Plunging into Calvino – the second part of my podcast guest appearance!!!! 😀 @calvinopodcast


Following on from last week’s arrival of the first part of my podcast guest appearance, part two is now up and live! So you can hear me rambling away with podcaster Philip Marsh about ‘Cosmicomics’, a favourite of Calvino book, ‘Invisible Cities’ and much more.

As Philip explained, it may be that the two parts don’t marry up completely as the original recording of the first part went mysteriously AWOL and so we had to re-record it. But hopefully you’ll enjoy listening to us conversing about Calvino (and plenty of other topics) so do go and have a listen – you can find part two here. And, of course, as I said before, try to read some Calvino in his centenary year – there are rich reading rewards awaiting you!!

Plunging into Calvino – in which I make a rare podcast guest appearance!!!! 😀 @calvinopodcast


Regular Ramblings readers will no doubt have noticed the focus so far this year on Italo Calvino, one of my favourite authors whose centenary year 2023 just happens to be! I’ve been following the A Plunge Into Calvino podcast, and also the #CalvinoBookclub which podcaster Philip Marsh has been hosting on Twitter. So when Philip asked if I would like to be a guest on the Plunge podcast, I was keen to get involved!

Now, I’m not a regular podcaster – in fact, I’ve only ever taken part in one before, when I was a guest on Simon at Stuck in a Book’s ‘Tea or Books’, all the way back in 2018 – so I was a little bit uncertain as how it would go, as no-one really likes the sound of their own voice, do they! However, all went well and the podcast was recorded in two parts – well, actually in three, as there was a slight mishap as Philip explains at the beginning of part one!! 🤣🤣

So the first part of the podcast is now available here and if you fancy listening to us rambling on about Calvino (and plenty of other topics) do go and have a listen. And, of course, try to read some Calvino in his centenary year!

“It’s a question of social structure…” #CalvinoBookClub #Smog #ItaloCalvino @calvinopodcast


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!! 😀

“In every human presence Marcovaldo recognized sadly a brother…” #calvinobookclub @calvinopodcast


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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, 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!!


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