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Invisible Cities

by Italo Calvino

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
7,956175813 (4.15)327
In Kublai Khan's garden, at sunset, the young Marco Polo diverts the aged emperor from his obsession with the impending end of his empire with tales of countless cities past, present, and future.
  1. 180
    Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (WSB7)
    WSB7: Both have wonderfully imaginative but controlled semiotic exercises.
  2. 151
    Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges (Carnophile)
    Carnophile: Both books are liesurely contemplations of fantastical situations, not plot- or character-driven, but conceptual.
  3. 113
    The City & The City by China Miéville (snarkhunt)
    snarkhunt: Calvino's book is a travelogue of impossible societies while China's book is a sweet little noir stuck in the middle of one.
  4. 30
    Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was by Angélica Gorodischer (spiphany)
  5. 52
    The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (Torikton)
  6. 20
    Tainaron: Mail from Another City by Leena Krohn (ari.joki)
    ari.joki: An allegory of the human condition by revealing one facet at a time through presenting a foreign, strange city with foreign, strange inhabitants.
  7. 20
    Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino (P_S_Patrick)
    P_S_Patrick: Thes two books are in some ways very like each other, and in some ways quite the opposite. In Mr Palomar various locations, things, and thoughts are described precisely with the utmost eloquence and detail, whereas in Invisible Cities, it is one place being described in many different ways, hazy, as if seen through lenses of different qualities, and warping mirrors. But the effect is much the same, both books give you something to think about, make you see things in different ways, and are a pleasure to read. Both books also contain no strong plot, and consist of many small and diverse sections, and in a way, could be dipped into. Where Palomar gets very much into the mind of the protagonist, and his fixed, elaborate, and definite interpretations of reality, Invisible Cities is similar in that the recollections are also told from the point of view of the narrator, but differ each time, none being tied to reality, all of them containing aspects of truth found through how you interpret them. If you enjoyed reading one of these books, you should enjoy the other.… (more)
  8. 20
    Solution 11-167: The Book of Scotlands by Momus (Kolbkarlsson)
    Kolbkarlsson: Written in the same vein, The Book of Scotlands lists a series of alternative scotlands previously unheard of. Every Scotland is written in it's own style, but with similar wit and daunting imagination.
  9. 10
    Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente (PhoenixFalls)
  10. 10
    Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson (WSB7)
    WSB7: Each has a partially factual/partially imagined frame.
  11. 10
    Marcovaldo or The Seasons in the City by Italo Calvino (unctifer)
  12. 10
    The Logogryph: A Bibliography Of Imaginary Books by Thomas Wharton (unctifer)
  13. 10
    The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo (Jannes)
  14. 10
    Paintings by Victor Segalen (defaults)
    defaults: A series of descriptions of imaginary ancient Chinese paintings. Uncannily similar in tone, hieratic and surreal, rabbit-holes inscribed in rabbit-holes... and written several decades earlier.
  15. 32
    The Dictionary of Imaginary Places: The Newly Updated and Expanded Classic by Alberto Manguel (VanishedOne)
    VanishedOne: One is systematic and compendious, the other flows freely from one impression to another, but both flit between windows onto imaginary vistas.
  16. 21
    Viriconium: "The Pastel City", "A Storm of Wings", "In Viriconium", "Viriconium Nights" by M. John Harrison (Torikton)
  17. 00
    Freud's Alphabet: A Novel by Jonathan Tel (hdcanis)
    hdcanis: A novel starring a historical person (Marco Polo or Sigmund Freud) exploring a city (Venice or London) in fragmentary manner, each fragment handling a different aspect of the city.
  18. 00
    Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will by Judith Schalansky (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Little vignettes about places. Calvino's are more fanciful and there's a twist, while Schalansky's are little anecdotes based on actual bizarre and out-of-the-way places.
  19. 00
    Ring (Swiss Literature Series) by Elisabeth Horem (Nickelini)
  20. 11
    Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin (spiphany)

(see all 26 recommendations)

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» See also 327 mentions

English (154)  Portuguese (Portugal) (5)  French (4)  Italian (3)  Dutch (3)  Spanish (2)  Norwegian (1)  Catalan (1)  Hebrew (1)  Greek (1)  All languages (175)
Showing 1-5 of 154 (next | show all)
Early in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, he describes a moment when some of the characters walk near a cathedral and are able to hear "its bells ringing changes, mostly just tuneless sequences of notes, but sometimes a pretty melody would tumble out, like an unexpected gem from the permutations of the I Ching". Similarly, in this collection of descriptions of imaginary cities, sometimes each metropolitan litany produced an arresting simile or piece of imagery, and sometimes they were just a few paragraphs of "literary" writing that made next to no impression at all on me. I don't want to be contrarian, but is this book really so highly-regarded based merely on the neat sentences Calvino sometimes comes up with? It can't be the philosophical ideas, because those are either somewhat boring, or unoriginal, or both.

For an example of boring, in "Cities & Eyes 1", Marco Polo is telling Kublai Khan about the city of Valdrada on the shores of a lake, where "the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror.... The twin cities are not equal, because nothing that exists or happens in Valdrada is symmetrical: every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and gesture inverted, point by point. The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them." If I were writing a paper on this book in a freshman English class, I would say that the story "was an exploration of the concept of duality" or something like that, but it isn't: the whole description of the city is barely a few hundred words, and does nothing other than describe a city and its watery doppelgänger. Similarly, for an example of unoriginality, at the beginning of chapter 7 there is an exchange between Polo and the Khan about the difficulty of telling the difference between dreams and reality:

"Kublai: Perhaps this dialogue of ours is taking place between two beggars nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco Polo; as they shift through a rubbish heap, piling up rusted flotsam, scraps of cloth, wastepaper, while drunk on the few sips of bad wine, they see all the treasure of the East shine around them.
Polo: Perhaps all that is left of the world is wasteland covered in rubbish heaps, and the hanging garden of the Great Khan's palace. It is our eyelids that separate them, but we cannot know which is inside and which is outside."

It's like Calvino is expecting his audience to have never heard of Zhuang Zi's dream of the butterfly, or any of the zillion other manifestations of this idea.

Even the central conceit of the book, that Polo is describing the city of Venice by describing its opposites or metaphors for it, doesn't feel like it needs a whole book to describe it, even one as thin as this. Not that it isn't a pleasant read, with excellent descriptions and use of language and so forth, but I simply had no reaction to most of it. Exceptions include "Cities & Desire 3", which vividly describes how different a city can look depending on how you arrive; "Cities & Names 4", about the cyclic nature of urban life; "Cities & the Dead 3", with its vivid vital necropolis; and a few others, but for me most of the pleasure lay in the combinations of words Calvino found (and how translator William Weaver interpreted them), and not really in any of the concepts. I make an exception for the conversation between Polo and Khan at the end of chapter 7, which hilariously sounds exactly like two people having a bad drug experience.

"Kublai: To me this conjecture does not seem to suit our purposes. Without them we could never remain here swaying, cocooned in our hammocks.
Polo: Then the hypothesis must be rejected. So the other hypothesis is true: they exist and we do not.
Kublai: We have proved that if we were here, we would not be.
Polo: And here, in fact, we are."

Whoa dude, far out!

Ever read that Borges short story "The Lottery in Babylon"? Despite its greater economy with language, it's about ten times more memorable than most of what's in here. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Perhaps I read this book wrong and didn’t savor the ideas sufficiently, but I didn’t find it remarkable. There were moments of poetic grace and Borgesian fancy, but the city chapters felt like intros to 55 different sci-fi books that cut off abruptly. Many of the sentences were just random lists of adjective and noun pairs with no discernible verb to announce action other than their existence. And there were a LOT of naked women lounging around in public urban spaces to fuel the male conqueror fantasy. ( )
  jiyoungh | May 3, 2021 |
As a child I remember being mesmerized by a collection of fairy tales. I could read with proficiency for my age – maybe 6 or 7 – but much of the meaning escaped me, although I could sense, or guess, much of it. At the end, it did not matter, because I was enthralled by the images and language.

Invisible Cities took me back to that early reading experience. I felt lost at times, searching for the meaning when the surreal and exotic images made me drunk. There is a philosophical deepness to this book, which is very elusive: almost impossible to grasp, just glimpse. Yet, at moments, it surprisingly takes form and content with obvious clarity.

How to define it? A series of poetic parables with ambiguous meanings, surprises and fantastic geography? Dreams or nightmares full of longing, desire and enchantment? A travel book for terra incognita?
Probably all of the above and none of it.

I loved it!
( )
  RosanaDR | Apr 15, 2021 |
I have never been to Venice but I’m from an island where all the trees were cut down hundreds of years ago in order to build it. The trees never grew back and now it’s just barren, just shrubs and rocks. It’s weird to conceptualize Venice as a city that exists because of that absence. Like it’s a puzzle piece that fits perfectly into the crater of this island to make it whole. Anyway, that’s not really relevant to this book.

Calvino, flexing his descriptive writing muscles, paints pretty pictures here. It’s dreamy and serene. A pick-up-and-put-down kind of book. ( )
1 vote MiraMacNeill | Apr 4, 2021 |
I'm not sure I completely understood everything in this odd little book, but it has an interesting premise that is going to make me see cities in quite a different light from now on (well, when we're allowed to travel again, anyway!).

Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan stories of what seems like many different cities. Then we find out that they're all about the same city - Venice. Some of the cities are truly fantastical in nature, while others are more mundane. My favourite was Eusapia in Cities & The Dead 3, where a duplicate of the city lies underground to house the dead, "to continue their former activities". Chilling!

I think this is a book to savour over many weeks or even months, taking in one city in each reading session. I read it very quickly because it's the subject of one of my MA seminars this coming week, and I probably didn't take in as much as I should have! I'm hoping the discussion will shed some light on the more opaque themes of the book. ( )
  mooingzelda | Feb 21, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 154 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (32 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Calvino, Italoprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baranelli, LucaContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kapari, JormaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nieuwenhuyzen, KeesCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pasolini, Pier PaoloAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Riedt, HeinzTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vlot, HennyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Walsmith, SheltonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weaver, WilliamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expedition, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.
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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.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In Kublai Khan's garden, at sunset, the young Marco Polo diverts the aged emperor from his obsession with the impending end of his empire with tales of countless cities past, present, and future.

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