Suspended in the Void: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
I write in all my books these days, an aid to failing memory perhaps, or a reassurance that I’m doing more than passing the time parsing the pages in my head. Nevertheless this new habit fails me somewhat in the case of Invisible Cities. The thing that Italo Calvino does best, that is to say that of all the things Italo Calvino does, this is thing he does best, is to build beautiful works on beautiful words. He blurs that separation of writers which Harry Mulisch describes in The Procedure, the division of novelists into “sentence writers and book writers”, into those who write” unforgettable sentences” and those who write “unforgettable books” irrevocably.
In Invisible Cities each place described, each aspect of Venice detailed, is both a delineation and an elimination: If “memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased”, then the city, the very idea of the city, is stripped down so that fifty-five of its seemingly innumerable faces and facets can be brought to the fore and catalogued as they pass into myth. They are immortalised in descriptions which rob their textual narrator, Marco Polo, of their truths in their codification and in the communication of the masks the city wears. The form is an obvious inversion of Marco Polo’s Il Milione, his historically dubious time at the court of Kublai Khan recounted here as being spent not in recitation of his exploits and explorations abroad, but in the character of his home city.
But to return to the issue of marginalia, to why I write in the pages of my books, I’m uncertain as to both why I do it and why it seems particularly relevant now and when discussing Invisible Cities. I’m almost, cynicism notwithstanding, beginning to think that my library is my most flattering biography, the best of my intentions and aspirations written in the stacks on the bedside table, piled high on the shelves and packed lovingly and with no small sense of loss into boxes in the attic, with autobiographical overtures provided by my notes and by the fragments of sentences I have earmarked in luridly fluorescent inks, underscored in pencil and biro or, in the cases of such necessary desperation, by the turning down of a page’s corner.
I suppose in this conception books like Invisible Cities are the beautiful aberrants, the texts for whom the presence of notes and observations, of highlighted quotations and passages are essentially meaningless. Even the inessential moments are anything but, playing the purpose of bridging between their keenly beautiful fellows. The book is also, if you’ll indulge my fondness for a misappropriated and oft-misapplied scientific terminology, an example of the approximate fractal in literature, at least aesthetically. The effect of the overall project is equivalent to any of the Cities & … sections in terms of visual flair and the narrative sections similar in terms of their philosophical acuity or axiomatic poignancy.
To pick out any phrase or instant of the book as exemplary is to admire any of the individual vastnesses contained within a grain of sand alone, overlooking the marvel of the object as a whole and reducing its effect to a secondary characteristic. Moreover, in my last recourse to the habits of annotation, there are few books for which I have to begin making notes on the back cover. Here a quote from Gore Vidal called for exigent attention:“ of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous [sic] invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant”, which is why, you may have noticed, I haven’t really even tried.