A five star review
I hate flying. The claustrophobia of it. So usually when I return to Italy after visiting London I catch the train to Paris and then the night train to Venice. That’s my little extravagance. I catch the night train to Venice and not Florence for one moment. The moment of walking out of the station of Santa Lucia and beholding the Grand Canal. I sit on the steps and let all the activity on the canal wash through me. I’m not sure why this moment means so much to me. It’s not a moment I can or even want to explain. I remember a line from a novel I read where a character gazing out at the Grand Canal says, “I keep wondering when all this will happen to me.” Perhaps that’s it, Venice articulates some deep desire we all have or evokes a memory of something that has never quite happened.
Reading this for a second time is a bit like visiting Venice for a second time. A little bit of the magic fades but in compensation you notice lots of wonders you missed the first time. I read it in English this time. Now and again the writing seemed a bit clunky – “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here.” That “if there is one” is a bit of an eyesore. But it’s no less clunky in Italian – L’inferno dei viventi non è qualcosa che sarà; se ce n’è uno – you can’t blame the translator for translating it word for word instead of trying to improve the fluency of Calvino’s prose. .
This is probably the greatest book ever written about tourism, about the urge to escape the confines of where we live. Essentially Marco Polo is a tourist. And we all as tourists need an audience to show images of our travels to. Kublai Khan is the audience, the vicarious tourist. He’s also a warlord, and by inference every warlord intent on conquering new territory is a tourist and every tourist is a warlord in embryo. We all want to conquer new lands. We’re all hungry for new discoveries, new exotic possessions. But we all eventually have to go home. Calvino is constantly making the point that every city is essentially what we bring to it. He’s brilliant at capturing the deep division of perspective between the tourist and long term inhabitant. Florentines are famous for never looking at the city’s monuments. It’s become how they distinguish themselves from the tourist. They turn a blind eye. They stare at their phones while walking across Piazza della Signoria. Venice has almost been turned into a romance theme park – it’s called upon to provide a standard collection of microwaved emotions as efficiently as an atm provides cash. One of the wonders of Venice now is the people who live there. You need them to understand something of the true nature of the city. To get behind the postcard façade. There are times when it’s much more rewarding to watch a man bump a barrow down the steps of a nondescript bridge than gaze blankly at the façade of San Marco. Sometimes it’s these kinds of details that bring a place alive for us. Calvino’s deployment of these telling details is probably this book’s most stellar achievement and what makes it such a joy to read.
An alternative four star review
Calvino is one of the sacred cows of literature. He’s one of those writers who we’re tempted to pretend to like more than we really do, like Proust and Joyce, for fear of revealing some intellectual inadequacy. Interestingly for me, Virginia Woolf still isn’t one of these scared cows. When people don’t like Woolf they have more of a license to vent their scorn. It still hasn’t been officially recognised that Woolf is a great writer, by men at any rate. Often when there’s a list of the best novels ever written Woolf won’t feature at all, or if she does it’ll be her lesser but easier books like Mrs Dalloway or A Room of One’s Own that makes the list. (To be fair her genius is recognised in Italy and France; it’s in the UK she tends to divide opinion.)
So Invisible Cities vs The Waves. Invisible Cities is absolutely brilliant and inspired for the first fifty pages. But then it wanes a bit, gets a bit repetitive. Seems odd to say about a book of only 145 pages but might it have been better had it been a bit shorter? The contents page has the appearance of some mathematical formula, like a star map, so perhaps there’s some hidden genius in the design of this book. But if there is I didn’t get it and nor did anyone else judging by the few reviews I’ve read. It felt to me like the number of invisible cities we get was random and some were uninspired. If you took a single page out of The Waves it would collapse. You could take ten pages out of Invisible Cities without it being noticed. Also now and again Calvino is perhaps guilty of the kind of vacuous platitudes you’ll find strewn throughout the pages of The Alchemist. “Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.” That kind of thing. Looks great if you skim read it; becomes only a half-truth if you stop to think about it. So for me, The Waves wins over Invisible Cities in a heavyweight wrestling match.
Back to tourism
Once upon a time the world was getting smaller. Now it’s getting bigger again as terrorism creates more and more no go areas. You could say terrorism is a war on tourism. It’s diminishing one of the biggest cultural phenomenon of our times. That’s probably the most significant change terrorism is making to the world. It’s making us think twice about travelling. I watched a heartbreaking report from Aleppo last night –a once magical town that none of us will ever see again. How long before it becomes one of Calvino’s Invisible Cities?