Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

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Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino was a book that confused me from beginning to end, and yet I am glad I read it. Calvino was trying to do something creatively strange, and I think I missed it, but the strangeness was a bit rewarding in the end. All that said, I am struggling to say something coherent about the book.

Invisible Cities is a collection of very short stories between one and three pages long. These stories are about strange cities around the world. Some are cities with the ground in the sky, some are cities of strange people or religions. These sketches are framed by conversations between Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler in China, and Kublai Khan, the ruler of China. We find in these conversations that Marco Polo is the one telling the aging Kublai Khan about these outrageous cities. And by the end, we find that Marco Polo’s many cities seem to merge together. Was he really describing just one city? Is he describing cities at all?

I enjoyed the conversations between the two people more than I enjoyed the stories. The conversations seemed to have interesting discussion that gave light to the brief sketches about cities. Toward the end, Marco Polo says, “It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear” (page 135). To which Kublai Khan responds, “I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again” (page 135-136).

Calvino, then, in describing (possibly) one city in so many different ways, brings that city to life in many different ways. Yet, my ear strained to get the meanings out of this book. If it is the ear that commands the story, my ears failed me. But I sense a deep purpose and philosophical meaning behind it all.


Bloom’s commentary on Invisible Cities makes no sense to me after reading the book. I will cease to try to make sense of Bloom, and I return once again to my own question: Why do I trust Bloom’s list of books to read? I don’t comprehend the depth of some of these works, and I believe I must be reading them at the wrong time in my life because I am not connecting with them at all. I will have more thoughts on this in my upcoming HTR&W short story retrospective. (Calvino was the final short story author for my HTR&W project.)

Suffice it to say, though, that Bloom believes Invisible Cities to be a masterpiece to be read and reread:

Calvino’s advice tells us again how to read and why: be vigilant, apprehend and recognize the possibility of the good, help it to endure, give it space in your life. (page 64)

I appreciate those reasons, but I didn’t get that out of the strange book. It was beautifully written and odd at the same time. I am determined to revisit it when I have more patience to struggle through it.

Are other books by Italo Calvino this odd? I’ve heard a lot of blog talk about If on a winter’s night a traveler, but if that’s also odd, I’m probably not interested any longer.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed Invisible Cities on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on April 15, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I have tried to read If On A Winter’s Night… many times now, and I have decided that even if Calvino is a genius, he isn’t for me. I suppose I might enjoy a more conventional narrative, but If On A Winter’s Night… was very disjointed and I found it hard to read fluidly. Throughout the book “you” are searching for the book “If On A Winter’s Night…” which you started reading only to find that there has been a printing error and you only have the first chapter. You then find out that maybe you weren’t reading that book, but another one, and get lead on a wild goose chase looking for a complete version of the initial book you were reading. This narrative alternates with the first chapters of all the other books you encounter in your journey, which is what I did not like. I always find the first part of a book the most laborious as you don’t really know what’s going on and you’re trying to find your footing… so imagine experiencing that repeatedly in one book! Just as I got interested in the new fiction that was being relayed, the chapter would end, never to be followed up on ever again. I made it through 5 or so of these false starts, and then realized I wasn’t enjoying the book at all. I know a lot of people think this book is the ultimate reading experience, but I found it quite unpleasant. Like Umberto Eco, Calvino is relegated to my shelf of shame (aka “Authors that everyone recognizes as brilliant, but who I don’t get nor do I particularly enjoy…”). Having read your review of Invisible Cities, I am feeling more confident in this decision…

  • I wonder if translation has to do with anything. I often wish I was fluent in a lot more languages, so that I could read things in their original. I think I would understand better that way.

  • Steph, Oh. My. Ok, so maybe Calvino just isn’t for me. I haven’t read any Umberto Eco either, so can’t comment on that. Like I said, though, maybe I just need to revisit this author when I’m not reading so much. It seems like maybe it’s a slow-down-and-read-it-painfully-until-you-understand kind of book, and it is just not working for me right now.

    Amanda, my copy was translated by William Weaver, which is the same translation Harold Bloom and others gush about.. I don’t think translation is the issue here — it’s just a weird book….

  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is indeed an odd book, like Steph said. After reading your review on Invisible Cities, which I’ve been wanting to read for a long time (just couldn’t find a used copy), I can sense right away that it’s something I will like. I’ve read 3 Calvinos and I love his oddness, apparently. I also super love Eco. It really just depends on the reader, what speaks to us or not. And that’s perfectly okay, isn’t it? πŸ˜€

  • claire, yes it is wonderful that books speak to people differently. It’s interesting how for this project I’m trying all sorts of books that I’ve never heard of and that I’d probably never read otherwise. It’s kind of rewarding to try new things, but it makes it hard when I do come to try to write my thoughts. I really didn’t “enjoy” reading this book but maybe if I revisit it in a few more years I’ll “get” it more. I haven’t ever tried Eco either but maybe I’ll feel daring in a few years.

    I do hope you like it when you read it. You’ll notice that the two other blog posts I link to above were written by people who loved this book and had nothing but praise for it!

  • well, I’m one of those people that adores Calvino. I read Invisible Cities first and loved it as a fun romp through the imagination. Then I read his Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City and I loved that one, might be my favorite of his. Baron in the Trees was a bit out there, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler was again a fun romp. I think it’s just a matter of taste, if you are willing and able to have fun with his books just for the sake of it then read on, if you don’t like it and don’t want to play along, move on. I would put him in the same category as Borges so it makes sense that if you didn’t enjoy that one you might not like these either.

  • I know what you mean about Calvino and Bloom! I haven’t read this one, but I did read If on a winter’s night a traveler. It was strange, but I’m glad I read it. It wasn’t entirely incomprehensible, but I know I didn’t get everything out of it that Calvino put in. As for Bloom, I think he is just beyond most normal people no matter how intelligent they are.

  • Mary, I didn’t like Borges either! I guess it’s just not my style. But like I said, I’ll have to try again in a few years. Maybe it’s a “stage of life” thing and I”m just not there right now.

    Lisa, I’m glad I read this too just so I can see the different styles– like Mary said, it’s a matter of taste and while for me I did find it odd, both for this one and for Borges I think they are incredibly well written and strong — just not my favorite. Bloom is a discussion for another day πŸ™‚

  • I’m coming a bit late to this, but I wanted to dip my toes into this conversation…I, too, loved ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ but I can sympathise with not feeling ready for a particular book. I am looking guiltily at a book by Freud as I type this. I felt a bit like that when I read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Hemingway, which I liked but then got bored with. My usual reaction is to try and find out what everyone else got out of it, and that’s usually edifying, but it is still frustrating when a book feels like a locked door. I definitely want to read ‘Invisible Cities’ but I feel like I will probably read it like a poem, or an impressionist painting, kind of gliding over it.

  • estelle, never too late! I think you explain well why it was frustrating to me: it felt like a locked door. I really do enjoy reading why people liked it, and maybe someday in the future when I’m more in the mood for an “impressionist painting” I’ll revisit it! Thanks for your comment.

  • Floating city project was inspired by the disastrous consequences of Hurricane Katrina from 2005. which hit New Orleans. The damage was so great that the city is still in the process of rebuilding. Now a group of designers, whose base is in Boston, made ​​a new proposal for a floating city that will be located on the Mississippi River levee. The project named “New Orleans Arcology Habitat” is an acronym NOAH.

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