What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972)

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino (1972; London: Vintage, 1997), pp.148

Subject Matter: Marco Polo describes 55 fictitious cities to the emperor Kublai Khan. The cities are generally uncanny or unhomely: for example, a city that expels all its waste on a daily basis into its outskirts, such that it is threatened with landslide; a city on stilts where everyone refuses to touch the ground; a city whose construction is never complete; a city with a parallel city of its dead citizens living alongside it. Each city expresses a distinct way of living, and even could be said to resemble a state of mind. Wild, untameable forces compete against forces of order and benign structure. Twinned, doubled, split and shadowed cities feature repeatedly: if these cities resemble characters, they feel like late 20th century, post-Freudian representations of existence. The cities all have notably feminised names (Irene, Clarice, Phyllis, Laudomia, Beersheba, etc), which implicitly contrasts with the masculine identity of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, but the reason for this is not made explicit. Ultimately, all these invisible cities speak to a single, imagined location – as Marco Polo puts it: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice’. 

Structure/Style: The city descriptions are grouped into eleven categories: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities & the Dead, etc, and there are 5 cities in each category. Each category is gradually introduced through an alternating, spiraling mathematical pattern. The detailed, technical focus of Calvino’s world-building can be related to both dystopian speculative fiction and travel writing, and there’s a definite philosophical edge. The dense, highly descriptive chapters read almost like prose poems. It’s not a book that can be read quickly. A recurring narrative ‘frame’ (conversational interludes between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan) introduces a political context for the city descriptions, and queries the meanings of these cities and their relationship to Kublai Khan’s empire. This book is the epitome of what can be called the “novella-as-collection” – in the main body of the book (the descriptions of the cities), there isn’t really a developing narrative situation – it is more like a series of portraits, individually dynamic but lacking a collective forward movement. Only within the “frame” material (the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan) could there be said to be any progression, as their relationship changes subtly. The main material reads more like a miscellaneous anthology. We are left with a novella that feels like it has rejected “plot”. Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, along with the recurring pattern of city descriptions, provide the necessary “thread” for it all to hang together.

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) Frame: The two very distinct types of material in Invisible Cities – the city descriptions and the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan – create the effect of a kind of scaffolding wrapping itself around the main body of the book. These conversations (between an authority figure and his more junior messenger/emissary, in which Marco Polo almost plays Fool to Kublai Khan’s Lear) add crucial texture to the themes the book explores: power, ownership, acquisition, ambition, politics, memory, language, journeys, time, acts of interpretation.

Invitation: Would it be relevant, in your novella, to use a “frame narrative” either at the beginning and end, or interspersed throughout, to add extra context to your main story situation? Or might you interweave two very different types of subject matter in some other way? How might that “narrative frame”/contrasting material add meaning and richness to the novella?

(2) Patterns: The city portraits in Invisible Cities are categorised in clusters of five (according to their titles) and then dispersed throughout the book – they can be read in the almost-random/spiralling order in which they are presented or a reader could sift through to pick out each group in sequence– Cities and the Dead 1-5, Cities and Memory 1-5 etc, Thin Cities 1-5 etc.

Invitation: How might you use patterns when sequencing your flashes? Might you create some groupings, either through a linking title given to each flash or through the subtler patterns of the subject matter itself?

(3) Meaningful description: Calvino’s descriptions of these imagined cities are so intensely vivid that each one is raised to the level of a philosophical statement, capturing an emotional state within each concrete physical description of the city’s structure. This is achieved by giving the reader very specific details indicating both animate and inanimate elements: “The man who knows Zora by heart… remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower, the melon vendor’s kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion…” (‘Cities & Memory – 4’, p.13). And the ingenious degree of variety within each city portrait creates contrast, tension, paradox, and development, so that not only is the animate contrasted with the inanimate, but the real is contrasted with the imaginary, vitality with entropy, the untameable with the ordered. Finally, each city-system has an impact upon the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of its visitors or residents.

Invitation: How might you raise up your descriptions of landscape and setting so that they suggest emotional states or philosophical truths? Can you get more specific and vivid in your descriptions? Can you understand better the contrasts between different elements of your settings, and what these contrasts signify (animate/inanimate, real/imagined, vitality/ entropy, wild/ordered, and so on)?

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