Pamelyn Casto, Contributing Editor for Flash Discourse
A Close Reading of Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl”
Read the story online.
Or read it in Sudden Fiction International: Sixty Short-Short Stories, edited by Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas. New York: Norton, 1989.
Some stories can provide an amazing amount of instruction to aspiring writers and Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl” certainly has much to teach. It is a bewitching story and any writer who takes the time to examine the writing techniques in the story will come away with the feeling of having learned plenty about the difficult art of writing. The unforgettable story is disturbing, is disturbingly humorous, and is a wonderful piece of social satire. It is an outstanding piece of magical realism as well.
To explore the magical realism characteristics of this story I take my direction from Wendy Faris’ article, “Sheherazade’s Children” (which is from Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris).
Many claim the intent of magical realism is to “out-real” the writers of realism. In this story there is an “irreducible element” of magic– something that can’t be explained according to what we know of the laws of the universe. In this piece the small amount of time it takes to fall from a skyscraper is extended to an extremely long time. Marta, the falling girl, before she finally hits the bottom (if she ever actually does), goes from a nineteen- year- old to an old woman. In magical realism style the story provides a disruption of the ordinary logic of cause and effect, a disruption of our ideas of time passing, and the world depicted has become magical as the girl falls from the skyscraper.
Another characteristic of magical realism is the strong presence of the material world and this story contains many realistic details (and this is what helps distinguish magical realism from much allegory and fantasy). The world/ city described resembles the one in which we live and the strong, almost baroque attention to details in the beginning sets up a continuation of the realist tradition. But at the same time the reader is lured by the magical details leading elsewhere. Because the description is so “full,” I wanted to continue reading to see what Buzatti would do with that fullness.
Magical realism often interrogates the usual ideas about space, time, and identity. Wonders are narrated without comment in a matter-of-fact way thus achieving a defamiliarization. Many writers of magical realism often take on an anti-establishment, anti-bureaucratic stance. The style of magical realism in Buzzati’s story provides a fine method or strategy for presenting social satire and social commentary.
All that said, now comes a closer look at other writing strategies Buzzati employs. Each paragraph of analysis relates to paragraphs encountered in “the fall.”
In the first paragraph Marta, a nineteen-year-old girl, is overcome with dizziness when looking out over the roof of a skyscraper. Many people experience this dizziness so the opening provides a common experience to begin working with. This feeling is something recognizable, a feeling many share so the writer sets up a place where we all have something in common with Marta.
Another common experience– being inspired by the beauty of what we see before us. So that is another common experience the writer uses to begin the story. He points out that those not blind are “swept away” by this spectacular beauty. As a reader I am also swept away and further identify with Marta’s experiences. Since we share these experiences, I am connecting with this literary character.
The language turns a bit more ominous with the second paragraph–“writhing in the long spasm of sunset” . . . the rising of the sea . . . the city a “sweet abyss” with pulsating lights…. advancing veils of the night . . . but the experience described is still relatively common experience. There is a fullness or lushness to the language which is effective to set up the view from the skyscraper. This description is realistic but at the same time quite poetic and quite engorged. I get a sense that this writer is setting me up to pull the rug out from under me. The description is too gorgeous to sustain itself and I expect something will come of it.
The story contains wonderful description of a powerful city and its inhabitants. But things then make a turn toward strong satire– powerful men and even more powerful women in darkened mansions, the “consuming sorcery of the evening which provokes dreams of greatness and glory.” Note that the sorcery provokes dreams and not necessarily the realization of the dreams of greatness and glory.
Marta is a girl without hope. She hopelessly leans out and then lets herself go. And in the next-to-last sentence readers are alerted that this fall might take an unusual amount of time—an effective foreshadowing of what is to come.
Rich and elegant people inhabit the upper floors and balconies. They sip their cocktails and make silly conversation. Without any show of surprise these rich and elegant people look out of their windows to watch Marta fall. Then a startling statement is made: these girls jumping from the roofs of the skyscraper is the reason the rents are so expensive. The plight of these hopeless and poor girls provides a few moments of diversion for the wealthy and upper crust high-rise tenants. At this point Buzzati’s fully locked into social commentary and satire.
How fortunate that the setting sun illuminated Marta’s simple clothing–making it appear “chic.” How terrible it would be to have the rich people offended by an off-the-rack garment appearing before their so-tasteful eyes. What a lyrical light the sun is sharing, all for the benefit of the socially elite.
Wonderful (horrible) dialogue and conversation is included. Marta is offered drinks and flowers and requests that this “gentle butterfly” linger for a moment. None of the offers are actual help since Marta serves as a diversion from their drinking and their silly conversations.
Marta doesn’t want to upset the rich and elegant people and will not say where she is headed. They know, of course, but it is most interesting that she doesn’t want to upset them. She knows her place and is happy to be momentary friends with these exceptionally fine and privileged people, as if she has been indoctrinated into thinking they truly are the best of people and she is fortunate in making their acquaintance and having them accept her. She doesn’t reveal to them what her jump actually means. She creates the right impression for these people she wants to impress.
When Marta passes the distinguished young man she is close to having a speck of love in her life but it is too late. So she speaks to this upper crust man in respectful words and gives him a friendly little tap on the nose for extending his arm that could have snatched her back from her certain doom.
Marta, for a span of time, is of interest to these people. She is the talk of the skyscraper– and the people had to decide if she was pretty or not—her looks are of most importance to them and they must judge. But she held everyone’s interest . . . for a while. And Marta feels fascinating and stylish for a change. At last she is interesting to the important people!
The questions and statements are wonderful. She is in such a hurry in her falling but she can still find ways to “busy” herself. She is invited to stop in at their “modest little party among friends”– and they assure her she will have a good time. (Good times are important.)
Marta’s fall is patterned after her life, rushing around gaily at nineteen. And all this has taken place as she falls and as time is expanding. She has fallen only four floors at this point in the story but the street always seems far away. She is still far away from the bottom street level. Time is suspended as Marta hovers in her extraordinarily slow descent.
I worried for a moment that these watching elites would have to see her off-the-rack dress for what it was but the good setting sun plunged into the sea and transformed into a shimmering reddish mushroom. Now Marta appears to them as gilded as she gradually passes by.
Another startling sentence– “one could divine something akin to envy”. People on lower floors are at their boring jobs, already weary themselves, and they see her falling too. But they view her with envy. Marta has now made her way to the work-a-day world and has left the world of the glittering elites. She has come down a considerable distance now. Again Marta is still sweet and friendly and asks forgiveness that she can’t stop for a while. She is no longer a seductive comet and at this point she begins to feel cold. And Buzzati notes how “the night had craftily fallen (emphasis mine).
Down below are swarms of people, more rich people with long black cars. Marta can even make out the sparkling of their jewels. So at the top of the skyscraper are rich elites and here at the bottom are more of the same.
Then the story changes a bit. Marta in her descent hopes to enter the glittering world of the elites (a heaven of sorts to her). There she might find what she wants– fate, romance, and her true entrance into her life. She is now worried about making her entrance on time. So what looked like suicide in the beginning of the story takes on another costume, another shape. At this point Marta is hoping for a fairy tale to come true for her.
Then a rival enters the scene– someone prettier than Marta and someone wearing more of the type of clothing of the elite crowd Marta wants to embrace. Here we are shown that Marta is not all sweetness. She does not like rivals who will arrive at the party before she does. So the story is turning more and more toward fairy tale at this point—there is concern about being late for the party. More and more girls plunge down from the skyscraper. These girls, unlike Marta, ask to be entertained and ask if the world is not theirs.
The fall is turned into a contest, then. And Marta had only a shabby little dress while those other girls were dressed smartly like high-fashion models and some even wrapped luxurious mink stoles tightly around their bare shoulders. These girls have material advantages Marta does not have. So while she was self-assured when she began her fall, Marta now felt a tremor growing inside her; perhaps it was just the cold; but it may have been fear too, the fear of having made an “error without remedy.” Marta is now having second thoughts.
Buzzati adds some particularly lonely description: the activity in never-never land has ceased and though the lights are still on, the entrance light has been extinguished.
Now what appeared as suicide in the beginning of the story has fully morphed into a fairy tale. Marta wants to make her entrance at the ball. But the first glimmer of dawn is now spreading. Cinderella, in the form of Marta, likely isn’t going to make it to the ball on time. Now she looks up to see the pinnacle of the skyscraper in “all its cruel power.” She’s been “bewitched” (as have so many of us).
She is now in the realm of the lower levels… the twenty-eighth floor. Marta’s been falling so long that she’s now a decrepit old woman who is described as looking frightened.
Once more Buzatti brings us back to the price of rent. The upper floor tenants pay more because the falling girls are young and beautiful. Here at the lower floors all the tenants see are old women passing before their windows. Hence they pay much lower rent because the view is not as great. Then Buzzati inserts another startling statement: lower floors have the advantage because the tenants can hear the thud when the women have ended their fall. That thud is painted as a pleasant sound.
Now what in the world does it mean that Marta leaves no trace of sound? In her case there was not even a thud the tenants longed to hear. And the disinterested way the man merely sips his coffee is also startling.
So is poor Marta left still descending, caught forever in the position of going down, down, down but never reaching the bottom? Or was her landing so insubstantial that it didn’t even make a sound? I guess the words of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters (Bokonon) are fitting here—“I leave it to you to figure out.” It is also interesting that Buzzati shows only women falling from the top. Men make such falls too but his focus is on the falling women.
This story is a fine example of what Lionel Trilling said about Hemingway’s “sketches”…”the meaning of the story is the sensation of understanding which it creates in us.” I cannot say exactly what I have understood but I have the sensation of having understood it– to the very depths of my soul.
About the writer:
Pam Casto, a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), in Fiction Southeast, in Abstract Magazine, and in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new collection titled Critical Insights: Flash Fiction (2017).