Sunday, 24 February 2013

Week Eight - Jeanette

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972)
Recommended by Rupert

Rupert and Kathryn (my best friend) had just got together. The three of us were driving somewhere, probably for a mooch around the record shops of north west London. It was only about the third time Rupert and I had met. We were all chuntering happily away about the Girls In The Garage compilation LPs.

Kathryn suddenly exclaimed, ‘I’m so glad you two are getting on!’

‘Well, we do like lots of the same things,’ said Rupert.

Perfectly in tune, Rupert and I said: ‘Like Kathryn!’

Yes, Rupert and I do like lots of the same things (although Kathryn remains the thing that we each like best). I am in awe of Rupert’s literary taste. I pretty much know that any book he recommends me will be a challenge. I don’t mean a willfully awkward read, nor something full of tricksy prose: but a book that challenges the way I think.

One of the earliest books Rupert and I discussed was Georges Bataille’s Blue Of Noon. I gave a brief nod to Bataille’s Story Of The Eye last week, and Blue Of Noon is equally brilliant, if unsettling in a totally different way. After talking of our mutual admiration for Bataille, Rupert pointed me towards Henri Barbusse’s Hell: I read it and my mind was blown.

Rupert says he found out about a lot of his favourite literature in his early twenties through reading the music press. Rupert has one of the country’s best record collections, and he is particularly attracted to the independent spirits of post-punk and 80s cerebral indie. He would read interviews with artists he admired in the NME, they would namecheck books, he would read them. In this way, he came upon some of the twentieth century’s most remarkable modernist works.

I had read the little Penguin 60 Italo Calvino, Ten Italian Folktales, many years ago, and greatly enjoyed it. Calvino’s rolling of language was divine, and the content appealed to both my Aesop- and folklore-loving tastes. I had always intended to read more.

Gore Vidal says of Invisible Cities:

Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.

Thanks for that, Gore. Let’s give it a go anyway.

Invisible Cities is a series of short prose descriptions of locations in the Mongol Empire. The travelling merchant, Marco Polo, tells them to the emperor Kublai Khan; every so often, the tales of the cities break off for a conversation, or a chess game, between the two men.

The city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection.

Yes. For these cities are entirely created by words. Unlike Polo’s genuine travelogue (the thirteenth century work The Travels Of Marco Polo), Invisible Cities constructs the imaginary rather than maps the real. Some cities are grounded, and it’s easy to believe that they exist.

A stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness.
                                                            (Eudoxia, ‘Cities & The Sky 1’)

Others initially seem impossible in the corporeal world. Yet, deliberate over them, and they become deeply plausible. What seems more fanciful than Argia, a city with dirt instead of air, where the residents’ bodies decay quickly with damp (‘Cities & The Dead 4’)? But, then, what happens after a natural disaster vomits the earth into a city? What is Trude – ‘the world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end’ (‘Continuous Cities 2’) – if not a prescient comment on globalisation?

I found Invisible Cities an interesting contrast to the book Jude discussed in Week Three, Jane Jacobs’ The Death And Life Of American Cities. In Jacobs’ work, she considers the function of a city, and how it should serve its people. As does Calvino.

It is pointless trying to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
                                                                                      (Zenobia, ‘Thin Cities 2’)

How a city is designed, and how this moulds its populace is a strong philosophical idea in Invisible Cities, and nowhere more so than in the sad case of Perinthia. ‘Nature’s reason and the gods’ benevolence would shape the inhabitants’ destinies’, a team of learned astrologers argued, as they set about designing the perfect city. But:

In Perinthia’s streets and square today you encounter cripples, dwarves, hunchbacks, obese men, bearded women. But the worse cannot be seen: gutteral howls are heard from cellars and lofts, where families hide children with three heads or with six legs.
                                                                                       (Perinthia, ‘Cities & The Sky 4’)

Were the astronomers’ calculations wrong? Or does Perinthia actually reflect what the gods’ desire for human destiny?

And then, there’s my favourite, Sophronia. I grew up in Norwich, and every summer my parents and I would day-trip to the seaside towns of the Norfolk coast. Some of these are beautiful; some of these are gaudy, tatty blots of unhappiness. Look at Hemsby:

Like many seaside towns, Hemsby is divided into the tourist Hemsby - all one-armed bandits and fatal-looking funfairs - and Hemsby village, a quiet residential area.

The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great rollercoaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement.

Every year, one half of this city is taken away. It is not the half of the funfair; it is the half of the administration, the money, the public services. And what happens to the half that remains?

The shout [is] suspended from the cart of the headlong rollercoaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again.
                                                            (Sophronia, ‘Thin Cities 4’)

Invisible cities are memory, invisible cities are the future, invisible cities are life, and invisible cities are death. And, sometimes, as I walk around Sheffield, I think of how my own emotions have grown and crashed on its streets. Then, visibility or invisibility, it suddenly makes no difference.