This week’s edition of Book Journeys is very special to me. I’ve chosen to zoom in on one author today–someone whose words have shaped me in a way I can only scrape the surface of! Follow me down into the landscape of whimsy, the world of a life-changing, era-defining author, Italo Calvino, through the lens of my eternal favorite book, Invisible Cities.
In the summer of 2015, I embarked on the first of a seemingly infinite number of drives up the I-5. Picture it: The concrete carpet unfolds in front of you, dripping with tease as it drags on aimlessly, taunting you with the faint glimmer of a destination. Cattle dot the hills like high-contrast confetti, but the stench that precedes them bodes poorly for their long-term plans. My brother comments, “How cute,” as we enter the methane cloud, slaughterhouses disguised as sanctuaries for these aimless grazers. It proceeds like this, five or six hours depending on if we stop for lunch at Subway. I turn my eyes down, bracing myself for the two hundred miles remaining, getting nauseous as I read in the car despite my mom’s repeated advice.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino: white cover, delicate and unassuming. But from his first words, I feel a cosmic cycle emanating from the page. He writes of Marco Polo, recounting the cities of Kublai Khan’s empire in the Khan’s waning days of life. These are cities warped by memory and the fallacy of language, essences remembered rather than landmarks visited or people seen. His fantastical anecdotes tempt me into a trance. I am seduced by this everlasting survey of places, sunk into the journey like a drive down the 5: the repetition implies a forward movement that I feel but I can’t quite place.
“The city is redundant: It repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind.”
When I arrive in Berkeley at the end of one of these drives, I am deemed collegiate as I move into a dorm and spend hundreds on textbooks I’ll put off reading. In my first months in the Bay, I am surrounded by this obsession with the present moment. Everyone around me starts dressing in tie-dye, demanding that the past is behind us and we just have to keep on swimming. Two of my closest friends take up yoga, start talking about meditation. They sing the values of vacating your headspace, following your breath, all these muffled echoes of token hippie jargon.
Aside from the fact that my friends had seemingly pulled this new life philosophy from a box of Whole Foods crackers, something about it didn’t sit quite right with me. I would combat their points with entry-level neurological evidence, a topic which I boasted my knowledge of with the confidence of a freshman six weeks deep into first semester, ignorant of the extent to which I don’t know sh*t. I’d claim that if we lived solely in the present moment, we wouldn’t have any stimulus on which to base our actions, no previous patterns to inform our next ones. Basically, if we have no memory of what we did in the past, we can’t know what to do in the future, which was pedantic, sure, but in essence it felt true.
I spent some time simmering in a coat of self-doubt, unsure if I should continue my anxious tendencies, evaluating the past in place of the present. And I took the refuge I always do when I find myself in this state: reading. I opened Invisible Cities to the pages sandwiching my fading bookmark.
“Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there…
At this point Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted, with a question such as: ‘You advance always with your head turned back?’ or ‘Is what you see always behind you?’ or rather, ‘Does your journey take place only in the past?’
All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey.”
In reading these words, I felt validated, correct, warranted in my straying from friends’ demands of “be here now.” I scribbled below this passage, “This is exactly the discourse I needed to hear right now” with the teeniest heart below it.
Every time we repeat that drive down the I-5, bodies in a metal box hurtling forward at 80 miles per hour, my mind retreats, falling back along the road, retracing its steps to home and beyond that, to all the years I spent there. Invisible Cities carries me back, and I walk through the landscapes of my memory. Moments are colored by melancholy as I split time between two homes. Berkeley and LA, they both warp each time I return, recalling the words of Calvino to provide me solace in a positive outlook.
“It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city its form. If you go by whistling, your nose a-tilt behind the whistle, you will know it from below: window sills, flapping curtains, fountains. If you walk along hanging your head, your nails dug into the palms of your hands, your gaze will be held on the ground, in the gutters, the manhole covers, the fish scales, wastepaper.”
Since reading Invisible Cities the first time (and second and third time), I’ve clung to Calvino’s novels both for guidance and for pleasure. Another of my favorites of his is the experimental and immersive If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. This story follows a form I’d never seen before, using the second person to narrate actions under the name of a character called Reader. Chapters alternate, the first and subsequent odd chapters detailing a journey of finding a mysterious, disappearing novel, while the even chapters each function as distinct excerpts of the books you, the Reader, have picked up. I am searching for a way to summarize the book more completely, to make that make more sense, but I’d lose so much if I tried to pin it down any more. All I can do is implore you to read it, to let Calvino entice you with the promise of eccentricity, love and intrigue.
My third Calvino recommendation is a more philosophical text entitled Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Written for a Harvard address, undelivered before his untimely death, Six Memos reads at once like a memoir and a forecast for the future. He speaks of his process, of the levity he gains as he abstracts from surface forms of people, places, cities. Individual essays on Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Invisibility, and Multiplicity reveal a storied career, narrated with intricacy, depth and measure.
As I look at my library now, toying with Calvino’s novels and glancing at the corners of endless streams of pages, I find that I have written the following words quite a lot:
My heart feels big.
I have scarcely experienced such a quantity of feeling than I did during the time I was reading Invisible Cities. I say “feeling” in the singular, not distinct emotions but that suffocating wave that comes up from your heart or your stomach, rises through your throat and stops you up completely. The type of feeling where you must close the book, close your eyes, re-regulate your heartbeat and think about just how much you are feeling right now.
As I sink into my couch even now, fingers interlaced around Invisible Cities four years later, graduated, my sentiment has not changed.
My heart feels so big.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!