliance of The Castle. Kafka’s incomplete novel is an excruciating tour de force about bureaucracy. Halfway through the book it seemed to me that Kafka was playing a relentless,vicious joke on the reader and the fact that the book just trails off instills in this reader a sense of the eternality of bureaucracy more effectively than any actual conclusion could. The story was effective, but it was almost too effective and I have decided that, at least in the near future, I will only read Kafka’s shorter works.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene
Set in French Indochina, The Quiet American is the story of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist who is covering the war between Vietnamese nationalists and the French and an American, Alden Pyle, who is working against Communist influence in Vietnam. The novel is decidedly anti-war, and, while interesting, all of the featured characters had enough odious characteristics that I never really connected with any of them and therefore didn’t like the book as much as I expected.

Tyrant Banderas, Ramon del Valle-Inclan
Another book that I expected to like more than I did, Tyrant Banderas, is one of the first novels about tyranny in Latin America (originally published in 1929). The introduction to the book indicates that it is a rarely translated book, in part because del Valle-Inclan included multiple dialects of written Spanish that are hard to duplicate in English. Perhaps as a result of these dialect issues, there were certain spots of the translation that were just strange English, particularly with types of dialogue that may have been faithful to the Spanish but awkward (at best) English–what appeared to be the type of idiomatic exclamation that just aren’t used in even a facsimile of dialogue. That said, like other stories of Latin America, there were excellent descriptions of tyranny, colonialism, and some unforgettable descriptions of characters. Tyrant Banderas was probably my favorite book among those I read this month, but more in the sense that I was glad to have read it than in that I adored the book.

Future reading: I just finished a David Foster Wallace short story collection and am reading The Rebel by Albert Camus next.