Italo Calvino sparks obsessions
May 20, 2005 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is so called because it asserts that what makes up a city is not so much its physical structure but the impression it imparts upon its visitors, the way its inhabitants move within, something unseen that hums between the cracks. This, however, has in no way dissuaded people from attempting to give form to his works. One such example is the Hotel Tressants, a building in Menorca, Spain containing 8 rooms named after and inspired by various cities from the novel. Meanwhile, artists offer illustrations1,2,3, installations 1,2,3,4,5, music1,2,3,4,5,6 and dance, hypertexts1,2, computer programs and animations, even View-Master slides, while intellectuals offer readings and commentary1,2, lectures1,2, and critical texts1,2,3 sparked by the man and his writings. It has been dubbed "The Calvino Effect". Do you know of any more?
posted by Lush (37 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
no, but you have given me plenty to work through. Thanks, so much. This is a wealth of information to process.
posted by beelzbubba at 2:41 PM on May 20, 2005 [2 favorites]

The semester-long project of our interactive design class back in grad school was to choose one city from Invisible Cities and turn it into an interactive art piece. I chose Laudomia, the dual city of the visible born and the invisible unborn. I constructed a long, involved Shockwave piece out of it, emulating a Mac OS X interface with kinetic sequential photos of Washington, DC, trying to symbolize a hypocritical city of cold marble and unrealized and frustrated ideals. The final Shockwave file was over 530MB, and, ironically, would only run in Mac OS 9.22.

Now I can't find the CD.

(And I also just realized that the born/unborn dichotomy of Laudomia would have made an interesting pro-life/pro-choice piece, but it never once occurred to me at the time.)
posted by brownpau at 2:42 PM on May 20, 2005

I love your post. Lots to chew on. Thanks!
posted by leotrotsky at 2:56 PM on May 20, 2005

This is a beautiful post Lush. This is one of my favorite books of all time - one of those books you can read all at once and then go back and just re-read passages. Thank you!
posted by vacapinta at 3:06 PM on May 20, 2005

Wow. Intimidating post. Passionate and beautifully made. Thank you.
posted by cascando at 3:17 PM on May 20, 2005

Holy crap! What a fantastic post, Lush. Thanks!

Invisible Cities has long been a favorite book of mine. Not easy to get through, though it's not long. But proof positive (to me at least) that it is in fact possible to have a compelling story with no plot and where, despite the existence of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the main character is not a person of some sort (hey... why does this make me think of the 2001/Kubrick thread?).

I was told that was the case with Perdido Street Station, but considering how bad the writing is in that book (I threw it down in rage half way through), I can't agree. Perdido's city is such an uninspired mish-mash of borrowed imagery from a long line of mostyly mediocre fantasy cliches, heaped upon each other in a painful effort to evoke OMG!! HOW CHARMING IS THAT!!! from the readers, while ultimately coming across to me as empty as the characters. A friend described it perfectly to me as 'Like Ankh-Moporkh... without the humour." Actually, not perfectly. Even without the humor, A-M felt far more compelling to me, probably in part because it's point wasn't simply to overwhelm. It had conceptual integrity.

But back to Invisible Cities... if you haven't read it, do. Only don't be surprised if it makes as much sense as a particularly confusing dream at first. Unless maybe you're versed in semiotics. But even without that background, I found it quickly washed over me, evoking emotions in a subtle way that would build to a striking extent without my realizing it and doing the same with concepts ranging from optical illusions to human psychology to existence itself. I'd frequently have to put the book down. First to decipher what the hell I had just read (I don't mean that in a bad way), then to wander off on my own trains of thought that were constantly being sparked.

Reminds me of a book I read last year, Einstein's Dreams, which riffs off of multiple realities, each playing with different repercussions of tweaking relativity. Another wonderful, non-linear and thought-provoking read. These are definitely not for everyone, but it's hard not to recommend them. Especially the Calvino. I wonder why Argentinian and Italian writers of the 20th Century had such a hard-on for the meta of signs.

Anyway, gonna spend a nice long time checking these links out. Then find another copy of the book so I can reread it. Thanks again, Lush.
posted by the_savage_mind at 3:22 PM on May 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

Now THIS is a proper Metafilter post. Outstanding.
posted by Toecutter at 3:27 PM on May 20, 2005

This is awesome, Lush, thanks. I love Italo Calvino, and his Invisible Cities is one of the finest books I have ever read.
posted by Goblindegook at 3:50 PM on May 20, 2005

I first got turned on to Calvino with his story "A Sign in Space", one of the Qfwfq-cycle short stories collected in Cosmicomics and t zero. It was in a collection of best-ever science fiction stories the title of which I can't remember.

My favourite novel of all time is If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which is a must for anyone who enjoys metafiction. One of the flaws in metafiction is that it can be cold and analytical, with characters that you often can't feel for. This is not the case with Traveler. It also may be the greatest novel ever published written to any great extent in second person:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel ever other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” . . . So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author...
Calvino wrote of icastico, the evocation of clear images through art (like schadenfreude, it's a word that doesn't translate simply into English). Calvino was a brilliantly imagistic writer, and this is seen best in Calvino's work in Invisible Cities.

I write of Calvino in superlatives, but I don't know how I can write about him without them. Invisible Cities is one of the greatest anti-novels ever written and Calvino's influence on modern fiction cannot be understated. TSM mentioned Einstein's Dreams earlier, which could never have been written without Calvino's influence. It is nearly a pastiche.

He did metafiction, anti-fiction, science fiction, magic realism, mythohistorical fiction.... And yet, he wasn't a post-modernist, which is something of a rarity among late 20th-Century experimentalists.

I jealously guard my first editions of Under the Jaguar Sun and Mr. Palomar. And I keep a knife handy. Hands off.
posted by solid-one-love at 3:51 PM on May 20, 2005

self link: much of my recent artwork uses texts from invisible cities.
posted by judith at 4:02 PM on May 20, 2005

I took a taster course at the Architecture school while I was at university, and one of the first things they had us do was read Invisible Cities, sketch out one of the cities, and then build it on a Saturday morning using cement and sand.

Unfortunately, it was freezing cold, so the cement hardened too quickly, half of the class didn't show up, and we were directly under a tree that was a major bird hangout, so we ended up with half-assed half-finished cities covered in bird shit.

And, yet, despite all that, it was brilliant.
posted by Katemonkey at 4:25 PM on May 20, 2005

This post reminds me of a beautiful hand-bound edition of Invisible Cities I found in designer Joshua Keay's site some months ago.
posted by Goblindegook at 4:27 PM on May 20, 2005

i have long dreamed of an ambitious live theatre adaptation of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler that strives to translate the metafiction into metatheater by aiming for the same beautiful equilibrium Calvino achieves between cliche and homage to all of the most recognizable forms and tropes within the medium.

I dream of a show that begins with a perfectly executed noirish film-to-stage train station psychodrama, only to be interrupted by some practical matter -- problems with the lights, a missing prop, a missing actor -- and then to bring the audience on a journey to go and find the rest of the show. Backstage, downstairs to the props storage area where sure enough the missing actor (say) is rehearsing a different scene. We see the scene, it is perfectly executed in style and substance but it is only part of something. We (the audience) (you) question the actor, ask to see the rest of the show or at least the script. it hasn't been written yet. the playwright is working on the scene in the lobby cafe. We find him there, just finishing and he hands it to a group of enthusiastic 'audience members' who do an impromptu staged reading but it is a different script. etc.

finally, we are led to the bowels of the theater where there is a nefarious group working to destroy the theater and we, the audience, become implicated in the attempt to save it or discover what it yet can be.

this, of course, would require the kind of space(s) and resources to which i do not now have access. but i'm always looking for producers!

i love Calvino.
posted by milkman at 5:47 PM on May 20, 2005 [4 favorites]

I jealously guard my first editions of Under the Jaguar Sun and Mr. Palomar.

Ooooooo, what I'd give to have those.

Thanks for the post Lush, I'm Calvino fan and you've given me lots to look at here. Slightly off topic: I'd like to throw in a plug for another superb Calvino book, The Baron in the Trees.
posted by btwillig at 5:50 PM on May 20, 2005

Wow, great post about an amazing book. Thanks!
posted by Staggering Jack at 7:23 PM on May 20, 2005

Thanks so much, Lush. I was planning to go to bed ... so much for that.

All you Calvino afficionados should read the collection of autobiographical writings Hermit in Paris, expecially his American Diary and all his writings about his experiences as a partisan during WWII.
posted by louigi at 8:29 PM on May 20, 2005

Thank you!
posted by Coherence Panda at 8:31 PM on May 20, 2005

stunning... I heart Calvino.
posted by moonbird at 8:52 PM on May 20, 2005

Thanks for showing me the Calvino. I can leave now.
posted by showmethecalvino at 9:13 PM on May 20, 2005

I think you are on to something

lush- thanks for this.
posted by pointilist at 9:32 PM on May 20, 2005

Brilliant post. Thanks!
posted by dhruva at 9:40 PM on May 20, 2005

Here's another take on one of the cities.
posted by dhruva at 9:44 PM on May 20, 2005

Holy Crap!!!!! Back in the mid '90s I was going to do my senior project/thesis based on Calvino's Invisible Cities. My 2nd reader was all for it, but my advisor talked me out of it for a variety of reasons I can't recall at the moment. I was actually quite pleased with what I ended up doing, but I've always wondered how the Invisible Cities project would have turned out. Thanks for the links, Lush. Very cool!
posted by shoepal at 10:02 PM on May 20, 2005

Invisible Cities has long been a favourite of mine, too: many thanks, Lush, for all these fine links. I recently found out about the Arion Press edition of the book, which sounds rather lovely…
posted by misteraitch at 11:32 PM on May 20, 2005

This is good, very very good. Thank you.
posted by .kobayashi. at 12:44 AM on May 21, 2005

What everyone else said. Lush, you are a hero.
posted by taz at 4:33 AM on May 21, 2005

Cracking post, thanks.
posted by jack_mo at 7:01 AM on May 21, 2005

An extra lump of kudos for you too...
posted by longbaugh at 7:38 AM on May 21, 2005

I am so happy to see fellow Calvino lovers coming out of the woodwork! I suppose I made this post in large part as a meta-tribute, but I wanted to find people to talk to about Calvino as well.

I find it difficult to articulate why I like Italo Calvino to those who have never read him. When it comes to giving the uninitiated a taste, I cannot even begin to quote any of his works because I end up wanting to quote the whole thing; the heartiest recommendation becomes a demand for commitment when entire books are involved, and some people just aren't ready to jump in so blindly. But how else can you properly appreciate such writing, if not as a whole? His prose is simple (deceptively so) and mellifluous even when non-linear in structure, containing the wisdom of the ages along with a childlike sense of wonder, as if to experience the world for the first time yet simultaneously comprehend its depths, seemingly endlessly fascinated and greatly humbled by it. It is the same with his autobiographical writings as well as his fiction.
"I set my hand to the art of writing early on. Publishing was easy for me, and I at once found favor and understanding. But it was a long time before I realized and convinced myself that this was anything but mere chance."
Such modesty! I never subscribed to the auteur theory before, believing it must at all times be about the art and not the artist, but I must make an exception for Italo Calvino. The man has singlehandedly restored my faith in people and the world at large.

And clearly, I am in good company. Thank you all for sharing your stuff and letting me gush!
posted by Lush at 2:01 PM on May 21, 2005

Lush, I don't have anything to add to your small fantastic city's worth of links, except my thanks for the love and craft that went into this post.
posted by melissa may at 2:22 PM on May 21, 2005

Oh, this is wonderful. Invisible Cities is my favorite book of all time. I know what you mean, Lush, by wanting to quote the whole thing. Calvino is a magician, he plays with words and abstract concepts with incredible grace. Have you ever read If On a Winter's Night A traveler...?
posted by larva at 11:06 PM on May 21, 2005

The Calvino Effect also made me think about something I read in Chuck Palahniuk's Diary - the Stendhal Syndrome. In his book he describes it as paralysis caused by viewing something mindnumbingly beautiful. This website makes it seem a little less glamorous, but still very interesting!
posted by larva at 11:09 PM on May 21, 2005

larva, yes! If on a winter's night a traveler was the first Calvino book I ever read, to which milkman up there pays a clever homage. On one level, it is a fine, well-told, tale - interesting, lyrical, thought-provoking. But it is also structured just like any other straightforward story, all elements comparable. On another level, it is the ultimate reader's manual, describing the reading process and the reader's inner machinations perfectly, all the while being self-referential. It does, after all, star "you", the reader, and the book you are reading itself. It calls into question the concept of the second person vs. the concept of "you" as pronoun. It gets confusing because all throughout, the main protagonist is served up from outside the book, but as the plot moves forward, it becomes less the reader per se and more of a character, a character referred to as "you", "you" as a naming device. On yet another level, it is the story of stories, deconstructing how tales come about, from idea to writer to publisher to reader. Calvino has a way of catching and defining the universality that threads things together and dressing it up with details quite lyrically, you just have to marvel at the craftsmanship that must have gone into the final work. I find myself having to pause every once in a while, just to think about what I'd just read. Or with a book like Invisible Cities, even when I stop, it nevertheless takes my breath away. As with solid-one-love, it is hard for me NOT to speak of Calvino in superlatives at this point, Stendhal's syndrome notwithstanding. :)

P.S. and totally off-topic: Wow, misteraitch's blog is amazing, btw.
posted by Lush at 1:53 PM on May 22, 2005

The 1995 film Palookaville was inspired in large part by Calvino's 'Adam, One Afternoon'.

Great work, Lush
posted by biffa at 6:21 AM on May 23, 2005

Kathy Pendergrast did a drawing series of world capital on plain paper that consisted of just the roads without context or scale. Fascinating stuff, you can see some here - she claims Invisible Cities as inspiration.
posted by blahblahblah at 12:15 AM on May 24, 2005

Oh good god!

Google PrintTM search results for 'Calvino'. :D
posted by Lush at 8:54 PM on May 31, 2005

Thanks Lush, I would never have thought of that.
posted by dhruva at 2:02 AM on June 1, 2005

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