Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 16, 2011

Invisible Cities

invisible citiesby Italo Calvino
translated by William Weaver

Conversations (both spoken and pipe smoke signaled) between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo – tales of Polo’s travels and all the cities he has seen – fill the few pages of this slim book. Polo’s stories of cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and design, cities and the dead, continuous cities, are told like dreams half remembered. At times the Great Khan understands them to be his own dreams, at other times he believes Polo describes not many cities but only one.

I enjoyed my first Calvino quite a bit. There were passages that merely amused or diverted me, and others that made me sit up and exclaim with delight or recognition. For a lover of details, this was a delectable tray of tantalizing treats. Descriptions of architecture, strange sights and sounds, odd chance encounters. Calvino explores space and time and memory, and just as Polo’s tales are simple and pleasing bits of distraction for the aged and tired mind of Kublai, so Calvino pokes and prods and points out in a way that slips into your mind under your very nose.

Calvino is the third author on my Oulipo reading list, a project that I am rather haphazardly pursuing. It is the richness of the details that I am seeing as a common thread between Perec, Queneau, and Calvino thus far. That, and startling bits of beauty amidst playful (even seemingly silly) word-craft.

Here’s a portion that I particularly liked – in fact it’s a spot where while reading Invisible Cities I found myself, at the end of the section, giving a crow of sharp, quick, kind of triumphant laughter, and then quite suddenly feeling the prick of tears. A brilliant moment:

Hidden Cities
In Raissa, life is not happy.
‘ (Polo goes on to describe a place of daily frustrations and misery.) ‘And yet, in Raissa, at every moment there is a child in a window who laughs to see a dog that has jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the top of the scaffolding, “Darling, let me dip into it,” to a young serving-maid who holds up a dish of ragout under the pergola, happy to serve it to the umbrella-maker who is celebrating a successful transaction, a white lace parasol bought to display at the races by a great lady in love with an officer who has smiled at her taking the last jump, happy man, and happier still his horse, flying over the obstacles, seeing a francolin flying in the sky, happy bird freed from its cage by a painter happy at having painted it feather by feather, speckled with red and yellow in the illumination of that page in the volume where the philosopher says: “Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.

The details, the patterns, the weave of the fabric that is life all strung together. Perec and Queneau and Calvino saw it and shared it in a way that helps me to see it better, and for that I thank them, and for that reason I’ll continue to read them.


  1. This was a treat, I remember. And reading your thoughts makes me excited to pull out another Calvino. How have you been, Sarah dear? I’ve been very bad and mostly invisible, not having joined even ONE conversation with you all. Missed you!

    • Aww Claire, we miss you too! I’ve been a bad commenter, but I’ve been enjoying your blog just as much as ever. I hope that (like myself) your life away from blogging is very good!

  2. I have to read another Calvino my first and only book by him so far was absolutely not to my liking. I even gave it away something I never do and can’t even remember the title. I think it had a Tarot card element. Not that I’m not fond of tarot cards but it was too whimsical in a bad way. I bought Palomar a while back, so you see, I have not given up hope that there will be the right Calvino novel for me as well. This sounds very good too.

    • Oh wow, you disliked it that much? Now I’m super curious to read that one! I do hope you find some Calvino you like, and admire your willingness to keep on investing your interest. Kudos!

  3. Like Caroline, I think I picked the wrong (for me) place to start with Calvino: I read his The Baron in the Trees and thought it was only OK, a bit cute for my liking. But this, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and The path to the nest of spiders all seem quite promising. Love that excerpt you posted. Will have to revisit Calvino soon.

    • I’ll be eager to see what another foray into Calvino brings you. The two books you mention are ones I want to pursue myself soon.

  4. oh how I love thee Calvino..!

    I took a class on Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, learned a bit about Oulipo.. great stuff. We were started on The Invisible Knight and The Cloven Viscount; two novellas which shared a volume. I would recommend anyone start with The Cloven Viscount. But also his collection Numbers in the Dark, there is bound to be a few short stories to woo the reader.
    ‘if on a winter’s night a traveler’ wasn’t for everyone, and some encourage to take it in pieces (read a chapter, set it down, etc)–I loved it though. My understanding is that Under the Jaguar Sun and The path to the nest of spiders is even better if you have a grasp of Italy’s political history, especially around the time Calvino was growing up and writing.

    So glad you enjoyed Invisible Cities. I, too, had moments of outright giddiness…

    ~L (omphaloskepsis)

    • Yes, that laughing and crying outburst could certainly be described as giddiness. Such fun in a spooky way. I’m so glad to hear that you love Calvino across the board. I’m eager to dive into something else by him (and am excited about adding to my Calvino collection – I like the edition that I started with and hope to find more!).

  5. No one has mentioned Cosmicomics? Lovely, crazy Cosmicomics.

    I’m not sure this “right book / wrong book” business works so well with Calvino. He did not write the same book again and again, with some better and some worse, so the reader just wants the “best” one. No, he wrote a diverse set of books that can often seem like they came from different writers.

    • Exactly, that’s why I think it works. You either like one Calvino or the other and maybe some like them all. If he wrote the same novel again and again you could decide after one whether it is for you or not, don’t you think?

      • Too often I fear people give up on an author after disliking one book, sometimes with good reason but other times without knowing that one of their books might be THE book (if there is such a thing). That’s why I appreciate that you and Emily are willing to give Calvino another go, Caroline. It’s fascinating that Calvino’s books in particular are so diverse, as Amateur Reader points out. I’m eager to find the next good one, without hoping or aiming for finding the best. After this conversation, rooting around in Calvino’s work sounds like double the fun though – thanks guys!

      • Ah. I was thinking of something else. I don’t care if Calvino is “for me.” I want to know what he does, what he’s like. With some authors,, there are representative books. With Calvino, there is not. No single book defines him.

        This is part of that knowledge vs. experience divide I wrote about a while back.

        No, there’s a problem even for the “experience” reader. If you ask me which novel you might like, I can make a good guess with a lot of authors (representative + best). With Calvino, I have no idea. I’ll say Cosmicomics or if on a winter’s night a traveler, but I will have not feel so confident.

  6. That is something I so admire about you, Amateur Reader – the way that you read to discover the author as much as the book. So often I get locked into thinking about just the book and am not mindful enough of the author behind it, I’m not seeing the bigger picture. Need to work on that.

    I see what you mean here about Calvino, and again my interest is only increased. And I want to go back and revisit your knowledge vs. experience thoughts…

    • On t’other hand, what should we think about other than the book in front of us? What else do we have? My extrapolation of the author from the text simply creates an imaginary author. Each new text creates a new imaginary author, perhaps similar to the old one, perhaps a quite different fellow. The more I read, the more the authors proliferate, each wondering why I insist on reading books by the real Calvino rather than the imaginary books of the imaginary Calvinos, since, after all, it is the imaginary Calvino I liked so much.

      Oh, I would if I could.

      • How very Calvinoish of you (at least the Calvino of Invisible Cities) to imagine continuous authors (not unlike Calvino’s continuous cities). I am tickled by this concept – I feel like these hovering authors will be peering over my shoulder for days to come…

  7. the real vs the imaginary. the actual vs. the presumed. the new critics vs historicists. what is more valid, what is more necessary. what inspires the voice or stylings of a tale/novel/story…
    Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges likes to play with Readers (Readers of all kinds).

    • I just read a bit in Whatever Happened to Modernism? that was something about the only two true protagonists of a novel being the author and the reader. That idea fits right into this.

      I need to get back to Borges – I was reading his short stories around this time last year…

  8. I llllove Calvino (I once named a cat after him). My favourite is t zero. And there are in fact several of his books that I did not particularly enjoy or understand — the more political ones I think, but I will revisit them someday.

    I do occasionally pick up Invisible Cities — I like being able to read a city at random.

    BTW, the one with the tarot cards is The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

    • All this Calvino love is making me want to dive right back in – I may trot down to the bookstore after work and see what else they have. Not that I’ll have an easy job deciding, given that you all have mentioned so many intriguing options! I am so glad that I own Invisible Cities because like you said, it will be nice to dip into it now and then.

  9. Through no fault of Calvino’s, I’ve “taken a break” at almost the very same point of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler twice in a row now, Sarah. Must get back to it at some point! And must get around to Invisible Cities at some point because I understand it’s one of the more prominently messed with Calvino titles inserted into Perec’s Life A User’s Manual somehow. Did you recognize any conscripted scenes? Unlike Emily, I really enjoyed The Baron in the Trees, though. In fact, it’s about the only good argument for historical fiction that I’ve ever come across, ha ha!

    • There are so many reasons why I feel compelled to read Life A User’s Manual again, and you’ve mentioned another good one. I didn’t remember that Invisible Cities played a part in it, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for that on my reread.

  10. Thanks for the reminder about this book! I read it ages ago (20 years?), and just checked my bookshelf – yes, I still have it … perhaps time for a re-read this summer …

    • It’s a great summer read I do believe – just in case you can’t fit a vacation in, it brings many far-flung sights and sounds to you, hopefully satisfying a bit of the wanderlust. Equally good if read under a foreign sky while lolling on a beach towel! Hope you enjoy the re-read wherever it finds you.

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