I wanted to squeeze in a few thoughts about this month’s #CalvinoBookClub read, being hosted over on Twitter by the @calvinopodcast – I mentioned this in my revew of “Marcovaldo” and I think it’s a wonderful idea to encourage (re)reading of the great author Italo Calvino‘s work in his centenary year. April’s title is a short story/novella called “Smog” from 1958, a story I’ve read at least twice but can actually recall nothing about (although that says more about the state of my memory than Calvino’s writing…) It’s a work that you could easily read in one sitting, but it certainly has a lot of depth…

As you can see, I have two collections containing this story; “Difficult Loves” is my old edition from the 1980s and would have been the one I read first. However, as my lovely old Picador edition is getting a bit crumbly, I chose to re-read from the volume “The Watcher”, an American edition and a more recent acquisition. And from the start I found resonances with “Marcovaldo”.

The story is related by an unnamed narrator and opens with the bald statement, “That was a time when I didn’t give a damn about anything”, which somewhat sets the tone for the narrative. The man is arriving in a new city to take up a job with a publication, and from the start there is the sense that he is running from something – even himself perhaps! However, he finds lodgings and goes off to work for the journal “Purification” (which we later learn is the official publication of “The Institute for the Purification of the Urban Atmosphere in Industrial Centers.”). Here, he is to report to Commendatore Cordà, who is the nominal head of the Institute, and he works alongside the press officer, Signor Avandero. The narrator (or maybe Calvino…) is very cynical about just how easy it is to fling together one of these journals, although he does have to undergo a number of rewrites until he gets the tone quite right…

I purposely chose to walk in the most narrow, anonymous, unimportant streets, though I could easily have gone along those with fashionable shopwindows and smart cafés; but I didn’t want to miss the careworn expression on the faces of the passers-by, the shabby look of the cheap restaurants, the stagnant little stores, and even certain sounds which belong to narrow streets: the streetcars, the braking of pickup trucks, the sizzling of welders in the little workshops in the courtyards: all because that wear, that exterior clashing kept me from attaching too much importance to the wear, the clash that I carried within myself.

The narrator’s lodgings are fairly basic, and so he is alarmed by the sudden incursion of phone calls, and then a visit, from the rich and glamorous Claudia. Is she a girlfriend or lover? It certainly seems so, although the class difference between the two is glaringly obvious; Claudia  moves amongst the rich and famous, whereas our narrator is a  lowly managing editor, and it often seems as if the gulf between them is impossible to bridge. They quarrel and make up; Claudia comes and goes according to her whims; Cordà is revealed to have a day job that is in direct contradiction to his role at the institute; Avandero has an unexpected hobby; and all our narrator can do is try to get through every day – and keep clean…

That last comment is not a flippant one, because what I haven’t mentioned is the constant thread throughout the narrative of dirt and grime and filth and, well, smog! It’s more of a dominant element than a thread, to be honest; from the moment the man arrives in the station, he’s fixated with muck; his room is grimy and greasy, he’s constantly washing his hands and his clothes but can never stay clean, and there is the sense that the whole city is impregnated with smog and dust and dirt. However hard he tries, the narrator cannot keep himself or anthing else free of it, and I did feel for his concern about his books!

There are those who condemn themselves to the most gray, mediocre life because they have suffered some grief, some misfortune; but there are also those who do the same thing because their good fortune is greater than they feel they can sustain.

The smog dominates all elements of the plot: for example, Claudia seems untouched by it, which does suggest that it’s related to class and money as well as anything else. And when the pair travel to the hills for a discreet meal out, they can see down to the city and the pall of smog covering it – suggesting that the countryside and hills are clean, but the city is irretrievably polluted. Even the final scenes pit the cleanliness of the country against the filth of urban living, and it does seem that Calvino is contrasting sharply the two modes of living (as was much the case in “Marcovaldo”).  However, there is an additional element which creeps in towards the end when the narrator comes to realise that the threat from the atomic bomb is potentially thousands of times worse than a city smog, and the ending of the story could almost be considered as allegorical.

…the city was a lost world, a mill grinding out the means to escape it for those few hours and then return from country excursions, from trout fishing, and then from the sea, and from the mountains in summer, from the snapshots.

For a short work, “Smog” raises a lot of thoughts; from class conflict, the effects of pollution, the dulled way of life of those from lower classes, and through to wry commentary on the population’s inability to recognise the importance of events going on around them, Calvino’s work is still very, very relevant. There’s an important early recognition of the fact that modern technologies are affecting the planet (particularly in the descriptions of Cordà’s factory); and it’s worth remembering that this kind of thinking *was* on the agenda at the time, with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” coming out in 1962. However, Calvino’s story is less of a polemic, as there are elements of human isolation, poverty, the drudgery of everyday work, the class struggle and so much more built into “Smog”.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As always seems to be the case nowadays, I’m (re)reading the work of Italo Calvino with new eyes; “Marcovaldo” revealed depths I hadn’t recognised before, and the same is the case here. “Smog” is recognisably Calvinoesque, although perhaps with less humour than I found in “Marcovaldo”. Instead, I was left pondering on why class systems still exist, why we can’t have a more equal world and why the human race will not pull itself together and realise that unless we act soon we may have destroyed the only planet we have. I was also, as usual, knocked out by his writing; “Smog” is translated by his long-time translator William Weaver, and the pictures he paints of the grimy city are as vivid and memorable as any of his writings. A story to go back to, I think, and pick out even more nuances. In the meantime, I’m just glad the Calvino podcast is nudging me into these re-reads – I’m loving them!! 😀