Finding New York in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I had the dream following the anniversary of September 11 this year, after I had seen the two memorial spotlights projected into the sky. As with all dreams the details are fuzzy, but I was on a train watching the countryside pass when a city appeared in the distance. I got off at the next stop, at a nameless place, to better see the skyline. The city I found was a reflection of the one I was trying to get away from: Out before me was New York. The nameless town I was in was separated from the city by a body of water, but it wasn’t anything like Brooklyn. There was so much grass and only a few homes that lined a winding road down to the water.
I stopped a passerby to ask how New York could be there. In an explanation only possible through dream logic, she told me that the skyline refracted like a reflection over their town — and wasn’t it beautiful?
“Isn’t it strange to have a skyline that isn’t even yours?” I asked her.
“We love it,” she replied in a charming English accent, “living in a small town and having one of the most famous skylines in the world.”
I’m a Brooklyn native who has always lived in New York, and the truth (the truth that might explain my dream) is that I’ve started thinking about other places I might want to live someday. I find myself on Google Maps, losing hours to street views of foreign cities. I look at apartments and imagine what it would be like to live there — someplace warmer, someplace cheaper, someplace unlike New York.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the imposter city, and the next day I dropped by my neighborhood bookstore for a copy of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The novel had been on my radar for six years since I learned it was one of Jonathan Lethem’s favorites.
The day I started reading it, I was sitting in a bathtub watching the pages curl. I travelled through Calvino’s 11 different kinds of places: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities & Eyes, Cities & Names, Cities & the Dead, Cities & the Sky, Continuous Cities, Hidden Cities. I reached the city of Valdrada and became entranced by its symmetry to my dream:
The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake, with houses all verandas one above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets look out over the water. Thus 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 two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.
Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a fictionalized conversation between the aging emperor Kublai Khan and a young Marco Polo. Although the book travels from city to city, their conversation is set in one place: a garden. The two ostensibly speak different languages, so much of what is understood between the emperor and the traveler is apparently shaped by large gestures.
“It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear,” Polo tells Khan, revealing that he is fluent in the emperor’s language. After describing a labyrinth of different cities, after trying to place where they might fall on an atlas, it’s clear that each city is the same city from different angles. Some readers like to say that it’s Marco Polo’s Venice; another way of seeing it is that every city is alike in its own way.
There are many facades to Calvino’s cities. There is Despina, which looks distinct depending on whether you approach it by land or by sea. There is Andria, which reflects itself in the constellations, and Olina, which can only be seen with a magnifying glass. Calvino’s cities are magical, dreamlike. Sophronia paints itself in two faces, one of which is always changing:
One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.
The eerie aspect of each of Calvino’s impossible cities is their parallel with reality. Across the street from my apartment is a large factory that’s been turned into a luxury condo. Down the street, along the Gowanus Canal, is a row of factories that’ve recently been knocked down, places that had been abandoned for years, places that will soon change completely.
Sometimes I worry that New York changes too quickly. I find myself clinging to things, silly things I wouldn’t have imagined, like the Kentile Floors sign or Joe’s Superette. “Brooklyn as brand has overtaken Brooklyn as place,” I remember reading in the New York Observer months ago. So many people move to New York looking for a different version of the city where I grew up. Sometimes, after living for so long in the same neighborhood, it’s easy to be envious of that, to want to move somewhere without nostalgia, to move somewhere that feels totally new.
Invisible Cities isn’t a book about places as much as it’s about the way we choose to live wherever we are. The trading city of Eutropia paints several versions of itself with the intention of satisfying every citizen’s desire to relocate when they are no longer happy where they are:
On the day when Eutropia’s inhabitants feel the grip of weariness and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his house and his life, debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip. So their life is renewed from move to move, among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams or winds make each site somehow different from the others.
In every one of Calvino’s cities escape is an illusion. Marco Polo’s way of seeing a place always comes back to Venice: “Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.” He explains that the atlas is the only thing that distinguishes each place. (He even locates New York on the map, describing its street grid cut by Broadway.) I don’t believe Calvino’s philosophy entirely — each city is different — but there is a part of me that likes to believe anyone could be happy living anywhere; it’s all in how you take it in.
Raissa is a city where life is not happy, but “at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its existence.” After finishing Invisible Cities I took a walk around my neighborhood and realized that the broken bluestone sidewalk was the same I had always known it to be but that everything above it had changed. I couldn’t remember where the abandoned houses were or what the coffee house on the corner used to be. New York fools you in that way: You can never get too familiar.
In that moment between the old and the new I saw New York for the many cities it could be, and for the first time in a while, I was okay with staying.