"You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours."
I have heard of the term literary masturbation a few times before but I never really understood it until I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Maybe this is what people refer to when they say “writing for writing’s sake.”
Beautiful, melodic prose. Wonderful weaving of words. A melee of metaphysical metaphors. Dizzying, dazzling details. Vivid imagery. Descriptions beyond the ordinary man’s ability to describe. Magical. Moving. But sadly, all these leaving me scratching my head thinking, what the fafaya is this guy talking about? Reading it, I had the feeling that someone somewhere is enjoying all these. But I’m not part of the fun. Hence, now I get what literary masturbation looks and uhm, feels like.
"The city that they speak of has much of what it needed to exist, whereas the city that exists on it site, exists less."
In this novel, if you could call it that, the very thin and loose plot revolves around the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Some exchanges are amusing. Silly, even. But mostly, it is about the cities. About the most fantastic ways anyone can ever describe cities.
The invisible cities Calvino talks about is really just one city: Venice. But he describes Venice in the most interesting, peculiar, perplexing of ways. He never calls Venice Venice. Instead he assigns dozens of exotic names. Each name presents a different aspect of the city. He describes the city through its architecture and structures; through its culture; its inhabitants – dead, alive, imaginary, human or otherwise; through objects, mundane or extraordinary; through its daily activities of commerce and human drama; through nature and its elements; through demarcation lines distinct or blurred; through dreams; through entrances and exits; through myths; through events; through seasons; through its pathways. If there is a way of describing a city, Calvino has used it.
"Not the labile mists of memory nor the dry transperence, but the charring of burned lives that forms a scab on the city, the sponge swollen with vital matter that no longer flows. the jam of past, present, future that blocks existence calcified in the illusion of movement: this is what you would feel at the end of your journey."
Eventually, I warmed up to the story by the sheer beauty of language. By the time I got to the end, I felt like I had traveled a thousand miles, but still scratching my head with an ending as vague and confounding as the whole story itself. I still didn’t get it, but it sure was an amazing ride. To paraphrase a line from the book, "I regret having to leave the city when I barely graze it with my glance."