Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

invisible-citiesI’d read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities a number of years ago, decades. I’d read Borges, and started thinking about all the talk about “the postmodern novel” or whatever one might call it. I’d taken a course in college in which Calvino was assigned, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I felt an antipathy toward it at the time. Likely, I felt an antipathy above all to what I felt, at times in hindsight justifiably but not as generally as I then felt, was an antipathy toward the pompous Lit majors who would pontificate about the book when they hadn’t read it. I only skimmed it, but I kept my mouth shut.

So it was part of a process of opening up to the world, at the time very incomplete, that I allowed myself to read Calvino in my 20’s. I read most of his work over a two-year period. As it happens, I really did enjoy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler least of the lot. Invisible Cities, the first of a serier that I’d read on a friend’s recommendation, I enjoyed most, followed very closely by The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

I’ll start with the uncharitable read of the work. At some level, Calvino is Borges-lite, for the NPR crowd. Above all, he reads incredibly easily for someone who associated himself with semiotics. I am all for easy reading on its own merits, but the situation is ripe for abuse by the audience. While most of us won’t slog through Barthes if there isn’t credit attached to it, we can read Calvino, talk about postmodernism (-structuralism, semiotics, or whatever), and feel like we’re cool. We heard these terms on NPR on some report as we were driving to work. We know we should use them. With Calvino, you get a lot of name-dropping bang for your buck. You can say “Oulipo,” and then tsk-tsk your interlocutor for mistaking the word for a font.
Borges, on the other hand–or at least the Borges of Ficciones–is a graceful, engaging read, but not an easy one if you pause a bit and scratch below the surface. He’s playing–we will get to this–with some of the same things as Calvino, but in a way that is not quite as light.This gets to the charitable read of the work. Calvino’s real virtues, as far as I can tell, rarely get talked about. Above all, Calvino has as light a quality to his writing as anyone I’ve read. Lightness, I have said again and again my friends will attest, is my cardinal virtue in any form of art. This is a matter of personal taste, without doubt. Lightness, too, does not mean insubstantial, or “lightweight.” The best example I can find in any medium of this quality of lightness would be Jo Jones‘ playing in the Basie band of 1938.

Invisible Cities–I haven’t yet actually described the book–is a series of descriptions of imaginary cities threaded together as an ostensible dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. These descriptions are by no means all equal. At their best, though, they give a feeling of a lifting of the reader, this reader anyway. It’s like I’m in a hot air ballon, floating somewhere. This feeling is absolutely priceless.

This is the kind of thing that I never hear discussed about Calvino, and which I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear. Calvino associated with hip postmodernists before it was hip, but he also, like Bakhtin, was fascinated by pre-modern popular culture, in particular folk literature as his collection of Italian folktales retold bears witness. Calvino’s approach at some level is that of a storyteller rather than po-mo novelist.

Calvino might be hip, but I have a clear sense that being hip was not his agenda. Rather, like a storyteller in a traditional setting, he very clearly wanted to produce in his reader a sense, through fiction, of a wider world of being than what any one individual’s daily life encompasses. Reading Invisible Cities, I get a clear feeling that the world is wide and that anything is possible. Art can communicate this. With Welles, people talk about his use of the camera, his play with narrative, his self-conscious artificiality, but his real virtue as an artist is–present tense–that he communicates the idea that anything can be done. I get this feeling with Calvino.

As with Welles, Calvino plays with his medium. The most obvious example of this is The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the writing of which he began by laying down a bunch of tarot cards on a table to see what lay where. It is this sense of play, in the most basic sense, not in a hipster po-mo kind of non-play play pretension, that produces that feeling of lightness so critical to the beauty of any work of art.

So, with Calvino, we need to discard all talk of the postmodern novel, semiotics, and post-structuralism. Attaching these terms to Calvino is like attaching lead weights to an air ballon. Rather, when we discuss Calvino, we need to see his work for what it is. Calvino’s work is light, fun, easy reading that opens a reader up to the idea that the possibility of the world is far from exhausted. I can’t imagine that Calvino wouldn’t prefer this type of discussion.

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