Invisible cities italo calvino essay
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Cities, like dreams are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
It feels to me as if I’ve always known Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. As if my brain were born and instantly had Invisible Cities in its matter to refer to. But that wasn’t the order of things. Pippi Longstocking came first and then someone—probably my friend Yates who came from a family of architects, artists, and readers—pressed it on me for the first time. And someone else in college—my professor of post-War Italian Literature, or my professor of Italian feminist theory—made me read it. Whereupon I chose to devote an entire semester to studying it. I remember feeling like the calligrapher to the perverts trying to execute a coherent thesis in my remedial Italian about one of the most complex crystal literary structures ever written. Yet, there is a point of origin in my consciousness, Invisible Cities came to me precisely when I was ready to read it, when my mind was blasted open to complexity and patterns—after which the world and my memory of it dissolves into a series of visual, theoretical and mathematical illustrations of Calvino’s masterpiece.
So that: There isn’t a city on a river that isn’t split in two, twice; two parts on either side of the water and two parts on either side of the water’s reflection. There isn’t a massive tangled city center that doesn’t seduce its residents into its heart, feed upon their life force. There isn’t a city not made of dreams—and over time, broken dreams. No city that isn’t a ghost sooner or later, and throughout its web of streets haunted by a single fleeing spirit. There is no unconquered city; they are all colonies. There are no cities that don’t envy others; no populations who aren’t desperate to have at least one something completely different. There are no storytellers who aren’t Marco Polo recounting farflung adventures to an imperial Kublai Khan. Nor are there listeners who don’t stop listening in order to weave their own synchronistic narrative—a second independent strand of thought, running alongside the first, reflecting and interacting, vying for dominance.
Calvino’s fiction isn’t a story; it’s an ordering and reordering of the emotional and philosophical reverberations of our civilized world, our human condition. The book itself is extremely formal—each chapter is a prose poem describing a city. Each city has variations. Cities are grouped into categories according to random patterns. Each city is imagined; each city is conceptual. Every interlude between Khan and Marco Polo is a thought experiment about powerful structures—empires, governments, languages, lands, tales. And the intelligence behind the entire construction is singular.
We have not tried here to mimic the original. With the polyphony of writing gathered, I’m barely sure we’re referencing it. Our Invisible Cities satisfies itself by occupying the reverberation. Our stories and poems are our cities and they issue in many respects from Calvino’s meticulous categories: desire, memory, signs, the eyes, the names, the dead. Some of the work is extremely formal—with precision edges and self-contained references—and some of it is so organic it dampens the page with its dew, heat, and flora. If there’s a tribute to Calvino here, it’s noisy and free form—more wake than memorial.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Flying Fish (counterpoint)
A Room To Live In
A Short Tale of Shame
Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Brett Fletcher Lauer
Kingdom for a Horse
Evidence of Absence
1348 A. D.
Space from Nothing
[In focus: the firescreen folded]
I used to think everything was part of a larger conversation
Liveblogging the snowfall
From Notes from the After-Images
A bee stung my face
Sarah Rose Nordgren
The Strange Orchid
The Man of Noon
The Lapidary Crystal
W. M. Lobko
1989, Hillborough, Sheffield, U. K.
Circuit someone, somewhere
Little Prayers to St. Sisyphus
How’s the Enemy?
To Flood Stage Again
The Island of Last Truth
Reviewed by Kate Munning
Reviewed by Michael Miller
Tales of a Severed Head
Reviewed by Callista Buchen
A thousand morons
Reviewed by Josh Billings
Everyone Has a Mouth
Reviewed by Dan Beachy-Quick
Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality
Reviewed by Gloria Beth Amodeo
Reviewed by Renée Ashley
La Chute No. 09, 2005-2006
La Chute, meaning “The Fall,” is a stomach-churning, tingling series of photographs by Parisian photographer Denis Darzacq that captures ordinary people in familiar, urban settings and still manages to force the viewer to the edge of his seat. Seeing a man, one you might have passed a thousand times on the streets of your own city without taking a second glance, suspended in mid-air above a dingy sidewalk, makes us question the nature of the everyday. He hangs, just close enough to the ground to make us worry about how he will land, and just far enough in the air to put the seed of doubt in our minds as to whether or not he needs to. The fact that Darzacq refused to use digital manipulation in creating this series makes the product even stranger and more enthralling.
Darzacq uses this series to “questions the place of the individual in the city,” a daring endeavor, considering how easily an individual can be reduced to a subway schedule, a paycheck, square footage, or a carbon footprint in an urban ecosystem. These photographs examine cities as humanity’s petri dishes, crucibles where human organisms are heated and spun and smashed together until their base nature is laid bare. Cities have been called aggressive places, but they might be better described as raw. Darzacq captures this pathos and then subverts it, likening the subjects of his photographs to “modern-day knights who can combine disciplined work and play, the laws of gravity and weightlessness.” He uses photography “to build between two realities,” drawing our attention to the empty space. The work creates a sense of magical realism and amazement that borders on the uncomfortable, as we are made to wonder about the invisible in these cities. Just when we’re sure we are going to break our noses on the cold concrete. Darzacq’s work considers the possibility that we could fly.
Gloria Beth Amodeo (books) is a graduate of The New School’s MFA creative writing program and the winner of the 2011 H. O.W. Journal Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in H. O.W. NOW, NY _____., and Carrier Pigeon. She is currently cofounder/contributing writer for Mantaster. com.
Erica Anzalone’s (poetry) first book, Samsara, is the winner of the 2011 Noemi Press Poetry Prize. She is book review editor of the literary magazine Interim.
Renée Ashley (books) is poetry editor of The Literary Review.
Chris Arthur (“How’s the Enemy?”) is author of five essay collections, most recently On the Shoreline of Knowledge. His work has appeared in a range of journals, including The American Scholar, Irish Pages, Northwest Review, Orion, Southern Humanities Review, Southwest Review, and the Threepenny Review. His essay “(En)Trance,” first published in The Literary Review, was selected for Best American Essays 2009.
Steve Barbaro’s poems appear in such journals as Conjunctions, American Letters & Commentary, Washington Square, Caketrain, and Denver Quarterly. He lives near Chicago and is currently writing a novel about paranoia and crowd behavior.
Eric Barnes (“Perfection”) is the author of the novels Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick, and the forthcoming Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, along with numerous short stories published in Prairie Schooner, Best American Mystery Stories 2011, and other publications. By day, he is publisher of three newspapers covering business and politics in Memphis and Nashville.
Dan Beachy-Quick (books) is the co-author, most recently, of two collaborations: Work From Memory (with Matthew Goulish) and Conversities (with Srikanth Reddy). A study of John Keats, A Brighter Word Than Bright, and a novel, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, will be published in the fall. He teaches in the MFA program at Colorado State University.
Lucy Biederman (poetry) lives in Lafayette, LA, where she is a doctoral student in English Literature/Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana. She is the author of The Other World and has poems forthcoming in Handsome, SCUD, Bone Bouquet, RHINO, and others.
Josh Billings (books) is a writer and translator who lives in Portland, ME. His translations of Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel are available from Melville House Books.
Amy Bonnaffons (“A Room To Live In”) lives in Brooklyn, NY. She teaches writing at New York University and is at work on a novel.
Callista Buchen’s (books) poetry and prose have appeared in Gigantic, Gargoyle, Jmww, >kill author, and others. Her reviews have been published in Mid-American Review, The Collagist, and Prick of the Spindle. She lives and teaches in Kansas.
Weston Cutter (poetry) is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You’d Be a Stranger, Too.
Kelly Easton (“Shapeshifters”) is the author of several novels for children and young adults, such as Hiroshima Dreams; The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes; and The Life History of a Star. Awards include the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award, and the Golden Kite Honor Award. She is on the faculty at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her particular interest is writing in clinical settings.
Lexi Freiman (“Insemination”) is Australian. She worked as an actor for Australia’s national Shakespeare company and in New York she works as an editor. She has an MFA from Columbia, and this is her first published story.
Angel Igov (“A Short Tale of Shame”) is a Bulgarian writer, literary critic, and translator. He has published two collections of short stories, and his first collection won the Southern Spring award for debuts in fiction. Igov has also translated books by Paul Auster, Martin Amis, Angela Carter, and Ian McEwan into Bulgarian. He is currently getting his Ph. D. in European Literature.
John Kinsella’s (“Flying Fish (counterpoint)”) most recent volume of poetry is Jam Tree Gully. He is also author of the critical book Activist Poetics: Anarchy in the Avon Valley. He is a professional research fellow at the University of Western Australia.
Brett Fletcher Lauer (poetry) is the deputy director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor at A Public Space. His first book, A Hotel In Belgium, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014.
Jane Lewty (poetry) is the author of Bravura Cool, which won the 1913 First Book Prize in 2011. She is a professor of English literature and creative writing at the University of Amsterdam.
W. M. Lobko’s poems, interviews, and reviews have appeared in journals such as Hunger Mountain, Slice, and Boston Review. New work is forthcoming from Seneca Review, Grist, and The Paris-American. He is a founding editor of TUBA, a new review of poetry and art. He currently teaches in New York, where work on his poetry and his novel The Quick Brown Fox doggedly continues.
Stephen Longfellow (poetry) presently lives over a junk shop in Wabasha, MN, where he spends way too much time gazing out his window at the Mississippi.
Andrew McKay (last words) serves as director of advancement communications for Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is currently working on a memoir titled Living Here, which chronicles his experiences growing up in a New Jersey floodplain in the early 1980s.
Michael Miller (books) is an editor at Bookforum magazine, and is an advisory editor to The Literary Review.
Kate Munning (books) is managing editor for The Literary Review. When not writing for outfits like The Rumpus and Bookslut, she inhabits her alter ego as a trowel ninja and ambitious cook. Her garden is bigger than her house.
Collier Nogues’ (poetry) first book is On the Other Side, Blue. She has received fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Oregon’s Fishtrap, Inc. Currently, she teaches writing at the University of California, Irvine, and lives in nearby Long Beach.
Sarah Rose Nordgren’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, Pleiades, The Harvard Review, Poetry Northwest, the Best New Poets 2011 anthology, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2012 James Wright Poetry Award from Mid-American Review and two-time fellowship recipient from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Sarah Rose grew up in Durham, NC and teaches at Miami University of Ohio in Middletown.
Geoffrey Nutter (poetry) was born in Sacramento, CA and studied in San Francisco and Iowa. He is the author of A Summer Evening, Water’s Leaves & Other Poems, Christopher Sunset, and The Rose of January. He has taught at The New School, New York University, Columbia, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in the Heights of Manhattan.
Stephen O’Connor (“Ghost”) is the author, most recently, of Here Comes Another Lesson, a collection of short fiction, as well as Rescue. He has also written two works of nonfiction: Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, a memoir; and Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, biography/history. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, Poetry Magazine, Electric Literature, and Black Clock, among many other places. His essays and journalism have been published in The New York Times, The Nation, AGNI, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere.
Douglas Ramspeck (“Crow”) is the author of four poetry collections. His most recent book, Mechanical Fireflies, received the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize. His first book, Black Tupelo Country, received the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Slate, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and AGNI. He is the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. He teaches creative writing and directs the Writing Center at The Ohio State University at Lima.
Angela Rodel (translation) is the translator of The Apocalypse Comes at 6 pm by Georgi Gospodinov, Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev, Thrown into Nature by Milen Ruskov, and 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. She was awarded a 2010 PEN Translation Fund Grant for her translation of several stories from Tenev’s Holy Light.
Benjamin Sutton (poetry) is the winner of the Kay Murphy Prize in Poetry awarded by the University of New Orleans and Bayou Magazine. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Third Coast, Barrow Street, and Washington Square, among others.
Leon Weinmann (poetry) has published poetry in numerous journals, including The Antioch Review, Boston Review, Third Coast, Mimesis, and Blackbird. He has just finished his first manuscript of poems, Exercises with Fermata, and is currently working on a book of essays about life in contemporary Rome.
Theodore Worozbyt’S work (poetry) has appeared or is forthcoming in Antioch Review, Best American Poetry, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review 30 Year Anthology, New England Review, Po&sie, Poetry, and Shenandoah, among others. He has published two books of poetry, The Dauber Wings and Letters of Transit, which won the 2007 Juniper Prize.
Rachel Zucker (poetry) is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Museum of Accidents. She teaches at NYU and the 92nd Street Y and is the recipient of an NEA fellowship. She lives in New York City with her husband and their three sons.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a great book depicting the fantastic cities which appear in the readers’ imagination making the readers feel as if they were travelers in a strange world.
The first two chapters open up the story and introduce the main characters and setting. Kublai Khan is an emperor of an empire fading away. This strong lord wants to know what is going on in his own empire for he even is not aware of each place in his empire. He listens to his servants’ descriptions and stories but he is not interested.
Here comes Marco Polo, Venetian traveler, who starts describing different beautiful places, and he does this so well that emperor is satisfied and is eager to listen to Marco Polo. Thus, they sit in the beautiful garden of the emperor and discuss beautiful places. I would like to point out that both of the main characters and the readers understand that not everything in these stories is real, but it so beautiful that it is impossible to stop listening and reading.
To my mind this book is one of those which absorb one’s attention completely, and it makes a person who started reading read it up to the end. There are a lot of reasons for that; I’d numerate some of them. First of all the language of the book is very readable, and I am sure that each reader had thoughts like the following: “OK.
One little passage and I stop… Oh, Ok. I have to know what’s next. I’ll read another tiny passage…” Secondly, reading this book makes you eager to find out whether all this is real after all. Maybe this place exists nearby, or maybe it is only Calvino’s imagination. And the third reason to be pointed out concerns the ending of the second chapter directly, it is simply a must to see the following dialogue between the emperor and the traveler: with fewer words and more gestures, mime.
As far as the whole story is concerned I would like to point out that it is quite philosophic, it is not about depiction of some architecture, and it is more about the habits and traditions. The most interesting about this all is that the book, being a philosophic, to my mind, should put questions and this story instead provides answers; and makes the readers (at least me) think about habits of their own cities.
The style of this book is so unusual and at the same time easy to read. The most striking point about the style, in my opinion, is its shifting. There are several narrators: there is an unknown narrator who describes the garden, the emperor and Marco Polo; Marco Polo is narrator himself; then Marco starts speaking, using third person.
The reader becomes sometimes confused and uncertain about the source of narration. All this creates the mysterious atmosphere of shifting the time and space. One more thing to be discussed is the evocative character; I’d call the language of the book a picturesque one. Somehow the words and sentences become bright colors and definite images.
To my mind, this book is not only a great piece of literature, but it can be called a piece of art, a kind of 3-D story. I would call this book a painting of many layers, and here the reader is the creator as well. Calvino only shows the possible variants, but readers create their own cities and gardens, even the whole new worlds.
Thus, Invisible Cities is a piece of art which is to be read by everyone, who wants to travel in their own world.
Italo Calvino, Cities, and Modernism
By Maya MacKenzie
Seated in a lush garden, Marco Polo relates to Kublai Khan tales of the fantastical cities scattered throughout the Khan’s empire. These cities exist in seemingly impossible forms. One is made from ropes spanning two mountain peaks, defined by its citizens’ awareness of its precarious existence. Another is built with neither walls, nor ceilings, nor floors, instead characterized only by an extensive labyrinth of water pipes and existing in a state of semi-desertion. These varied cities manifest the desires and the memories of their inhabitants; the inhabitants and the cities mold and shape one another, coexisting in a symbiotic relationship—and no traveller passing through one of these cities leaves unchanged. While Marco Polo recounts his journeys to the emperor, Italo Calvino recounts this exchange in Invisible Cities (1972). Calvino’s book defies many of the conventional characteristics of a novel. It follows no real plot; there are no characters, no climax, no resolution. Instead, the book appears as a series of vignettes, possibly prose poems, all of which are united by a common subject and by the semblance of a narrative that is Marco Polo and Kublai Khan’s conversation. Calvino’s characterization of the cities, personifying them to some extent and using them as an extension or outward expression of the soul, also mirrors certain passages about London in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Despite its temporal location outside the conventional Modernist period (1895-1945), its experimentation with form and plot and its expansion on ideas presented in Modernist classics like Mrs. Dalloway mark Calvino’s Invisible Cities as a modernist text, and by extension, Calvino, as a modernist writer.
Throughout much of his writing on writing, Calvino addresses specific aims for literature. One that appears in both his essays and much of his fiction, eller to Invisible Cities to Cosmicomics, communicates a desire to shirk traditional forms where necessary, opting instead for new techniques and narratives. In a lecture given at Columbia University in 1983, Calvino reinforces this idea as he explains how he structured his book Invisible Cities, describing how his unconventional structure challenges the accepted form of the book in general: “the book was born a little at a time, with considerable intervals between one piece and the next, rather as if I was writing poems, one by one, following up varying inspirations… This is how I carried on the… book over years, writing a piece every now and then, passing through a number of different phases” (“Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities” 37).
Calvino goes on to elaborate on what distinguishes Invisible Cities from a conventional story. Invisible Cities does not follow the typical structure of a book (it lacks a beginning and an end); rather, Calvino claims his book more closely resembles a collection of poetry or short stories. Yet the addition of the discourse between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan allows it some kind of conclusive summation and narrative thread. Calvino also uses recurring thematic categories for the cities to give the book more structure, categorizing the cities as “Cities and Memory,” “Cities and Desire,” “Cities and Signs,” “Thin Cities,” and others. Due to the conversation that runs parallel to the descriptions of the cities, “the book was discussing and questioning itself at the same time as it was being composed” (Calvino, “Italo Calvino” 40). Calvino brings up this discussion of his book and its form in order to suggest that challenging traditional form allows his work to be “many-faceted” and have many “conclusions throughout its length” (“Italo Calvino” 41). In doing so, in allowing the text to write itself in a way, he suggests that this lets the reader become more engaged with the text and facilitates multiple interpretations. Calvino’s account of the authoring of Invisible Cities demonstrates his modernist leanings. In the account given in his lecture, he reveals that the book’s structure, and even its creation, does not resemble a conventional story.
Modernism, however, can be an unstable category. Calvino, for instance, wrote outside of the time period typically set for the modernist period (he wrote from the ‘40s to the ‘80s, whereas modernism is often said to have existed between the 1890s and 1945). Attempting to classify an author as modernist, particularly one who wrote outside of the generally accepted timeframe, can lead to difficulties in distinguishing between different terminologies. The lines between modernism and postmodernism (in this case) become somewhat blurred. Carol James suggests that Invisible Cities is “suspended ‘on some kind of threshold between the modern and the postmodern’” (qtd. in Pilz 229). But considering Calvino in relation to the most distinguishing features of postmodernism reveals that these are not found in Invisible Cities. According to Dino Felluga, postmodernist texts exhibit “extreme self-reflexivity,” “irony and parody,” “a breakdown between high and low cultural forms,” “a questioning of grand narratives,” “visuality of the simulacrum vs. temporality,” “disorientation” and “secondary orality.” Of all of these, self-reflexivity seems most relevant to Invisible Cities. Felluga does state, however, that self-reflexivity is present in modernist works as well, the difference being that postmodernism identifies and embraces self-reflexivity in both “high” and “low” art, whereas it is restricted to “high” art in modernism. Interjections from Marco Polo throughout the descriptions of the various cities remind the reader of the earlier passages of the conversations, allowing the narrative of Marco Polo to weave through the less narrative sections of the book. When Marco Polo says, “if you choose to believe me, good,” he calls into question the validity of his own descriptions (Calvino, Invisible Cities 75). Consequently, throughout the book, never does the reader nor Kublai Khan know for certain whether Marco Polo speaks the truth.
By calling into question his own accounts, Marco Polo forces the reader and Kublai Khan to refer back to what has already been said and question its legitimacy. Ultimately, both the Khan and the reader learn that the tales Marco Polo has been regaling them with are indeed fictional exaggerations of different aspects of one city. Marco Polo’s goal, it becomes clear, is to “put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals… the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed” (Calvino, Invisible Cities 164). It is in this last exchange with Kublai Khan that Marco Polo admits that all the cities he has thus far described are really all facets of one city, and simultaneously, facets of all cities. Though self-reflexivity (and disorientation to a small extent) can be seen in this book, the absence of the other characteristics of postmodernism suggests Invisible Cities is not really a postmodern work. But is it modernist?
To determine whether Invisible Cities is a modernist work, it must be compared to previous modernist texts. The techniques used by Calvino in writing Invisible Cities and the book’s final experimental form align with many of the tenets set forth by his modernist predecessors, most notably Virginia Woolf, whose essay “Modern Fiction” declares her vision of the basic premise and goals of modernism. In “Modern Fiction,” Woolf calls upon writers to abandon conventional modes of storytelling, to write in such a way that the writing can hardly be distinguished from real life and real experiences. She encourages writers to experiment with technique and form, to write in new ways and in so doing capture changes in human consciousness. Woolf’s focus with this essay is to advocate for writers to put as much care in developing a character’s interiority as they do in plotting out a character’s life events. For Woolf, the psychological is as important, if not more so, than the physical. Calvino, in Invisible Cities, manages to blend the interior of the mind with that of the physical realm. Because the cities represent Marco Polo’s interpretations and imaginations of certain aspects of cities, their physical manifestations in his descriptions can be seen as extensions of his mind. In this way, in addition to his experimentation with the form of a “story,” Invisible Cities does fulfill Woolf’s vision of modernist writing.
Like Woolf, Calvino articulated goals for literature. Shortly before his death, Calvino wrote a series of lectures later published by his wife titled Six Memos for the Next Millenium in which he sets out these goals, each goal described by six different categories: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency (Calvino did not complete the consistency lecture prior to his death). In these lectures, Calvino outlines what types of experimentation in writing he admires most. In “Quickness,” he discusses how experimenting “with even shorter compositions, with narrative on a smaller scale, something between a fable and a petit poème en prose [little prose poem], in my book Invisible Cities” allows him to maintain a “tension” and a rhythm in his work (Calvino, Six Memos 49). Mark Wollaeger discusses how modernist writing can stem from experimentation in form, such as “magical realism as a modernist mode that emerges in South America and Nigeria from similar material conditions” as well as the “creolizations of modernism in Caribbean poetry” (12). Calvino touches on a similar discussion, stating that his attempt and experiments towards achieving a shorter and more condensed literature draws from traditional Italian writing, particularly in poetry.
Perhaps then, Calvino’s experimenting in these concise forms is a modernist move similar to those discussed by Wollaeger. Throughout the rest of his lectures, Calvino often returns to praising conciseness in literature and the ways that much can be said with few words, even “immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimension of an epigram… literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought” (Six Memos 51). Though Calvino does not focus as intently as Woolf on transforming interiority into literature, he does advocate for experimentation in new forms, making a point to state that literature should aim to show the constant interplay between outer and inner worlds. This is not dissimilar to what Woolf advocates. Like Woolf, Calvino praises experimentation and, in his final lecture, promotes contemporary literature as “an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world” (Six Memos 105). This sentiment seems to echo that of Woolf’s in which she wishes literature to convey “life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?” (“Modern Fiction”). Both of these writers advocate for experimentation in fiction that will culminate in a literature more suited to capturing life than earlier forms have done. This similarity between these authors’ ideals likely indicates that Calvino adopted much of his techniques and attitudes in writing from the modernists, while expanding and adapting them to his time and personal beliefs.
Both writers also approach the characterization of cities in a modernist manner. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf describes London as an extension of Clarissa Dalloway’s spirit and interior life. Clarissa, when considering London and her connection to it, thinks
Somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself. (9)
For Woolf, the city here becomes shaped by all the connections among people, essentially becoming an extension of the self that will endure even after death. One of Calvino’s “Cities and Memory” sections describes a similar view of the city “Zaira.” This city, as Marco Polo states, consists “of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past… As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand” (Calvino, Invisible Cities 10-11). Both authors here conceive of cities as built and characterized by their relationships to their citizens, by the memories left behind, essentially describing the cities as extensions of their inhabitants. Though Woolf seems to concentrate on what Calvino would classify “Cities and Memory,” they both intersect in how they approach how cities interact with the past. Calvino’s Invisible Cities could perhaps then be viewed as an elaboration on this modernist idea initially proposed by Woolf, one that extends from Woolf’s more realist approach but pursues a more fabulist/fantastic path.
The similarities between Woolf and Calvino both in terms of their characterization of cities and in their attitudes towards the future of literature would suggest that Calvino is, indeed, a modernist writer. Despite his occasional leanings towards postmodernism, Calvino, in Invisible Cities at least, certainly seems more of a modernist than a postmodernist. Much of his writing and criticism appears to be an extension of modernist thought, especially that of Virginia Woolf.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. Print.
Calvino, Italo. “Italo Calvino on Invisible Cities.” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 1983: 37. JSTOR Journals. Print.
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.
Felluga, Dino. “General Introduction to Postmodernism.” General Introduction to Postmodernism. Purdue University. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Pilz, Kerstin. “Reconceptualising Thought and Space: Labyrinths and Cities in Calvino’s Fictions.” Italica 2 (2003): 229. Literature Resource Center. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Volume 4: 1925 to 1928. Ed. Andrew McNeille. London: The Hogarth Press, 1984. 157-165. Print
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, 1925. Print.