I found Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) strangely moving. Everything about it is elliptical, elusive. It is framed as a series of stories told by the traveler Marco Polo to the Kubla Khan. Khan is vaguely aware that while his empire has grown to enormous size he can already detect the first hints of its collapse. Polo’s tales, all of them about various cities he has visited, are intended to give Khan a sense of perspective. Each of the cities is different, marked by various fantastical qualities, but they also have elements in common. One point of these tales is that travel makes one aware of how large and diverse the world is and therefore reduces one’s sense of importance, in both time and space. Another point is transience. Many of the cities are tearing themselves down even as they rebuild. And the stories illustrate that one's individual perspective on the world is nothing more than that—an individual perspective among many others.
This book should have irritated me. Occasionally it did. I think of books such as Einstein’s Dream, over which many have raved, which to me seemed a kind of lazy trick. But Calvino’s fictional urban vignettes are so deftly rendered, in a sometimes hypnotic, rhythmic manner (the book as a whole has distinctive rhythms) that they form entrancing and unsolvable puzzles that draw the reader in.
The only actual city named here is Venice, the traveler’s home city. All of the places he describes may in fact be some version of Venice, gradually sinking beneath the waves. But what’s most at work here is Calvino’s incredibly fertile creativity.