Italo Calvino has long been on my list of foreign writers of the fantastic who have been deeply influential to SFF writers while remaining only tangential to the genre. This would include the great Jorge Luis Borges, as well as Stanislaw Lem. All these writers revel in philosophical musings, magic realism, and intellectual play. They belong to the deeper end of the fantastic literature swimming pool, but adventurous readers and authors have often plunged into those depths to one degree or another.
Invisible Cities was first published in Italian in 1972 but appeared in English in 1974 and was a surprise nominee for the Nebula Award in 1976. It is a unique and almost unclassifiable work, a 165-page collection of brief 1-2 page vignettes much like prose poems, describing 55 cities all with women’s names. The book’s structure is very formalized, being further broken down into 11 themes: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities & Eyes, Cities & Names, Cities & the Dead, Cities & the Sky, Continuous Cities, and Hidden Cities. Given the number of hidden cities embedded in the stories, the real total is much higher.
Each vignette is brief and without characters — it simply described each city in poetic imagery. It is difficult to do justice to the incredible variety of cities that Calvino conjures from his imagination, so I will choose a single sample at random. Essentially any passage in the book is quotable, but conversely no single passage can encompass the myriad ideas and emotions that the book explores and conjures up. Here is an early passage from Cities & Desire:
But with all this, I would not be telling you the city’s true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.
These stories are then framed by a recurring dialogue between an aged Kublai Khan and young adventurer Marco Polo. Polo is asked by the Khan to regale him with exotic tales of his travels to the far parts of the Khan’s vast empire, but as Invisible Cities progresses, Khan begins to question the reality of many of Polo’s more fantastic tales, and also turns the tables and offers his own ideas of imaginary cities. Their discussion becomes increasingly metaphysical, as the veracity of these cities is questioned, along with the capacity for language to capture the essence of these fabulous places. There is much debate over the nature of storytelling, imagination, and metaphysics. Again, a brief sample:
Marco Polo — It has neither name nor place. I shall repeat the reason why I was describing it to you: from the number of imaginable cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled without a connecting thread, an inner rule, a perspective, a discourse. With cities, it is as with dreams; everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like daydreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
The cities that Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan are exactly that — dreams of the imagination, depictions of ideas, emotions, philosophies, semiotics, and explorations of language and poetry. So the book itself can be entered at any point, and any single conclusion may point to one aspect of the overall meaning of the book but will never encompass it completely. In more direct terms, the significance of this book cannot be narrowed to a single idea or phrase, but it touches on all these things, a literary experiment by a very daring intellect, and each reader will have varying emotional reactions to Invisible Cities. If that sounds like something you would like to try it should be a rewarding experience, as Kat and Bill felt (5 stars for them). If you prefer more traditional character- and plot-based storytelling, then it might be better to skip it (3 stars in that sense). Overall, I will assign it 4 stars.
I loved Invisible Cities so much that after I finished the audio version, I purchased a print copy for my coffee table and bought copies for some of my friends. I don’t disagree with anything Stuart says about the book — we just had different reactions.
Invisible Cities is certainly not a book to read for plot, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it straight through, either. I’d read the individual city “stories” as short meditations that are metaphors for life, memory, travel, love, and other aspects of the human experience and human nature. Every city, every image, is a metaphor and, as Stuart said, readers are likely to take away different interpretations.
Invisible Cities is highly imaginative and philosophical with an elaborate, even mathematical structure. I admired everything about it and now I want to go read it again. The audio version is narrated by John Lee, who is wonderful.
I can’t remember when it was exactly that I fell in love with Invisible Cities, only that it was long ago and that Calvino had me within the first page or two. I’d never seen anything like it — its precise formality, its prose poetry, its linked vignettes and vivid imagery, the denseness of its sheer quotability, the way one could pause over a line first for its beauty and then linger over it for its condensed insights. As Stuart says, open the book at random and you’ll find a quotable passage.
It didn’t take long for me to devour much of Calvino’s other works (Cosmicomics is my second favorite, followed closely by If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler, but really, they’re all good), and not much after that I found Borges and Marquez and then many others working in similar vein. But of them all, Calvino and especially Invisible Cities are the ones I come back to time and time again. I have a copy upstairs, I have a copy downstairs, and I have a copy on my Kindle (which means I have a copy on my Kindle, my iPad, and my iPhone). And I’ve read it (or some of it) on each of those devices. As Kat says, one needn’t, or perhaps even shouldn’t — though I’m off mixed minds on that — read it straight through despite its slimness, so like a favorite book of poems it makes for a wonderful constant companion. The book you can pick up, or pull up, and read — from the beginning, the middle, from near the end — a few pages of when the mood strikes, when you can’t sleep, when you feel the need for some sharp beauty, when you want to muse on larger things than the day-to-day toil of your life. Not for everyone surely, though everyone should try it. On our star rating I’d give it a five of course, but honestly, that just feels petty and penurious. You don’t rank the ones you love.