Saturday, March 8, 2008

"Invisible Cities"--The Calvino Project Concluded

"Perinthia's astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters (Calvino 145)."

This passage describes the city of Perinthia, one of the dozens laid out in Invisible Cities. Perinthia's foundations were drawn by the aforementioned astronomers, with the zodiac determining the placement of the city landmarks, and the gods determining the lives of the citizens. The passage also perfectly describes my analysis of Invisible Cities in conjunction with Six Memos For the Next Millennium. My literary calculations could very well be wrong, and perhaps the order of the book is reflected in the details.

Invisible Cities is a collection of city descriptions, fabled cities visited by Marco Polo, who is describing them to Kublai Khan. The variations are astounding, yet the underlying possibilities(explored in dialogues between the two men) are that Polo is either making up the cities as he goes along, or that he is describing the same place is an many different ways as he can. The cities are discussed in an average of two pages apiece, yet Calvino crafts in amazing scenery, distinct summaries of the citizens, and moods of either hope or despair (or both).

Having finally finished the book, I am happy to say that it was incredibly rewarding, and I cannot figure out how Calvino's deft combination of metaphor and fable didn't hook me in the first few attempts I took to read it. It is a title that requires multiple readings, which is always a good sign. With that being said, forgive me for not giving the metaphors (or large chunks of the novel for that matter) the attention they deserve. The idea behind this project was to see if Invisible Cities represented the themes of Six Memos. This is going to be done very basically, with select passages from the novel being compared with select passages from the essays. I briefly touched upon "Lightness" in my last post, so I will leave it alone for now. If I feel I've missed anything, I can always return to it in the future.

"Quickness": "...the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language (Calvino 45)."

I can find no better self-summary of Invisible Cities. If we momentarily disregard the idea that Polo describes the same place in a myriad of different ways, the above passage shows that Calvino perfected "quickness" in the novel. If "quickness" can be defined as the true bent of written language (just for example's sake), consider this sample from Invisible Cities:

"You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognized that thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger's passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are (Calvino 13)."

Can you appreciate Calvino's literary quickness? Not a word is misplaced or casually tossed in. As we read, we're getting a workout. He quickly gives us a few descriptions that move rapidly, that are different, yet are importantly linked. It is an excellent example of communication between sharply different objects.

"Exactitude": "To my mind exactitude means three things above all: (1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question; (2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images; in Italian we have an adjective that doesn't exist in English, "icastico"; (3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination (Calvino 55-56)."

In this description (which, true to the title, is the most exact definition given by Calvino in all of Six Memos), the word that jumps out the most to me is "precise." As varied and layered as Invisible Cities is, there is a poetic feel to the precision of Calvino's language and imagery. The tale of Andria is an excellent example:

"In praising Andria's citizens for their productive industry and their spiritual ease, I was led to say: I can well understand how you, feeling yourselves part of an unchanging heaven, cogs in a meticulous clockwork, take care not to make the slightest change in your city and your habits. Andria is the only city I know where it is best to remain motionless in time (Calvino 150)." (emphasis mine)

Just like with "Quickness," this passage defines "Exactitude" in two ways, both with the overall description and my emphasized phrases. Calvino finds precision in the entire novel, and works it into the smallest places. "Cogs in a meticulous clockwork, take care not to make the slightest change in your city and your habits." Sure, a city like Andria doesn't bode well for free will, but the reader cannot help but appreciate the exactitude reflected. In fact, I feel that "precision" is a better word for the chapter, even though it's a sort of synonym.

"Visibility": "We may distinguish between two types of imaginative process: the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression. The first process is the one that normally occurs when we read. For example, we read a scene in a novel or the report of some event in a newspaper and, according to the greater or lesser effectiveness of the text, we are brought to witness the scene as if it were taking place before our eyes, or at least to witness certain fragments or details of the scene that are singled out (Calvino 83)."

I have to say that I found the essay "Visibility" to be the most difficult one in Six Memos. While a few more readings of it would undoubtedly clear up most of the confusion, I will focus on this quote. I cannot think of a specific passage in Invisible Cities that would best highlight it. In fact, the entire novel itself can serve as the example. Any written fiction or narrative applies to this, according to Calvino. This takes on greater meaning when one takes into consideration both Invisible Cities and Calvino's admiration of fables. There's really nothing to add to this except appreciation of the cities unfolding magically from the words, in great detail, from the intangible atmospheres to the tallest buildings.

"Multiplicity": "Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function (Calvino 112)."

In this final chapter of Six Memos, Calvino quotes a couple of authors and discusses the ideas of literature being a sort of encyclopedia. I loved the above passage because it's a fitting end to my project. Again, I'm going to take Invisible Cities as a whole instead of selecting a specific passage. I wouldn't describe the novel as "overambitious," but I absolutely agree with the idea of "immeasurable goals." While the cities and the conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo end on the last page, it's impossible to imagine Invisible Cities as having a literal ending. The two men converse as if their having an infinite discussion, and Polo likely had endless cities to share with Khan. The novel may have one hundred and sixty-five pages, yet reads as a slice of a discourse that has no real beginning or ending.

As I stated before, both Six Memos For the Next Millennium and Invisible Cities require multiple readings. I've barely scratched the surface of analysis, and I've resisted further research on both Calvino and the novel. I wanted to take everything at face value, using just the texts as my guides.

I feel this is a decent stopping point.

Works Cited:
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos For the Next Millennium. Copyright 1988, the Estate of Italo Calvino.

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Copyright 1972 by Giulio Einaudi Editore/English translation Copyright 1974 by Harcourt, Inc.

1 comment:

Michael Peterson said...

I only just found this on your site, Jaime. "Invisible Cities" is one of my favorite novels, so I'm always excited to see people discussing it - I have to take issue with your "Multiplicity" segment, however.

You write "[I]t's impossible to imagine Invisible Cities as having a literal ending. The two men converse as if their having an infinite discussion, and Polo likely had endless cities to share with Khan." I cannot picture that interpretation at all, myself.

The very nature of the story is about endings - Kublai Khan's empire is falling, and both men are aware of this. Polo tells his stories to Khan as a panacea, as a distraction, as an elegy - but always tempered with the knowledge that one great city is soon for dust. Like all great love stories, the knowledge of loss - either already having lost (As Polo has in some sense lost Venice, by leaving it to journey on) or the foreknowledge that you will lose (as Khan has) - is inherent, and is what makes it so beautiful.

That the stories of these cities could all apply to Venice, as they surely must (it's hard not to read Polo's love of his home in each tale) is in some ways a message to Khan that his city, even if gone forever, will be remembered - remembered in many ways, in many stories, a city that will live on in name and in idea only - an invisible city.