Invisible Cities: Philosophical sketches of imaginary cities

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Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino speculative book reviewsInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino has long been on my list of foreign writers of the fantastic who have been deeply influential to SFF writers while remaining only tangential to the genre. This would include the great Jorge Luis Borges, as well as Stanislaw Lem. All these writers revel in philosophical musings, magic realism, and intellectual play. They belong to the deeper end of the fantastic literature swimming pool, but adventurous readers and authors have often plunged into those depths to one degree or another.

Invisible Cities was first published in Italian in 1972 but appeared in English in 1974 and was a surprise nominee for the Nebula Award in 1976. It is a unique and almost unclassifiable work, a 165-page collection of brief 1-2 page vignettes much like prose poems, describing 55 cities all with women’s names. The book’s structure is very formalized, being further broken down into 11 themes: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities & Eyes, Cities & Names, Cities & the Dead, Cities & the Sky, Continuous Cities, and Hidden Cities. Given the number of hidden cities embedded in the stories, the real total is much higher.

Each vignette is brief and without characters — it simply described each city in poetic imagery. It is difficult to do justice to the incredible variety of cities that Calvino conjures from his imagination, so I will choose a single sample at random. Essentially any passage in the book is quotable, but conversely no single passage can encompass the myriad ideas and emotions that the book explores and conjures up. Here is an early passage from Cities & Desire:

But with all this, I would not be telling you the city’s true essence; for while the description of Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you. The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content. Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave. 

These stories are then framed by a recurring dialogue between an aged Kublai Khan and young adventurer Marco Polo. Polo is asked by the Khan to regale him with exotic tales of his travels to the far parts of the Khan’s vast empire, but as Invisible Cities progresses, Khan begins to question the reality of many of Polo’s more fantastic tales, and also turns the tables and offers his own ideas of imaginary cities. Their discussion becomes increasingly metaphysical, as the veracity of these cities is questioned, along with the capacity for language to capture the essence of these fabulous places. There is much debate over the nature of storytelling, imagination, and metaphysics. Again, a brief sample:

Marco Polo — It has neither name nor place. I shall repeat the reason why I was describing it to you: from the number of imaginable cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled without a connecting thread, an inner rule, a perspective, a discourse. With cities, it is as with dreams; everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like daydreams, 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. 

The cities that Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan are exactly that — dreams of the imagination, depictions of ideas, emotions, philosophies, semiotics, and explorations of language and poetry. So the book itself can be entered at any point, and any single conclusion may point to one aspect of the overall meaning of the book but will never encompass it completely. In more direct terms, the significance of this book cannot be narrowed to a single idea or phrase, but it touches on all these things, a literary experiment by a very daring intellect, and each reader will have varying emotional reactions to Invisible Cities. If that sounds like something you would like to try it should be a rewarding experience, as Kat and Bill felt (5 stars for them). If you prefer more traditional character- and plot-based storytelling, then it might be better to skip it (3 stars in that sense). Overall, I will assign it 4 stars.

~Stuart Starosta


Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino speculative fiction book reviewsI loved Invisible Cities so much that after I finished the audio version, I purchased a print copy for my coffee table and bought copies for some of my friends. I don’t disagree with anything Stuart says about the book — we just had different reactions.

Invisible Cities is certainly not a book to read for plot, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it straight through, either. I’d read the individual city “stories” as short meditations that are metaphors for life, memory, travel, love, and other aspects of the human experience and human nature. Every city, every image, is a metaphor and, as Stuart said, readers are likely to take away different interpretations.

Invisible Cities is highly imaginative and philosophical with an elaborate, even mathematical structure. I admired everything about it and now I want to go read it again. The audio version is narrated by John Lee, who is wonderful.

~Kat Hooper


Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino speculative fiction book reviewsI can’t remember when it was exactly that I fell in love with Invisible Cities, only that it was long ago and that Calvino had me within the first page or two. I’d never seen anything like it — its precise formality, its prose poetry, its linked vignettes and vivid imagery, the denseness of its sheer quotability, the way one could pause over a line first for its beauty and then linger over it for its condensed insights. As Stuart says, open the book at random and you’ll find a quotable passage.

It didn’t take long for me to devour much of Calvino’s other works (Cosmicomics is my second favorite, followed closely by If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler, but really, they’re all good), and not much after that I found Borges and Marquez and then many others working in similar vein. But of them all, Calvino and especially Invisible Cities are the ones I come back to time and time again. I have a copy upstairs, I have a copy downstairs, and I have a copy on my Kindle (which means I have a copy on my Kindle, my iPad, and my iPhone). And I’ve read it (or some of it) on each of those devices. As Kat says, one needn’t, or perhaps even shouldn’t — though I’m off mixed minds on that — read it straight through despite its slimness, so like a favorite book of poems it makes for a wonderful constant companion. The book you can pick up, or pull up, and read — from the beginning, the middle, from near the end — a few pages of when the mood strikes, when you can’t sleep, when you feel the need for some sharp beauty, when you want to muse on larger things than the day-to-day toil of your life. Not for everyone surely, though everyone should try it. On our star rating I’d give it a five of course, but honestly, that just feels petty and penurious. You don’t rank the ones you love.

~Bill Capossere

First published in 1972. “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.” — from Invisible Cities. In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo — Mongol emperor and Venetian traveler. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo diverts his host with stories of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. As Marco Polo unspools his tales, the emperor detects these fantastic places are more than they appear.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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8 comments

  1. Stuart, I understand where you’re coming from… but Kat’s reaction bumped this from “to read” to “must buy ASAP” for me. :)

  2. I agree with you guys, Bill and Stuart — this book is not for everyone and I can think of some readers who usually have similar tastes as me who would hate this one.

    Jana, you will love it, I think.

  3. Hi guys, I realized this book is really either a 5-star or 3-star book depending on readers’ tastes, so I compromised and gave it 4 stars. For those who love it even 5 stars is probably not sufficient, and for those who don’t like it they might not even finish it. It’s just one of those books, but I think we can agree the ideas and writing are truly exceptional.

  4. Amazing! (and another great city . . . )William Coles' The Plural I or Fencing with Words t Amazing! One of my all-time favorite books ever. It was a truly moving experience when I read it -- one of those experiences we all try to find again and again as we go from book to book over the years. After I read Invisible Cities, I devoured every book I could find of Calvino's (and then, a short time later, when I went to England, my main stack of purchased books were the Calvino books translated and published there that were unavailable in the U.S.!). And like Kat, I have given that book out to quite a few people. (except . . .) If I read it now, it could be hit or miss. Or if I'd read it two years before I did. In other words, it's a quirky book, and it's not for everyone. It's not even for anyone at ALL times! I think you've got to read this book at just the right time and have just the right interests. If the stars align, watch out. If they don't, ho-hum. I might not have even finished reading it if you gave it to me last week. I love so many of his books, but unlike Bill, I put If On A Winter's Night A Traveler at the bottom of the pile. It bored me. Clever, but, ho-hum. And that pretty much sums up Calvino's novels even if you like Calvino: You never know if you will love or be bored by one of his books. But if you have even ONE good experience with a Calvino novel, you'll try more. Personally, I like The Baron in the Trees, and though it's not as great a read as Invisible Cities, I also like The Castle of Crossed Destinies: it's about a group of travelers who sit and pass the time by telling stories in silence without words and with only tarot cards! (I fell in love with this book long before I got my first tarot deck, even). Here's the shortest way to summarize Calvino: He writes two types of stories: Those with and those without a gimmick, and if it's got a gimmick, then it could seem brilliant to you or the opposite, and it will depend on who you are and on your mood. That's it in a nutshell. I'm in one of my rambling moods, so two more points: 1. If you read the Castle of Crossed Destinies, make sure you get the physical copy b/c the images are important (I'm not even sure they make a digital version, and it certainly would not work on audio!). 2. Let's see if I can get some of you to read a comic (I know, I'm predictable): I have had only one other experience quite like reading Invisible Cities: Reading Issue #50 of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. This one issue, by the way, can be read without your knowing anything about the Sandman (The Sandman is Morpheus, the King of Dreams -- there, now you know enough to read it). This is a stand-alone story drawn by one of my top three comic book artists (along with J. H. Williams III and Darwyn Cooke). But be careful when you read it (oh, you've GOT to read it!) and don't peak at the last few pages. It will spoil the punch to the gut. And don't say, "I've been waiting to read The Sandman, so I'll get to it eventually." Issue #50 won't spoil The Sandman for you at all. It's a short story, perfect in every way. By the way, Neil Gaiman told every artist he worked with on the Sandman what to draw on every page and in every panel (just like Alan Moore taught Gaiman to do, since Gaiman didn't really know how to write comics at the time he asked for help from Moore). However, Gaiman let P. Craig Russell draw it however he wanted. Gaiman just handed him the story in prose and said do whatever you want. And it's the best issue in the series probably (certainly in the top 2-4 issues, but it's my favorite). It costs $1.99 to buy it on Comixology and you can login to Comixology with your Amazon account. How can you not read this issue?! It's 35 pages of sheer genius, and you love Neil Gaiman and you love Invisible Cities, so . . . . (Don't forget to use settings that will "show you the page on enter and on exit" so that you can fully appreciate both the full page layouts of the artist AND the intricate details when Comixology's Guided Viewer zooms in for panel-to-panel reading. Oh, it's so amazing, I wish I could read it for the first time again.) (And if you've bought any digital comics or do buy any digital comics via Kindle, you will find them in your Comixology library even if you didn't know you had a Comixology library! So buy the issue either place, signin to Comixology, and start reading -- It's another Beautiful City over which Calvino would have marveled!) (((((goodbye)))))
  5. Yep, Sandman Issue #50, Ramadan, has the most exceptional artwork in the series (P. Craig Russell), which would have been perfect for illustrating this book. Can you imagine if the entire book could be commissioned for a deluxe comic edition? My other favorite artists from Sandman are Michael Zulli’s work in Sandman: The Wake and J. H. Williams III & Dave Stewart in Sandman: Overture.

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