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