I always like to compare Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities to The Twilight Zone, so here goes: Both are collections of sketches that function as especially elegant metaphors for the tiny but devastatingly important processes driving the human mind.
The Twilight Zone, as I hope you know, was an early-1960s American television show, mostly half-hour episodes of bizarreness. It’s beautiful, and still often available for your viewing pleasure. Some episodes are explicitly science fiction (time travel, space travel, aliens, &c.), others more horror-like (evil dolls, dead grandmothers speaking through toy telephones, monsters on airplanes, &c.). Some characters are cutesy, and some twists are corny, but the overall effect of being drawn into the Twilight Zone is one of astonishing insight into what people don’t talk about. Rod Serling, the host and creator of Twilight Zone, invites the viewer to consider what people’s fears mean to their humanity. TZ is a Cold War show, and in the situations it uses often of its time, but at the same time the stories told through those situations are remarkably timeless.
Invisible Cities is more recent, a book from the 1970s by the experimental Italian-out-of-Cuba writer Italo Calvino (I love it that the author’s initials are the same as those of the book–albeit only in English). I first encountered Calvino in my Expos class freshman year at Harvard, a course called “The Limits of Originality” in which we compared linked works of literature or other art. Cities, for which the “framestory” is a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, was paired with excerpts from The Travels of Marco Polo.
But, despite occasional specific directions between one city and another, Invisible Cities is hardly a travelogue. The cities–each sketched in a few paragraphs or at most a few pages–are fantastical and dreamlike, and generally not located in any geographical space. Each city has a woman’s name, and a theme. In each city, life is exaggerated in some pointed way–a strange relationship to their ancestors or descendents, or to the heavens, or to the neighbors that illuminates human relationships in our world.
Reading science fiction or fantasy I often find myself wishing that my inner world could be so externally obvious–that my body would begin to disintegrate without someone to love, or that I could bleed to death for breaking a vow. Yes, it would make life perilous in whole new ways, but sometimes I feel that it just might be worth it for my physical nature to reflect psychological stresses obviously enough for any bum on the street to see. (Maybe I’d be more attuned to them then, too.)
That’s what I get from both Calvino’s and Serling’s collections of oddities–a tuning to my nature and my neighbors’.
Also, after Expos class I made it a life’s goal to memorize Invisible Cities–I figured I had a good 50-70 years to work on it, and it’s not that long, and very poetic–but I haven’t made any progress. (Maybe if I actually owned a copy again … hmmm. I got so into Bookcrossing that all my copies were released “into the wild.”)