Friday, July 29, 2016

Review of Invisble Cities by Italo Calvino

Technically, all literature is art. But for certain subtleties exist. There are (many) instances literature is essentially a factory production, but likewise instances it approaches the more common definition of art—aesthetics, form and style as apparent as plot, character and setting. Capable of being as visually abstract as some of the great paintings, the written word has the added possibility of being able to shift in time—dynamic where many visual arts are static. And there have been many such great works of literature, one perfect (perfect!) example being Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1982).

Like a shifting succession of M.C. Escher lithographs, Invisible Cities builds the imagery of various cities, real and real alike, from various perspectives. The fictional spine joining this skeleton of imagery is Marco Polo, sitting at the feet of Kublai Khan and recounting his journeys through various urban centers spotting the Silk Road. Accurate memory slipping into tall tale and back again, the subjectivity inherent to Polo’s recollections serves to construct and deconstruct the cities through time. The details of architecture and quotidian life in the cities, both real and imaginary, are paraded before the reader’s visual cortex. Always at the core, however, is the transitory nature of both the existence and perception of these elements, existence anything but static.

Meticulously organized, Invisible Cities literally has a matrix-shaped structure. Despite the free-flow of imagery, it is a subtly systematic transition; the form and movement of the novel reflects its substance. Calvino certainly presenting the the “invisibility” of the cities as something of the imagination and/or memory, yet at the same time, it’s possible to experience the towers and walls, roofs and homes as the non-existence of something that once actually existed. It follows that, the cities portrayed slowly fade while new cities rise, all the while Polo’s conversation with the Khan goes deeper and deeper. Moving from the fa├žade of the cities into the ideas inherent to them, the imagery subtly evolves from romanticized to something less-so.

If you, like so many readers, buy books looking for interesting characters and dramatic storylines, Calvino’s novel is not for you. Invisible Cities is surrealism in written form—for connoisseurs of fiction. More Salvador Dali than Neil Gaiman, the conventions of fiction are set aside to represent the human condition and its urban creations in artistic form. Calvino touches upon numerous ideas that could be spun off into innumerable stories of their own. Signs and meaning, the subjectivity of perception and memory, the human desire to tell stories, the evolution, cycles of existence, etc.—all are presented in a detailed blend of possible and impossible vignettes at the feet of the might Khan. Superlative literature.

*A side note of genre interest: It’s absolutely fascinating to me that Invisible Cities was nominated for the 1976 Nebula Award. Books such as Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book, David Brin’s Startide Rising, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Robert J. Sawyer’s The Terminal Experiment—i.e. mediocre fiction, at best—having won the award since, it goes to show how far literary awareness among science fiction authors has regressed, since. I mean, why haven’t other such literary novels using elements of the futuristic or fantastic been nominated since? I know the answer (the main of sf&f has dumbed itself down from the intellectual high point of the New Wave), but I still think the question has value, perhaps even inspiration?   To even consider Invisible Cities alongside 2016’s Nebula nominees is laughable…


  1. Thanks

    This is a very interesting discussion about Calvino's Invisible Cities. I also appreciated the link to the works of Escher, as someone who really enjoys the works of both men to have them linked this way is a real gift. Now when rereading Invisible Cities I know I will often see them in terms of Escher's cityscapes, endless stairways, doors within doors etc. and enjoy the text even more.

    All the best

    1. Escher was the first thing that poppedin to my mind reading Invisble Cities. While the later chapters focus less on architecture, indeed, the stairways and doors and all the other things closer to the beginning set an Escher mood.

      Glad you liked the review.

  2. The Nebulas certainly used to be interested in literary novels with speculative elements. Besides Invisible Cities, there was Doctorow's Ragtime, nominated the same year, and before that there was a nomination for Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which gets a fair amount of attention as a past nominee (e.g. Jonathan Lethem's essay). I also find the nomination for Nova Express in the very first year to be pretty interesting, as nothing nominated--let alone winning--in the past two or three decades seems close to it in ambition, even if there are occasionally excellent nominees. All of those novels can be found on various critics' "best novels" lists, rather than just best SF, and none of the authors were generally regarded as SF ones (which is the only reason I left out Slaughterhouse-Five).

    Besides a post-New Wave dumbing down, I would also consider the possibility of logrolling. SF authors aren't a huge group and it's easy enough to see some cliquish tendencies (e.g. you linked to something by Sawyer on Atwood not long ago).

    1. Logrolling, I like it. The majority of awards can be broken into either popular vote or juried. The Nebula is the only one that falls somewhere in the middle. The group of writers which comprise the SFWA and who vote on the Nebula are exclusive, and therefore technically a jury, but so large in number that the outcome is, in effect, a popular vote. So yeah, I can easily imagine a Sawyer-like figure in the SFWA trying to swing votes in favor of certain books that meet certain singular criteria - logrolling... :) And thank you for reminding me of the Lethem essay. It's been a while since I read it - and I remember reading it with a smile on my face.