October 25, 2007

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino, 1972

[Editorial note: Ah, feels nice to have huge horrible life-changes out of the way and to be back here blogging again!]

My first Calvino was Cosmicomics, which I essayed for the first time in high school, on my parents' recommendation. I definitely grasped the whimsy and greatness of it, but it wasn't until reading it again for a class in college, and starting to branch out into his other books, that I came to see it as genius-level stuff. It's difficult for me to pick favorites among his works, but Invisible Cities speaks to me in a more personal way, so I often turn to it first when I'm on a Calvino kick.

In a lot of ways, the fact that I could enjoy and appreciate this stuff at fifteen goes to the heart of what makes Calvino so great. His plain but considered prose (well, as far as I can tell in translation), his sense of the fantastic and the absurd, his ecstasy at the power of language and narrative. It's akin to the sense I get from reading fanfiction, or stories written by junior-high students: giddiness over the power and possibility of authorship.

Of course, unlike fanfic authors, Calvino has subtlety in addition to enormity, generosity in addition to sympathy. He has myriad narrative tools at his disposal, and he has a deeply ironic sense of human history and the human condition. Postmodern and playful, but to a purpose.

Narrative doesn't really exist in this book, or not in the usual sense anyway. There are certainly hints of it that tend to spiral back on themselves, and there's a framing conceit of Marco Polo in conversation with Kublai Khan, which does have a momentum and forward-drive to it, but that's a small thing to hang a whole book on. The meat of the work is somewhere around a hundred descriptions of cities, each one or two pages long.

Of course, being astute readers, we know that cities are never just cities. They are maps of the human mind, they are histories of civilizations, and - in Calvino's elegantly reflexive way - they are works of literature. I have a particular attraction to fiction about cities, whether real or imagined, and this may be the best set of observations on urbanity I've read (I'll have to bring this book up again when I get around to writing about China Mieville's novels). Crazily, there's an actual hotel in Spain, the guest rooms of which are modelled after some of the cities described in the book.

The book is put together with the author's usual mania about structural detail - sets of five city-descriptions, with sub-topics in a set rotating order, interspersed with conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The focus on mechanics seems especially apt here, since a book about cities should involve a certain amount of architecture, no?

But the real draw is the imagistic language, the effortless sweeping prose, the way small moments that are rarely more than brief descriptions of setting build into something stirring, sweeping, and fascinating:

"All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler's past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places."

What can you do but nod your head and breathe deeply when you read that?