As I mentioned in my review of his “The Written World and the Unwritten World” in January, 2023 is the centenary year of the birth of the great author Italo Calvino. I’ve written about my love of his books many times, and the release of “Unwritten” brought me great joy. I was also delighted to stumble across recently the ‘A Plunge Into Calvinopodcast, which has so far provided some marvellous listening treats on a variety of the great man’s works. The podcast is also promoting a Twitter #calvinobookclub to encourage readalongs of a book a month; and although I managed to run out of time for the titles during January and February, I’m delighted that I was able to join in with March and revisit Calvino’s wonderful book, “Marcovaldo” (translated here by his long-term translator, William Weaver).

The book was first published in 1963 with the full title of “Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City“, and that title *is* very apt. The book gathers short fictions featuring events in the life of the titular Marcovaldo, a peasant turned manual labourer who struggles to cope with life in an industrial town in Northern Italy. Living in a sub basement with his wife Domitilla plus several children of indeterminate age, he appears as a kind of hapless Italian Everyman, working hard for a meagre living and longing for peace and quiet and the country.

Shoveling snow is no game, especially on an empty stomach; but Marcovaldo felt the snow was a friend, an element that erased the cage of walls which imprisoned his life.

The stories are structured in groups of four, taking place in five cycles of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and we follow Marcovaldo as he lives through a number of adventures. The opening tale “Mushrooms in the city” sets the tone, as Marcovaldo (and every other hungry worker) is transfixed by crops of wild mushrooms which appear out of nowhere; but the after effects are not pleasant. Food is often at the root of things, and attempts at fishing, catching birds, and even fattening up a rabbit go disastrously wrong – never quite in the way you might expect, but always because of the modern world. Health is an ongoing issue, with rheumatism and its attempted cures causing more problems for the ill-starred Marcovaldo. Even his efforts to improve the condition of a pot plant at his factory goes wrong, and his well-meaning attempts to entertain or instruct his children always meet with obstacles. Underlying all of this is the increasing modernisation of the city; “The forest on the superhighway” was a particularly funny and pointed look at capitalist advertising and how billboards are of more use as firewood to the poor worker of Italy.

Cold has a thousand shapes and a thousand ways of moving in the world: on the sea it gallops like a troop of horses, on the countryside it falls like a swarm of locusts, in the cities like a knife-blade it slashes the streets and penetrates the chinks of unheated houses.

As the seasons turn and time passes, the world of the city continues to change (and this perhaps reflects the fact that some of the stories were written in the 1950s, whereas later ones are from the 1960s, within the burgeoning comsumer society). These tales take in lots of issues, and as well as being quirky, evocative and sometimes surreal, there’s a critique of city life and consumer society which can’t be missed. The conflict between city and country runs through the stories, and there is a subtext (which is not always so sub…) of the dehumanising effect of modern city life. However, Calvino always handles this with a light touch, and the stories are beautifully written, often very moving and very clever. A wonderful example of this is the opening paragraph of story 16, one of the ‘Winter’ pieces entitled “Marcovaldo at the supermarket” and I make no excuse for quoting it at length!

At six in the evening the city fell into the hands of the consumers. All during the day the big occupation of the productive public was to produce: they produced consumer goods. At a certain hour, as if a switch had been thrown, they stopped production and, away!, they were all off, to consume. Every day an impetuous flowering barely had time to blossom inside the lighted shop-windows, the red salamis to hang, the towers of porcelain dishes to rise to the ceiling, the rolls of fabric to unfurl folds like peacock’s tails, when lo! the consuming throng burst in, to dismantle, to gnaw, to grope, to plunder. An uninterrupted line wound along all the sidewalks and under the arcades, extended through the glass doors of the shops to all the counters, nudged onwards by each individual’s elbows in the ribs of the next, like the steady throb of pistons. Consume! And they touched the goods and put them back and picked them up again and tore them from one another’s hands; consume! and they forced the pale salesladies to display on the counter linen and more linen; consume! and the spools of colored string spun like tops, the sheets of flowered paper fluttered their wings, enfolding purchases in little packages, and the little packages in big packages, bound, each, with its butterfly knot. And off went packages and bundles and wallets and bags; they whirled around the cashier’s desk in a clutter, hands digging into pocketbooks seeking change-purses, and fingers rummaging in change-purses for coins, and down below, in a forest of alien legs and hems of overcoats, children no longer held by the hand became lost and started crying.

However, many of the stories are surreal and dreamlike, as Marcovaldo wrestles with the blankness and oddness of city living, following cats back to hidden colonies they’ve made, or becoming so lost in the fog that he ends up in a most alarming situation. Marcovaldo sees the city at different times and in different ways than do many of its inhabitants, and in “The City All To Himself” seems to be the last man remaining in town, prompting speculation as to whether the city only exists when it is populated…

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

When I think back to my early reading of Calvino, I suspect that at the time I was so dazzled by ‘If on a winter’s night…’ that none of his other works compared to it for me. Revisiting his various books over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate deeply just how good they are and just what an all-round brilliant writer he was. The ‘Complete Cosmicomics‘ was a bit of a revelation, and ‘Marcovaldo’ has been the same, mixing humour, pathos, atmospheric writing and social critique. I now fully intend to keep re-reading Calvino during 2023; there are good reasons I think of him so highly, and ‘Marcovaldo’ is one of them!!