Issue 123 |
Spring 2014

Chessboard & Cornucopia: Forty Years of Invisible Cities

As you head south and east, with your back to the sea, the city of Alvito draws you uphill along ever-smaller roads, tightening spirals and switchbacks that soon have you confused over what’s the approach and what the close-clustered town itself. Around just which curb-hugging rise and turn did you finally arrive? Nothing so defines this metropolis as its precipitousness…

The above concerns an actual place, about an hour outside Rome, a “city” insofar as it’s defined by culture and close living quarters. The style of my description, however, the parody I’m attempting—respectfully—that’s what Americans will recognize before they think of any Italian reality. It’s the style of Invisible Cities, of the cities within Cities.

Fifty-five thumbnails, the longest a few pages, the shortest half a page, take up most of Italo Calvino’s slim text and supply its defining innovation. Indeed, their bulk proves part of the innovation. Plenty of writers had set fictions in fantasy downtowns, but none had dreamed up so many at once. One metropolis in the 1974 novel comes alive as a memory of young love; another presents faces of the unhappy dead. One hangs in hammocks, another stands on stalks, another contains a museum of its own ideal forms, forever perfect, and another remains eternally unfinished, nothing but abandoned plumbing. Each miniature is rendered with improbable specificity, in bits and pieces now exotic, now mundane. Each brings off a small tale of discovery, a bracing single shot of narrative.

Sets of ten cities open and close the book, and these bracket seven sets of five, but enclosing the whole there’s another sort of bracket. There’s a sketch of a story connecting the city sketches. Marco Polo, footloose merchant, shares his travels with the stay-at-home emperor Kublai Khan. This frame device turns out to be itself about framing, since the Khan seeks a better sense of his domains: “to discern,” as the novel’s opening has it, “through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” This premise alone sets Invisible Cities far beyond ordinary storytelling. Still, nothing’s so striking as the cities themselves, a Baedeker unparalleled in its variety, forever playing peekaboo with pattern: now you see one, now you don’t.

And this game has continued for forty years. First publication came at the end of 1972, and hardly eighteen months later arrived the English translation, the pinnacle of William Weaver’s career, scrupulous yet songlike. By the end of the first print run, American novelists as far apart as John Barth and Gore Vidal were hailing Calvino an international grandmaster, beside the likes of Grass, Naipaul, or Garcia Marquez.

Those reputations, however, are based in the tradition of the social novel. A House for Mr. Biswas, for instance, generates story out of well-known tensions. It’s about race, colonialism, and money-grubbing, and while the narrative includes a touch of formal experiment, its primary task remains to embody a place and a people. Cities, on the other hand, tends to disembody. Merchant and emperor do without psychological backing and filling, and their dialogue makes no pretense to the ring of the street. The two men scuffle toward the end, but their pushing and shoving may take place only in dream, and after that the frame tale itself is rendered irrelevant. It turns out that the emperor has an atlas. Throughout, too, in place of rising action, Calvino has rising numbers. His cities are presented according to the Fibonacci series, a mathematical pattern rich in suggestion—though one that remains largely undiscussed by fans and celebrants.

Granted, the meditations on cities eventually develop a resonance within the world we know. The final ten towns include Procopia, where a population explosion crowds the view with “an expanse of faces…” (an image that also suggests the proliferation of media), and Penthesilea, which has no center, only endless sprawl, “one limbo [after] another.” Many critics have noted these nightmares of collapse, and the way they build to Polo’s closing, a plea for the livable city. We must give space, the traveler warns, to what is “not inferno.” Yet as Calvino’s twentieth century recedes, his foremost accomplishment hardly looms as a contribution to urban studies. Rather, Cities has become a benchmark for narrative.

William Gass, in an encomium that rolls on like a caravan, struggles to place the book in some alternative genre. He settles for “one of the purer works of the imagination,” and indeed, placed alongside Invisible Cities, other recent achievements in the long story can look adulterated. Even Infinite Jest or The Elementary Particles at once reveal their debt to classics of the form. Not surprisingly, then, the last four decades have seen more and more authors trying to steer by this willowy new landmark. More and more, book-length fiction has taken the form of variations on a theme, in which the consistency of a motif matters more than the depth of a character. The model proved especially congenial for Gilbert Sorrentino, in his last novels, but a better-known case would be Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Mason’s debt to Cities was especially clear in the original, on Starcherone Press, which included a frame tale excised for big-house publication. Indeed, cuttings off Calvino’s rootstock flourish on the smaller indies; an exemplary case would be Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, but the approach doesn’t exclude best sellers either. Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams and David Eagleman’s Sum are pop confections whipped up Cities-style, substituting comfy metaphysics for urban rough edges.

Other authors have left their stamp on the art form, to be sure. Garcia Marquez introduced a contagious strain of magic, and no doubt we’ll soon see knockoffs of Thomas Bernhard’s hundred-page paragraphs, all bile and erudition. Still, the nearest analogue I can see to what Calvino did for the novel is what Beckett did for theater, in the decades after he stripped it down to rags.

Nothing so defines this metropolis as its precipitousness. Throughout Alvito, homes hundreds of years old stagger upslope and down, each striving to boost itself above or between the others, and yet the stone-bound claustrophobia of these palazzi and the winding stairs at their feet will open up, with a step onto a balcony, at a turn in the stair, to airy vistas of the farm plains—green, black, dappled, dun—far below. At a glance the gritty and fecund stacks of basaltic rock fall away, and you could be a hawk, idling spread-winged and scouring the fields for prey…

Another measure of the novel’s impact is how often it brought the author to the US. Back in 1960, Calvino had swung through the States on a Ford Foundation grant, but this was for his work as an editor. He’d championed exchanges across the Iron Curtain and overseen major translations (among Americans, Bernard Malamud). His creative output kept pace, though, starting with The Path to the Nest of Spiders in ’47. This debut verges on the surreal, and has traces of fable, yet it’s a war novel; it draws on Calvino’s time with the guerrillas of northern Italy, combat that left him, he later claimed, “an unparalleled sense of the human.” Still it took Invisible Cities, Calvino’s tenth or eleventh work of fiction (depending…), to make him a Distinguished Visiting Writer. Barth, at Johns Hopkins, arranged the first visit early in ’76. After that, for the nine years left to him, Calvino came over often. The project on his desk at his death—not yet 62, multitasking as ever, and smoking, smoking—was a series of lectures to be delivered at Harvard.

These were Six Memos for the New Millennium, something of an aesthetic manifesto, but concerning Invisible Cities the author’s nearest thing to full disclosure came in the spring of ’83, at Columbia. The talk is difficult to find in English, but it’s transcribed in the Italian critical edition of Cities. The sentences, despite their everyday vocabulary, coil something like those in the novel. Calvino begins with his habit of keeping file folders of occasional reflections: “a folder for objects, a folder for animals…one for historical figures, one for heroes of myth…” Whenever a folder grew full, his job became “to think of the book [he] could pull out of it,” and as the 1960s ended, his fattest folders had to do with cities.

The decade had begun with the American visit, and in a letter home he claimed he wanted his tombstone to read “newyorkese.” In Italy, he bounced from Turin to Rome to smaller centers like Alvito, trips abroad included Tripoli and Havana, and in ’67 he settled in Paris. On an earlier visit, he’d met his wife, the woman he called Chichita, a multilingual Argentine Jew whose actual name was Esther, and the year following the relocation, as a wave of youth revolt shook cities everywhere, the worst upheavals came in his new home. Rioters pried the stones from the streets and chanted La vie est ailleurs, “Life is elsewhere.”

Amid this turmoil, Calvino’s folders began to reflect both the actual and the elsewhere. One collected places he’d known, “life-passages for me,” while another held cities of the imagination. Together these “became a diary that traced [his] moods,” now a metropolis like “a sky full of stars” and now nothing but “garbage.” Everything in his experience ended up in “images of cities,” and “carried along behind,” he sought to discern the tracery of a pattern.

A creative spirit so restless as Calvino’s could never settle for memoir. Rather he began to sort his notes in groupings that, nearly half a century later, remain familiar: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire… These first two he knew to be “fundamental,” but another of his initial attempts at categorization, Cities & the Form, he rejected as “generic.” He preferred the concrete, such as Cities & Eyes, and he didn’t want the text’s percorso, its way home, “completely disconnected” from his original, more personal order. By the time he developed his Hidden and Continuing sets, the author was working “apposta,” deliberately building on the form he’d glimpsed first in the juxtaposition of memory and desire. Polo and Khan emerged as a natural complement, another set of contraries, in an initial lump of “material,” which Calvino then dispersed among the rest, “each to its own part.” Polo’s thirteenth-century Travels, after all, is known in Italian as Il Milione, “the million,” for the number of lies it’s supposed to contain, and for a certain sort of novelist this very quality made the text accommodating: “an imaginary continent in which other literary works find space.”

Finding space, in the ’83 talk at Columbia, also comes to mean finding a direction. The percorso proved central to the creative act:

A book…is a space in which a reader can enter, turn about, perhaps lose himself, but at a certain point find an exit…Some of you may tell me that this definition better suits a novel of plot, and not a book like this…All right, but I would claim that also a work like this, in order to be a book, must have a certain construction, in which it’s possible to discover a plot, an itinerary, a resolution.

As for that word plot, remarkable under the circumstances, the Italian is intreccio, which also translates as “weave” and “nest.” Out of gleanings from what he’d known, what he still wished for, and what he saw under threat around him, the peripatetic magpie Calvino wove a new home for his imagination.

At a glance the gritty and fecund stacks of basaltic rock fall away, and you could be a hawk, idling spread-winged and scouring the fields for prey. No scrambling small rodent below, however, is quite so helpless as the farmer. His parcels of orchard and vineyard and eggplant, which once rolled on for miles beneath the city, keep collapsing together into consolidated holdings. Agribusiness in its far-off capitals, casting its web of finance models, demands ever more systematized growing cycles, more single-crop dependency. And with each fresh demand, another family farmer abandons what was once the far-flung ducal territory of Alvito, and with those farmers there disappear folks from the city, their own livings dependent, one way or the other, on the valley’s former diverse haul, here olives, there truffles, there pig. The locals can no longer cling to the mountainside; the gravity proves too much.

What then is this “itinerary”? The author was uncomfortable with the way critics reduced the text to Polo’s final admonition. To protect what’s “not inferno,” to Save the City: even William Gass treats this as the book’s ruling purpose. Yet for an argument like that, wouldn’t we do better to read Jane Jacobs? The Death and Life of Great American Cities? Worries about our disappearing downtowns, our degraded quality of life, go back considerably further than the Paris riots, and Calvino himself, during his Columbia talk, argues that his work is something else, “polyhedral.” He claims that “all its folds” offer potential concluding insights, “no less epigrammatic.” He wraps up his remarks by pointing to Chapter Five, “the heart of the book,” where he locates “a theme of lightness, strange in its association with the theme of cities.”

Lightness is a cardinal virtue for this author, one of those upheld in Six Memos; and in Cities, it’s a sylphlike set of five he singles out. The chapter includes Octavia, dangling on webs above an abyss, and Baucis, standing on “long flamingo legs.” One city, Leandra, comes close to holding a mirror to nature, its political squabbles sound familiar, but they’re the nattering of fairy folk. Chapter Five is introduced, moreover, by Kublai’s dreams of “cities light as kites…cities like leaves’ veins.” When he wakes, he hears of a town with “slender pinnacles, made in such a way that the moon in her journey can rest now on one, now on another.”

A lovely fancy—but one Calvino had imagined before. Over the decade preceding Cities, he produced a number of titles, but most collected odds and ends; in ’68 he not only refused an award for one, t zero, but also asked that his name be withdrawn from all other award considerations. The only recent work that mattered to him seemed to be the ’65 story sequence Cosmicomics. In that book, “The Distance of the Moon” brings off a similar biplay between planet and satellite. At one point, the moon sways atop a pole, and the touch is made poignant, part of a bravura narrative of adultery, night-sea voyages, and gathering the lunar cheese.

Narrative rules in Cosmicomics: the fictions demonstrate expert command of situation, complication, and climax, all the more impressive given their material. Comics has even less recognizable reality to work with than Cities. Stories consider the beginning of the universe, the formation of the galaxies, and the Big Bang itself. The narrator in every case is some particle of Essence that’s been around eternally. Yet his tales render Freytag’s Triangle with such dash that two appeared in Playboy (pieces devoid of sex, I should add) and the first US edition, in ’68, was labeled “Science Fiction.” Now, still, some Calvino readers prefer Cosmicomics to Cities. Others point back to another triumph of story over situation, namely, The Baron in the Trees, from 1957. Baron concerns an eighteenth-century aristocrat who moves out of the manor and up into the trees. His arboreal travels at times anticipate Polo’s, and weave an intreccio in which the Enlightenment arrives at the point of a bayonet and a love affair tumbles with the beauty of a November leaf.

In all the work back to Nest of Spiders, Calvino’s allegiance was to both wild ingenuity and story satisfaction. In the process, he could raise philosophical issues, in particular issues of the good society (in Baron especially) but these worked through conflict to a dramatic resolution. This author had earned the authority to claim that a book should have “an itinerary, a plot.” Still, by his early forties, the later 1960s, his sensibility had grown restive.

He married and left Italy, but as he reveals in the rueful Hermit in Paris, the move never generated that “inner landscape for the imagination to…turn into its theater.” His introduction to the City of Light had been the cracking yarns of the Musketeers, but to live there reduced the place to “a series of practical problems.” So, too, in Cities, again about midway along, the glory of Phyllis dwindles to “a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket.” The author needed more, new material for the interior theater, and as he and his wife worked on a translation of Raymond Queneau, Calvino entered the French author’s salon—his “workshop for potential literature,” Oulipo.

The relationship with Oulipo can be seen as symbiotic: the group enabled Calvino’s break from story, and he brought them greater stature. Invisible Cities was his first wholly new work out of the affiliation, and no other title linked with the salon (such as Georges Perec’s A Void) enjoys anywhere near its esteem and influence. The Oulipo Compendium, put together by Harry Mathews, certainly includes numbers-based exercises, suggesting what Calvino does with the Fibonacci series. Certainly, by the mid-’70s the author was into a fresh series of texts, all original and coherent, and all radical breaks from narrative. The best known, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (English, 1981), proceeds by first setting up intrigues not unlike those that sustain the earlier works—steep, strange challenges—and then cutting them off.

Still, the shift in aesthetic had to do with a lot besides Oulipo. The Italian, the hermit in Paris, wasn’t an active participant. He’d begun exploring writers like Queneau long before, and during this same period, his reading often took him in the opposite direction, to the ancient forms of fable and fairytale. Starting in 1970, he edited collections of the Brothers Grimm and others, writing several prefaces. The best-known is his Italian Folktales (English, 1990), praised by the archconservative John Gardner. The power of Cities, in other words, was forged in a tension between old pleasures of the text and a recognition that those pleasures no longer suited his energies. The percorso he’d always followed had reached a dead end.

Locals in Alvito can no longer cling to the mountainside; the gravity proves too powerful. Along the city’s byways, there tends not to echo a clippity-clop but a schlip-schlip-schlip, as only the old shuffle by. More and more, a palazzo’s double doors, wide enough to welcome a carriage, thick enough to absorb a musket ball, depend on a heavy padlock to hold them in place. Archways sprout weeds in the mornings, bats in the evening, and even the castle on the mountaintop doesn’t so much crown the little metropolis as offer a way station up the slope toward the ghost town: the gloom just overhead. Small wonder that lovers can’t get enough of the place. Small wonder that no sooner does the light start to fail than the cars rise grumbling into the disused centro, with two to every car, and a fair number of the Fiats and Audis borrowed from a friend in order to escape detection.

The lightness of Cities, in short, must never be mistaken for fluff. Its cloud castles are streaked with storm; the plea to hold off the inferno should be taken also as a stay against creative failure, and rickety, on stilts. This quality again recalls Beckett, his long shelf of last words, but Calvino has none of Beckett’s austerity. Each cup of city arrives brimming, even the cemetery-town Agria. Most offer a taste of the freshly made, a display of the Baroque, or—the most common refreshment—some inkling of a lover. Sensuality occurs in such variety, it can’t help but suggest the author’s homeland, and no doubt he suffered the absence, at his desk in Paris. The book he pulled from his folders emphasized, above all, two aspects of Italianità.

The first is the Fibonacci series, where each term is the sum of the previous two in the series. The opening (0, 1, 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5…) provides the sequence for the sets of cities. Their stagger-step up to five and down follows a pattern scientists know as the Golden Ratio, because it occurs in many natural forms, from the uncoiling of a snail shell to the clustering of sunflower seeds. Of course, to test the ratio required technology far beyond that of Fibonacci himself, a twelfth-century mathematician out of Pisa (a contemporary, that is, of Marco Polo’s father). Still, his figures have proved correct, placing most flora and fauna on a grid—or a chessboard, to use a recurring image from Cities. The board, of course, belongs to the Khan, “a keen…player,” who believes that winning at chess will allow him to “finally possess [his] empire.” As the novel arrives at what would ordinarily serve as the climax point (the eighth chapter of nine), Kublai orders Polo to stay at the palace and play. Far-fetched travelogues will profit the emperor less than mastering the game. But the hours over the board leave him in crisis, his values bankrupt:

Each game ends in a gain or a loss: but of what? …At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner’s hand, a black or white square remains… [T]he empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes…

Illusory forms, empty, as if the scent and hue of a flowerbed, its spices and thorns, were reduced to the numbers game of some old Italian. The bleak vision suggests as well an artist’s despair, when inspiration goes lifeless, and consequently no moment in Invisible Cities feels so heartening as when Polo, in the closing frame of this same “climax” (the chapter’s closing dialogue), begins to refill the envelopes. Where the Khan saw scorched earth, his guest envisions a garden: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple.” The Venetian reseeds the barren black and white; he imagines buds, larvae, woodsmen, and the artisan at his lathe. In no time Kublai is left “overwhelmed,” his senses reawakened by “rafts laden with logs…women at the windows…”

In this exchange resides the essential dialectic of the text, between Form and Content. The Emperor sits alert to any sign of a controlling pattern, believing that “on the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire,” and the merchant comes and goes, toting an ever-changing urban cornucopia. It’s Polo who spies a woman in what was, a moment before, a rectangle in a blank wall. The Venetian plays the hero, you could say, since he gets the final, restorative word, both at the (surrogate) climax and the (sort of) conclusion; he provides a happy ending, you could say. Indeed, John Updike dubbed Calvino “the sunniest” of twentieth-century fabulists, in his review of Cities. Yet while the compliment’s not out of line, it’s over-simple. This novel can’t be read like some episode of Star Trek: TNG, in which sloppy humanity defeats the regimented Borg.

Only an Emperor of Forms, after all, could supply the Fibonacci stutter-step, a ratio one also detects in chess combinations. The sequence propels our reading, a timekeeper, like the threes and nines in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Besides that, at another fold in the book’s middle, it’s the Khan who intuits how Venice informs all of Polo’s fabulations. The voyager’s “first city” is “implicit” in them all, and the insight proves sharp enough to set the merchant doubting his goods: “perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost [Venice], little by little.” It’s a moment when Content comes out the loser, in the biplay—and when Kublai stands in for a good reader, who senses Calvino’s doubt and fears. Then there’s the great irony of the Khan’s atlas. This last surprise reveals actual cities (“Granada, the streaked pearl of the caliphs; Lübeck, the neat, boreal port”) and creates further ambiguity: “Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.” To suggest paradise and inferno are merely tricks of the alphabet undercuts Polo’s dominance of the closing; it maintains the essential tension.

Calvino’s task entails a rigor far beyond that of any earlier book of lists. Old Possum’s charming Practical Cats, Bierce’s snarky Devil’s Dictionary, have nothing like this text’s accumulative power. Still, in the end, appreciation of Cities must return to the cities, their serendipity and brio. It’s a city that best exemplifies the second element crucial to the book’s continuing enchantment.

Pyrrha, No. 3 of the “Cities & Names,” comes roughly at midpoint—that again. Polo admits that years went by before he visited, but over that time he’d “conjured” it “through its name.” He’d done the same with others: “Euphrasia, Odile, Margara, Getullia.” Thus the narrative of his visit explores how the actual place supplanted “everything [he] had imagined.” It’s all mills, Pyrrha, including windmills, and these recall another wayfarer who didn’t know what he was looking at. Like Quixote, Polo still sees a chimera, the city of his imagination. That place has lost its name, but it haunts the same crannies of the mind, “…a fragment or glimmer,” and once more it calls up four odd names: “Euphrasia, Odile, Margara, Getullia.”

The sojourn provides, first, yet another masterly miniature, evoking a subtlety of our inner life in a bit more than a page. What’s more, that lingering glimmer of what we once believed illuminates, in this case, a dream lover. Odile would be the object of infatuation most English readers recognize, the trickster of Swan Lake (and by extension the prostitute Odette, from Proust, casting her spell over the well-born Swann). Also the names contain Shakespeare’s Juliet, in Italian Giulietta; the girl was from Verona, after all. In that city, too, Margara echoes a common expression of regret, magari, “if only…” The word appears in a thousand love songs, and Euphrasia probably turns up in a couple as well, since in both Italian and English the term retains its Greek derivation, “an excess of happiness.” More commonly, the word refers to an herb and its extract, eyebright. A few drops and you look as though you’ve been crying for joy.

Life is elsewhere, cried the rioters of Paris ’68, but “elsewhere” often takes the form of a shadow-love. To settle down is a Pyrrhic victory; you win comfort and lose the dream. If you’re a married man, no pairing’s so natural as cities and desire. In Pyrrha the Ghost Lover may be only a “glimmer,” but its gestures indicate, once again, the author, whose fiction began to find its new form when he was both a new husband (as of ’64) and father (’65). After that he appears never to have strayed, but as a younger man he’d been active, in the style of other European intellectuals. Affairs included a movie actress and, according to his letters, “a sweet and embarrassing bigamy” in his twenties. Later, though happy with Chichita and his daughter, Calvino’s work often had him traveling alone, and each new city must’ve raised, faintly, a siren call. Each allowed him to experience the paradox embodied by Isidora, one of the first visits in his developing text: a place where “desires are already memories.” Hence the project that resulted wove together all his wandering, going back to his days as a guerrilla, in a vision of living arrangements constantly going to pieces, of “cities like leaves’ veins.” Our luck as readers depends on his exile: at every stop, he sensed his discoveries were at terrible risk, and he sketched each with awe, with love.

No sooner does the light start to fail than vehicles rise into the disused central square, always two to a vehicle, and sometimes in Fiats and Audis borrowed from a friend, in order to escape detection. After that, on benches of crumbling stone, before the view from Alvito’s first plateau, couples nuzzle and coo beneath gargoyles, or what used to be gargoyles, before their teeth wore off, or before the monsters’ faces were obscured by the smoke of the lovers’ cigarettes, often enhanced with a smatter of hashish. More serious encounters, meanwhile, take place up along the spiral networks of alley and stair. There’s always a door that’s come off its hinges, and once inside, what do you need besides a blanket, a candle, a half bottle of booze or a smatter of hashish—what more, so long as love keeps you nubile and willing? The sighs and giggles, the chink of a belt buckle hitting the tile and murmurs of no, and no, and yes-s-s, these fill the shelves of the abandoned libraries, they echo like prayers through the deconsecrated chapels, imbuing all the moldering leftovers with such excitement as to seem the guiding purpose, the ultimate resolution, of the centuries upon centuries previous, with all their struggle and decay.


John Domini’s essay will appear in his forthcoming selection, The Sea-God’s Herb, on Dzanc Books. Dzanc will also be bringing out his next book of stories, MOVIEOLA! He has three novels, other books, and a number of grants and awards. See