A wondrous catalogue


Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities
Le città invisibili (1972)
Translated by William Weaver
Vintage 1997

In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.

After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.

I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

The author postulates a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in 14th-century China. Polo’s trips through the domains of the Khan culminate in reports to the emperor, initially prompted by objects from the cities Polo has supposedly visited but later, as the Venetian starts to master the language, by direct speech. Each city has a name such as Eudoxia or Octavia, quite obviously a woman’s name, and each of the fifty-five conurbations described has a peculiarity that differentiates it from all of the others. One is surrounded by water, another has a vast hinterland; another still has a hidden subterranean counterpart while a further one is distinguished by the views at roof level.

This concept of gaining knowledge about the general from the particular, whether from an object or a reported aspect of the city, is quite clearly inadequate to usefully convey the totality of each city, as soon becomes clear: as Marco’s cities proliferate Kublai Khan begins to suspect that only one city is being described and that is Venezia, La Serenissima, the City of Bridges or Queen of the Adriatic. This moment of realization (if the cover blurb has not already given it away) creates the consciousness that Jorge Luis Borges often produces in his short stories, where, aided by the catalyst of magic realism, normal consciousness metamorphoses into that awareness of the Fantastic that we encounter on holiday .

Calvino compounds this feeling of disorientation by introducing into Polo’s accounts of his medieval cities anachronistic details that are only possible in the twentieth century. He further subverts matters by reversing the usual model of the master-disciple dialogue drawn from Ancient Greek examples: who, in these conversations between emperor and visitor, is the one to whom deference is due as the teacher? Is it the mighty Khan or the lowly Polo?

And, just as doubt has been expressed that the historic Marco Polo actually journeyed to the Far East, with his tales perhaps ghost-written by a fellow prisoner when he returned to Italy, so we soon stop suspending our belief in the conceit of these fictional descriptions and conversations being historically plausible. Instead, we start to understand the narrative as a series of meditations for us moderns to ponder on: if Venice can be described in more than fifty ways and one still not get to its essence, how much less so can we comprehend other cities, states, peoples or persons in a brief instant?

The descriptions of the cities are relatively short, a page or two at most, and have been rightly described as prose poems. I really enjoyed Calvino’s collection Italian Folktales and the individual ‘tales’ in Invisible Cities captured much of the same tone and purpose.

There is much else to consider in this novella, such as the elaborate structure that Calvino founds his narrative on, or the ability of any translation, even this excellent one by William Weaver, to adequately convey the subtleties of the author’s language without copious notes and a working knowledge of Italian; these are matters to perhaps contemplate more fully after further readings.

For now, this observation: I followed Invisible Cities by reading another of Donna Leon’s thoughtful Commissario Brunetti crime novels. These are set in a Venice which is not the tourist’s destination but which is nevertheless a bona fide city with ordinary and extraordinary inhabitants and where goodness and wrongdoing intermingle. It is a city largely invisible to the visitor on holiday even if all too obvious to Venetians themselves, and as such is eminently suitable for inclusion in Marco Polo’s wondrous catalogue, Calvino’s modern classic.

Review first posted 16th December 2012; no particular reason to repost except that September 2019 was the month Venice was said to be finally banning large cruise ships from its historic centre, but later reports reported this was only a statement of intent, not a directive

14 thoughts on “A wondrous catalogue

  1. Hello Chris,
    Thanks so much for checking in — hope you’ll stay with me. This is
    fascinating and I am so inspired by your Arthurian background! I am writing a Middle Grade historical fantasy for girls loosely set in this period — perhaps
    you can give me some advice. Calmgrove — a lovely name!


    1. Happy to advise if I can, Karin, though my interests in Arthuriana are wildly diverse, being a Jack-of-all-trades but master of none! Is this the Renaissance novel about Britomar you mention in your ‘About’ pages? It sounds very ‘Fairy Queen’ to me!

      Thanks for the compliment about the name: I thought, being made up, it would be unique, but I see it’s not, with streets and commercial interests also claiming it. Never mind!


  2. I’ve yet to try Calvino and this sounds a good deal more enticing to me than some of his books. I love the idea of ‘holiday consciousness’ – it was only when our Canadian relatives came over for a visit and I became the tour guide for their trip that I realised I knew very little about my home city and country. I guess we just know the bits we know and ignore the rest.


    1. I can be boring as hell with visitors, telling them details of local sights and tidbits of history that I’m sure won’t interest them, but I can’t help it!

      And yet I’ve found that when we’ve been about to make a major move—from the city to the countryside, or from the countryside to a small market town—we’ve made a conscious effort to see those places and have those experiences which we’d neglected during our time there, knowing that they were always there and taking them for granted. Until it was time to leave them. It was then we felt like visitors, enjoying things for the first time, an aspect of holiday consciousness I suppose.

      I should try some more Calvino. I know I’ve got a slim volume of short stories somewhere to polish off.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this: Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.

    I’m going to try it myself.

    And conurbations. How wonderfully you write, Chris. Your posts are smooth and nicely nuanced.

    I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Captivated by it all, as anything involving Marco Polo, telling tales, describing cities.

    Only once, back in Madrid, in one of our every three years visit, I felt that rush of discovering my town with new eyes and senses. But it’s usually the tourist in your known places the one who has that fresh and sharp look at what we take for granted or which gets dull after the daily friction against it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s easy to conjure up ‘holiday consciousness’ I find, Silvia, we just have to have friends arriving imminently and we notice the house through their eyes — the scuffs on the wall, any chipped paint on the woodwork, the dust on odd surfaces!

      But it would be an interesting to write about one’s town like Calvino describing Venice, trying to describe it in as many different ways as possible.

      Thanks, as always, for your kind words about my writing. I do try, particularly, to write the sort of thing that I’d like to read myself—I don’t think we can do much more than that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Truly fascinating, Chris, and the “holiday consciousness” is something I’ve resolved to try once I get too used to my surroundings 🙂 Calvino’s book definitely goes on my TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ola! Apart from the catalogue itself I did like the Scheherazade aspect of Polo’s account, almost like the thousand and one nights feature of the Arabian Nights framework which I think Calvino models this on. I don’t think I brought this out much in my review.

      Liked by 1 person

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