Invisible Cities

by Italo Calvino

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Critical Context

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Calvino’s novels typically concern themselves with the complex interplay of art and reality, life and artifice. Generally, his writings move toward a more open and openly delighted display of technique and literary skill, and in several of his later works he demonstrates his ability to hold the reader’s attention while ignoring or deliberately subverting the traditional expectations of plot and character development.

Invisible Cities is just such a work, and fits well into other Calvino novels such as Il castello dei destini incrociati (1969; revised 1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1977) and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981). In these later works, Calvino deliberately sets himself what would seem to be unpromising and even annoying conditions for his writing. The underlying schemes are elaborate, highly artificial, and seemingly inflexible. The Castle of Crossed Destinies bases its plot on two decks of tarot cards; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a series of ten novels which begin, advance to an exciting, critical point, and then abruptly end; Invisible Cities is the record of a dialogue that may never have taken place about towns which never existed.

Still, in all these works Calvino demonstrates that he is a master, even a wizard, with language and thought, equally adept at creating a fantastic city and revealing its philosophical nuances. On the surface, Invisible Cities seems a glittering bauble of a book, all fantasy and show. Underneath, however, the startling inventions and sly humor reveal a thoughtful meditation on life, art, language, and humanity—and their tangled relationships. On one level, the book delights the seeker of novelty and entertainment; on another, it rewards the serious, but not solemn, thinker.

Invisible Cities is a key work in Calvino’s later career, and one of his most inventive and enjoyable books. If art is a mirror held up to nature, as some would have it, then Invisible Cities is a mirror held up to itself, creating a bright and dazzling interplay of lights and reflections. For the perceptive and sympathetic reader, the book is its own best critical commentary.

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