Monday, March 24, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

This week’s “Something Old” is written by a guest reviewer, the novelist KIRSTEN McDOUGALL, whose outstanding debut novel “The Invisible Rider” was reviewed on this blog in October 2012 (Look it up on the blog’s index at right). She has chosen to call this review “In Praise of the Imagination

“MARCOVALDO” by Italo Calvino (first published in Italian 1963, English translation 1983). Reviewed by KIRSTEN McDOUGALL

When I write, I keep a touchstone book on my desk that I read to begin my writing day. It’s a way to ease myself into the quiet concentration that writing requires. These books get chosen, and sometimes obsessed over. Somehow they manage to outwit all the other books piled through the house with their odd forms, singular characters or prose rhythms. (A good prose sentence can be as catchy as a pop song.) These books, by the sheer charisma of their form, plotting, language and versions of dreaminess act as both a yardstick and encouragement to my own writing.
Marcovaldo by Italian novelist, Italo Calvino (best known for his short stories Cosmicomics and his novel If on a winter’s night, a traveller) was one book I kept on my desk for about three years as I tried to write my first book, The Invisible Rider. It is a book I fell for because of its inventive form, humour and surrealism. Having reread it to write this, I’m delighted to find I still love it.
Marcovaldo is a series of short fictions, surreal and hilarious adventures featuring the titular hero. The entire book is only 121 pages in total but marks five years – each chapter being one season. (Someone told me recently they hated books with seasons as chapter titles, but maybe they hadn’t read this one.) Marcovaldo himself is a factory worker in an industrial northern Italian city, a man who lives in a tiny basement flat with his wife, the long-suffering Domitilla and his six small children. Calvino writes in the foreword that we should imagine the early stories in a poor Italy ‘the Italy of neo-realistic movies’, while the last stories are set when ‘the illusions of an economic boom flourished.’ I mention this because economic realities and politics of the time are lightly apparent throughout the book, indeed they suffuse what Marcovaldo does and what is done to him. Whether it’s the harshness of recent post-war Italy, or the illusory economic ‘boom’ (rocks star economy, anyone?) that Calvino refers to, we see how economics, and the politics that govern them, have no sympathy for a man like him – a man who hasn’t the wits for commercial enterprise, although he is always enterprising in a screwy, unprofitable way. Calvino makes him a hero, albeit a clumsy, tactless, hopeless sort of hero. Despite his hard life Marcovaldo is, to quote Paul Simon, ‘soft in the middle’.
So while Marcovaldo has no choice in terms of his material life, (at one point he swaps his tin lunch box with its meagre sausage and ‘pale and shifty’ turnip contents for a wealthy boy’s equally disregarded lunch of fried brains) he lives in an imagination that’s as brilliant as a King’s treasure room. In ‘The Wrong Stop’ Marcovaldo steps out of the cinema – a Technicolor film set in the forests of India— and into a pea-soup fog of an evening. He wanders around unable to see a thing, lost in his own neighbourhood. The fog offers the ‘perfect situation for daydreaming, for projecting in front of himself, wherever he went, a never-ending film on a boundless screen.’
Perhaps we might read the whole book as a Technicolor dream –Wikipedia describes surrealism’s aim being to ‘resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality’. Marcovaldo uses fog the way some people use drugs – to transform the unbearable dreariness of everyday. There is a delight and playfulness in the way Calvino serves up this escapism – he starts this chapter in fog, and by the end, Marcolvaldo having stumbled on a wine bar and gotten lost again, finds himself on a plane to Bombay. Perhaps this is part of the ‘illusion of the economic boom’ – international travel in all its exoticism and imagined luxury. Yet Marcovaldo’s trip abroad is just as delusional. The cinema of dreams and the fog coalesce, and yes, we will go along for the ride and let Marcovaldo believe he is on a plane to India. Somehow Calvino lets us laugh at his folly, and, watch him tenderly. Don’t we all sometimes wish we could immerse ourselves in the worlds of the films we love most?
The stories in Marcovaldo are small stories, little crazy plots. To give an example, here’s a summary of one chapter, ‘The Poisonous Rabbit.’ Marcovaldo steals a rabbit from hospital that has been used, unknowingly to him, for vaccine-testing. He likes this shy rabbit, hopes to keep it as a pet and fatten it up for a future roast. He loses it, then gets his suburb locked-down while authorities try to recapture the bio-risk, disease-ridden rabbit, which upon trying to escape across the apartment roofs, has been shot at by a neighbour with a gun.
The rabbit heard the shot all around, and one pellet pierced its ear. It understood: this was a declaration of war; at this point all relations with mankind were broken off. And in its contempt of humans, at what seemed
            to the rabbit, a base ingratitude, it decided to end it all.’  
The forlorn and suicidal rabbit tries to hop off the roof, but fails, landing in the hand of a gloved fireman; ‘foiled even in that extreme act of animal dignity’. 

‘A base ingratitude’ – this is one of the returning ideas in Marcovaldo – the ingratitude of human beings towards one another and towards nature. That sounds heavy-handed and sad, but Calvino always works these ideas with special brand of bittersweet humour. Marcovaldo is ungrateful to his wife (to be fair, she is a haranguing caricature), but he is ever filled with wonder towards nature and the peculiar modified forms of nature a city produces. The powers that be – Marcovaldo’s boss, his wife, and ‘the head of the Personnel Office’ – will never be grateful for a man like Marcovaldo, but there is something he has that is beyond their grasp – his own imagination. In Calvino, imagination is transformative and indefinable. It is the jack-hare followed by the wolf in the final paragraph of the book. The wolf follows the jack-hare’s paw prints in the snow but as soon as it catches up, the jack-hare disappears again, becomes invisible: ‘Only the expanse of snow could be seen, white as this page.’
At a Writers Week in Wellington in a few years ago I heard David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) insinuate that people who say they love Calvino are literary snobs. I wanted to stand up and shout him down (I didn’t because I’m a polite New Zealander) because he made Calvino sound ‘difficult’ and ‘worthy’, and I do not think Calvino is either of these things – although he is praise-worthy. Had Mitchell ever read Calvino? Because if he had, he’d know that at his best he’s one of the funniest, most absurd and kindest of writers around. He writes a nuanced, unsettling sentence (his translator was the late, great, William Weaver – also Umberto Eco’s translator). His paragraphs somehow start out plainly and end up in some strange, contradictory, animal point of view in the literary equivalent of quantum mechanics that says you can be in two places at once – one foot with the wolf, one foot with the disappeared jack-hare.

Here is a link to a fantastic Paris Review interview [ http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2027/the-art-of-fiction-no-130-italo-calvino] between Calvino and Weaver.

1 comment:

  1. "His paragraphs somehow start out plainly and end up in some strange, contradictory, animal point of view in the literary equivalent of quantum mechanics that says you can be in two places at once – one foot with the wolf, one foot with the disappeared jack-hare." Wonderful!