Here we have the first Calvino I have actually finished. A friend, on learning of my interest in interactive narratives, recommended If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to me many years ago, but I don’t recall traveling very far into it myself. Sometime after that I added a copy of Mr. Palomar to my personal library, where it has since sat very patiently. Invisible Cities I first heard of in 2008 as a key inspiration for Jonathan Blow’s Braid, and then last month, while reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s mammoth The Emperor of All Maladies, I saw it explicitly invoked and cited. At least a decade had passed since my last attempt to penetrate any Calvino, so I thought: very well, let’s try this one.
I take this book as a catalog of metaphors, something like an inverted Exercises in Style: instead of retelling the same story over and over while shifting its style and format, each one- to three-page chapter of Invisible Cities sees the author draping a different set of abstract concepts over the mold of a generic cityscape, then describing the shapes he sees emerging from the streets and skyline. He assigns each city a value-neutral name, such as Eudoxia, Sophronia, or Zobeide, to pull three at random.
This invites the creation of a little index summarizing these named cities and their principal themes or attributes, but for me a cursory search turned up only a baby-name list. I felt surprised at this lack, since viewed this way this book lends us dozens of simply-named keys into richly layered metaphor, ready to be applied in turn to our own lives and language.
I live in Aglaura, I wrote in my notes, feeling sympathetic pangs for how the inhabitants of that city act under a compulsion to repeat received wisdom about Aglaura, rather than describe the Aglaura of their own senses and experience. I also noted an affinity for Phyllis, the city that makes visitors cry out at its countless architectural wonders, all completely invisible to its permanent citizens.
And yet, I have never knowingly encountered someone calling back to any of these ready-to-use metaphors by suggesting travel to, within, or out of any of these cities. Nobody to my knowledge has ever complained of feeling mired in Trude, unable to escape the city limits despite all attempts, or shrugged off an inexplicable noise with “Sometimes the doors slam in Argia.” Mukherjee’s invocation of one of the cities in The Emperor of All Maladies stands as an exception — indeed, the one that that spurred me into reading this book — but in that case, he felt justifiably compelled to fully cite Calvino’s work as part of the simile.
Beyond pat explanations that the 1972 book, not at all obscure, is too recent (or too Italian) for these expressions to take root in idiomatic English speech, I suppose that the lack of any real narrative offers little power to cement the metaphors in readers’ minds. I loved soaking in the beautiful language of William Weaver’s translation, and yet in structure Invisible Cities presents something more like a list than a travelogue.
The book may recognize this and attempt to rectify it: in between clusters of chapters, a frame story suggests that Marco Polo relates these bizarre urban descriptions verbatim to a patient but ever-skeptical Kublai Khan. I enjoyed these breaks, but even so they seemed more garnish than either content or commentary, having no clear relationship to the main text. (And, now that I think of it, it brings to mind the starkly separated text and gameplay portions of Braid.)
I’m glad I read this, and consider obtaining a copy for myself, my own little catalog of prêt-à-porter metaphors. I feel ready to attempt On a Winter’s Night a Traveler again, too.