Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities

By Maya MacKenzie

Seated in a lush garden, Marco Polo relates to Kublai Khan tales of the fantastical cities scattered throughout the Khan’s empire.  These cities exist in seemingly impossible forms. One is made from ropes spanning two mountain peaks, defined by its citizens’ awareness of its precarious existence. Another is built with neither walls, nor ceilings, nor floors, instead characterized only by an extensive labyrinth of water pipes and existing in a state of semi-desertion. These varied cities manifest the desires and the memories of their inhabitants; the inhabitants and the cities mold and shape one another, coexisting in a symbiotic relationship—and no traveller passing through one of these cities leaves unchanged. While Marco Polo recounts his journeys to the emperor, Italo Calvino recounts this exchange in Invisible Cities (1972). Calvino’s book defies many of the conventional characteristics of a novel. It follows no real plot; there are no characters, no climax, no resolution. Instead, the book appears as a series of vignettes, possibly prose poems, all of which are united by a common subject and by the semblance of a narrative that is Marco Polo and Kublai Khan’s conversation. Calvino’s characterization of the cities, personifying them to some extent and using them as an extension or outward expression of the soul, also mirrors certain passages about London in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Despite its temporal location outside the conventional Modernist period (1895-1945), its experimentation with form and plot and its expansion on ideas presented in Modernist classics like Mrs. Dalloway mark Calvino’s Invisible Cities as a modernist text, and by extension, Calvino, as a modernist writer.

Throughout much of his writing on writing, Calvino addresses specific aims for literature. One that appears in both his essays and much of his fiction, eller to Invisible Cities to Cosmicomics, communicates a desire to shirk traditional forms where necessary, opting instead for new techniques and narratives. In a lecture given at Columbia University in 1983, Calvino reinforces this idea as he explains how he structured his book Invisible Cities, describing how his unconventional structure challenges the accepted form of the book in general: “the book was born a little at a time, with considerable intervals between one piece and the next, rather as if I was writing poems, one by one, following up varying inspirations… This is how I carried on the… book over years, writing a piece every now and then, passing through a number of different phases” (“Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities” 37).

Calvino goes on to elaborate on what distinguishes Invisible Cities from a conventional story. Invisible Cities does not follow the typical structure of a book (it lacks a beginning and an end); rather, Calvino claims his book more closely resembles a collection of poetry or short stories. Yet the addition of the discourse between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan allows it some kind of conclusive summation and narrative thread. Calvino also uses recurring thematic categories for the cities to give the book more structure, categorizing the cities as “Cities and Memory,” “Cities and Desire,” “Cities and Signs,” “Thin Cities,” and others. Due to the conversation that runs parallel to the descriptions of the cities, “the book was discussing and questioning itself at the same time as it was being composed” (Calvino, “Italo Calvino” 40). Calvino brings up this discussion of his book and its form in order to suggest that challenging traditional form allows his work to be “many-faceted” and have many “conclusions throughout its length” (“Italo Calvino” 41). In doing so, in allowing the text to write itself in a way, he suggests that this lets the reader become more engaged with the text and facilitates multiple interpretations. Calvino’s account of the authoring of Invisible Cities demonstrates his modernist leanings. In the account given in his lecture, he reveals that the book’s structure, and even its creation, does not resemble a conventional story.

Modernism, however, can be an unstable category. Calvino, for instance, wrote outside of the time period typically set for the modernist period (he wrote from the ‘40s to the ‘80s, whereas modernism is often said to have existed between the 1890s and 1945). Attempting to classify an author as modernist, particularly one who wrote outside of the generally accepted timeframe, can lead to difficulties in distinguishing between different terminologies. The lines between modernism and postmodernism (in this case) become somewhat blurred. Carol James suggests that Invisible Cities is “suspended ‘on some kind of threshold between the modern and the postmodern’” (qtd. in Pilz 229). But considering Calvino in relation to the most distinguishing features of postmodernism reveals that these are not found in Invisible Cities. According to Dino Felluga, postmodernist texts exhibit “extreme self-reflexivity,” “irony and parody,” “a breakdown between high and low cultural forms,” “a questioning of grand narratives,” “visuality of the simulacrum vs. temporality,” “disorientation” and “secondary orality.” Of all of these, self-reflexivity seems most relevant to Invisible Cities. Felluga does state, however, that self-reflexivity is present in modernist works as well, the difference being that postmodernism identifies and embraces self-reflexivity in both “high” and “low” art, whereas it is restricted to “high” art in modernism. Interjections from Marco Polo throughout the descriptions of the various cities remind the reader of the earlier passages of the conversations, allowing the narrative of Marco Polo to weave through the less narrative sections of the book. When Marco Polo says, “if you choose to believe me, good,” he calls into question the validity of his own descriptions (Calvino, Invisible Cities 75). Consequently, throughout the book, never does the reader nor Kublai Khan know for certain whether Marco Polo speaks the truth.

By calling into question his own accounts, Marco Polo forces the reader and Kublai Khan to refer back to what has already been said and question its legitimacy. Ultimately, both the Khan and the reader learn that the tales Marco Polo has been regaling them with are indeed fictional exaggerations of different aspects of one city. Marco Polo’s goal, it becomes clear, is to “put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals… the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed” (Calvino, Invisible Cities 164). It is in this last exchange with Kublai Khan that Marco Polo admits that all the cities he has thus far described are really all facets of one city, and simultaneously, facets of all cities. Though self-reflexivity (and disorientation to a small extent) can be seen in this book, the absence of the other characteristics of postmodernism suggests Invisible Cities is not really a postmodern work. But is it modernist?

To determine whether Invisible Cities is a modernist work, it must be compared to previous modernist texts. The techniques used by Calvino in writing Invisible Cities and the book’s final experimental form align with many of the tenets set forth by his modernist predecessors, most notably Virginia Woolf, whose essay “Modern Fiction” declares her vision of the basic premise and goals of modernism. In “Modern Fiction,” Woolf calls upon writers to abandon conventional modes of storytelling, to write in such a way that the writing can hardly be distinguished from real life and real experiences. She encourages writers to experiment with technique and form, to write in new ways and in so doing capture changes in human consciousness. Woolf’s focus with this essay is to advocate for writers to put as much care in developing a character’s interiority as they do in plotting out a character’s life events. For Woolf, the psychological is as important, if not more so, than the physical. Calvino, in Invisible Cities, manages to blend the interior of the mind with that of the physical realm. Because the cities represent Marco Polo’s interpretations and imaginations of certain aspects of cities, their physical manifestations in his descriptions can be seen as extensions of his mind. In this way, in addition to his experimentation with the form of a “story,” Invisible Cities does fulfill Woolf’s vision of modernist writing.

Like Woolf, Calvino articulated goals for literature. Shortly before his death, Calvino wrote a series of lectures later published by his wife titled Six Memos for the Next Millenium in which he sets out these goals, each goal described by six different categories: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency (Calvino did not complete the consistency lecture prior to his death). In these lectures, Calvino outlines what types of experimentation in writing he admires most. In “Quickness,” he discusses how experimenting “with even shorter compositions, with narrative on a smaller scale, something between a fable and a petit poème en prose [little prose poem], in my book Invisible Cities” allows him to maintain a “tension” and a rhythm in his work (Calvino, Six Memos 49). Mark Wollaeger discusses how modernist writing can stem from experimentation in form, such as “magical realism as a modernist mode that emerges in South America and Nigeria from similar material conditions” as well as the “creolizations of modernism in Caribbean poetry” (12). Calvino touches on a similar discussion, stating that his attempt and experiments towards achieving a shorter and more condensed literature draws from traditional Italian writing, particularly in poetry.

Perhaps then, Calvino’s experimenting in these concise forms is a modernist move similar to those discussed by Wollaeger. Throughout the rest of his lectures, Calvino often returns to praising conciseness in literature and the ways that much can be said with few words, even “immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimension of an epigram… literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought” (Six Memos 51). Though Calvino does not focus as intently as Woolf on transforming interiority into literature, he does advocate for experimentation in new forms, making a point to state that literature should aim to show the constant interplay between outer and inner worlds. This is not dissimilar to what Woolf advocates. Like Woolf, Calvino praises experimentation and, in his final lecture, promotes contemporary literature as “an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world” (Six Memos 105). This sentiment seems to echo that of Woolf’s in which she wishes literature to convey “life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?” (“Modern Fiction”). Both of these writers advocate for experimentation in fiction that will culminate in a literature more suited to capturing life than earlier forms have done. This similarity between these authors’ ideals likely indicates that Calvino adopted much of his techniques and attitudes in writing from the modernists, while expanding and adapting them to his time and personal beliefs.

Both writers also approach the characterization of cities in a modernist manner. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf describes London as an extension of Clarissa Dalloway’s spirit and interior life. Clarissa, when considering London and her connection to it, thinks

somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. (9)

For Woolf, the city here becomes shaped by all the connections among people, essentially becoming an extension of the self that will endure even after death. One of Calvino’s “Cities and Memory” sections describes a similar view of the city “Zaira.” This city, as Marco Polo states, consists “of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past… As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand” (Calvino, Invisible Cities 10-11). Both authors here conceive of cities as built and characterized by their relationships to their citizens, by the memories left behind, essentially describing the cities as extensions of their inhabitants. Though Woolf seems to concentrate on what Calvino would classify “Cities and Memory,” they both intersect in how they approach how cities interact with the past. Calvino’s Invisible Cities could perhaps then be viewed as an elaboration on this modernist idea initially proposed by Woolf, one that extends from Woolf’s more realist approach but pursues  a more fabulist/fantastic path.

The similarities between Woolf and Calvino both in terms of their characterization of cities and in their attitudes towards the future of literature would suggest that Calvino is, indeed, a modernist writer. Despite his occasional leanings towards postmodernism, Calvino, in Invisible Cities at least, certainly seems more of a modernist than a postmodernist. Much of his writing and criticism appears to be an extension of modernist thought, especially that of Virginia Woolf.


Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. Print.

Calvino, Italo. “Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities.” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 1983: 37. JSTOR Journals. Print.

Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.

Felluga, Dino. “General Introduction to Postmodernism.” General Introduction to Postmodernism. Purdue University. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

Pilz, Kerstin. “Reconceptualising Thought and Space: Labyrinths and Cities in Calvino’s Fictions.” Italica 2 (2003): 229. Literature Resource Center. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Volume 4: 1925 to 1928. Ed. Andrew McNeille. London: The Hogarth Press, 1984. 157-165. Print

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, 1925. Print.