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Some thoughts on ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino

But these are the cities of Italy. You read about them in brochures. You contrast the brochure with the reality you are sure is there. These are not cities you know about via history, modern literature and anecdote. These are the cities that you read about in old books – and all of them seem traceable not to Venice (as is supposed to be the case) but to the descriptions of the heavenly Jerusalem. You cannot imagine events going on in these cities, one does not see them as having independent, living cultures of their own. The objectification of these cities disallows anything much beyond a visionary sense of them – and in that only is any meaning invested. Are these cities all arid, even the maritime ones? They have the meaning that the two characters Marco Polo and Kublai Khan invest in them. As for what we think of these two cerebral conversationalists, their modes of communication and their existences are even more remote than the cities they consider. Like ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’, this book is a grid: it can be read straight through, or you can follow the two men’s dialogue, or the special aspects of cities numbered throughout. Oulipo at work. So why am I dissatisfied? Why do I want to run back to Jan Morris? Perhaps because everything is too easily accounted for.

Entry in Notebooks, 11th December 1989 


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