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21 October 2023

Italo Calvino’s imaginary worlds

The Italian writer, born 100 years ago, first sought to reflect political reality – and then to redefine it.

By Jeanette Winterson

“Your cities do not exist. Perhaps they have never existed… Why do you amuse yourself with consolatory fables?” Le Città Invisibili 

Italo Calvino published Le Città Invisibili in Italy in 1972. He was just short of his 50th birthday. He had begun as a young neo-realist writer: political, contemporary, engaged with the turbulent aftermath of the Second World War, and the legacy of Italy’s long relationship with fascism. People sometimes forget that Mussolini was prime minister of Italy from 1922 – the year before Calvino was born – until 1943. The cosh gangs, and later, concentration camps, aligned with what was happening in Nazi Germany, but Mussolini was the original self-appointed “strongman”, and democracy disrupter, whose personal brand and best export was fascism.

Calvino’s parents hated the ruling Fascist Party. His mother was a pacifist, but she encouraged her sons to join the Italian Resistance. For nearly two years, Calvino hid and fought in the Maritime Alps – the mountain range that forms a border between Italy and France. It’s no surprise then, that Calvino’s first novel is a coming-of-age wartime story about a teenager who finds himself fighting the enemy while grappling with difficult questions about family versus country, allegiance and betrayal.

The Path to the Nest of Spiders (Il Sentiero dei Nidi di Ragno) was received enthusiastically in 1947, setting up the young man for a career as a contemporary novelist able to write about a conflicted and contradictory world order. What is surprising is that Calvino chose to turn away from such a destiny. That was not the writer he wanted to be. “I became aware that between the facts of life that should have been my raw materials and the quick light touch I wanted for my writing, there was a gulf that cost me increasing effort to cross.” (Six Memos for the Next Millennium)

Calvino continued writing non-fiction and journalism on the matters of the day, and worked actively in the Communist Party, but after a successful collection of short stories, realist in style, he found himself abandoning three novels in succession. Finally, he began to write a fable about a 17th-century count split in half by a cannonball – both sides of his body living on independently, but with diametrically opposed personalities. This story became The Cloven Viscount (Il Visconte Dimezzato, 1952). By imagining this story, Calvino imagined himself into being – and healed his own split psyche, just as the viscount is finally stitched back together to live happily ever after.

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[See also: Mick Herron and John Gray in conversation]

One of the many wonderful things about Calvino is that he is never fashionably cynical. Happy endings – where appropriate – are embraced. This happy new beginning allowed Calvino to write the kind of fantasy fabulae that opened up the stolid ground of the middle-class novel. Instead of pretending to talk about real life, Calvino went wildly into the life of the imagination. He discovered that he did not need to write directly about the world he lived in in order to mirror it. Like Perseus fighting the Gorgon, Calvino no longer looked straight at the monster, but at the reflection of the monster in his shield.

Twenty years later, Calvino had honed his method so completely that this little book called Invisible Cities bursted out of all confines. Every micro-story stands alone as a strange and troubling miniature world. Read together, these stories become both atlas and encounter. Narrated as an encyclopaedia of empire from the adventurer Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, these stories suggest a reality that expands until it can no longer be grasped. Instead, it must be understood through the signs and wonders that are its atomic truth. The buildings, harbours, houses, trades, the seemingly stuff of the real, are in themselves ciphers. Reality is found in the intersections, the connections, the idea of a system of infinite relationships – an idea Calvino loved from his readings of Ovid and Lucretius.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is less concerned with the illusion of physical reality than with transfers of meaning and “morphes” of form. This happens because a common “substance” unites every living thing – with the inevitable consequence being that one thing can easily become another (a woman can change into a tree, a king into a wolf). When Lucretius wrote De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in the first century BC he wanted to show, as a good Epicurean, that there is always an explanation for the way things are – but that the explanation may be odder than what we expect. In fact, he’s nearer to quantum mechanics than to the Newtonian universe that made the idea of vivid and busy “nothingness” seem silly.

Invisible Cities is built like a Boolean Truth Table. The mathematical table shows all possible combinations of inputs, and for each combination the output that the circuit will produce. It’s a logic operation. The categories we find in Invisible Cities – Hidden Cities, Cities and Desire, Cities and Memory, Thin Cities, Dead Cities, and so on – aren’t random. Once chosen, these “inputs” will reveal their “outputs”. Think of a Truth Table as including a column for each variable in the expression and a row for each possible combination of truth values (or cities in our case). Then add a column that shows the outcome of each set of values. That’s the dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.

The mapping out of possible truth values is the hot debate sparred back and forth across the space the two men occupy whenever they meet. At first, Polo’s space is offered as places he has seen and been. Gradually, the emperor begins to describe the cities, and Polo must tell him if they are real – moving carefully around what the word “real” means.

While living in Paris from the late 1960s onwards, Calvino became a member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a group of mathematicians and writers interested in a “potential literature workshop”. That potential would be realised by employing linguistic or mathematical constraints – or challenges – of the kind offered by Boolean logic. One of the members, Georges Perec, a cat-loving mystic, wrote an entire novel in French, La Disparition (1969), without using the letter “e”. He also devised what he called a “story-making machine”. This was ahead of the principle of AI-generated content – create a brief, set the rules, and let the “machine” find the story. Calvino enjoyed the combinatory possibilities that these restrictions allowed.

In Invisible Cities, Calvino set a simple rule: two protagonists. A table of categories. It’s a great idea if you can write. If not, well, feed it into a novel-writing programme and see for yourself what comes out. On the other hand, I am sure Calvino would be intrigued by working with an AI partner. The essence of the man as a writer was to be open to any possibility that
would let literature loose from the unacknowledged, unconscious, or culturally approved constraints swaddling it.

“The imagination is a kind of electronic machine that takes account of all possible combinations and chooses the ones that are appropriate to a particular purpose.” (Six Memos for the Next Millennium)

I used parts of this method when writing my first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). I decided that my chapters would be titled after the first seven books of the Bible, and that I would use some of the themes in those books to shape the content of my chapters. I also decided to remake myself as a fictional character. And I used fairy-tale elements to break up the narrative at key points of stress. Those were my “rules”. I was upset when Oranges was misread as realism and autobiography. I never wanted to be a realist writer, and I am not one.

[See also: JM Coetzee’s cold realism]

Like Calvino, I did very well with my first novel, and more of the same was expected. I felt alone and confused, but as a writer, your best friends are often dead, so I went back to Calvino’s writings to learn more, to take heart, and to write The Passion (1987). Calvino died in 1985, the year Oranges was published. I know that without him as a talkative and wise mentor, I would have struggled to understand my early path.

There are all kinds of things Calvino doesn’t do. He doesn’t do women. There’s a reader in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979)called Ludmilla, but she is more of an archetype than a person. There are no women as characters in Invisible Cities. Consequently, feminine emotion as we have come to expect it is absent in Calvino. He’s not interested in romantic love. He’s not concerned with what Freud would call ordinary unhappiness – or even ordinary happiness. His characters live in heightened states of intellectual curiosity. He’s not good on class.

None of that matters. His purpose – his achievement – is to exalt the imagination. To evoke images so powerful that the “real” world can disappear. And as it does, we are diverted from our day-to-day concerns to consider what is real enough to matter – and how much of our limited time on Earth is spent fussing over things that don’t really matter.

Calvino believed that literature must be ambitious and set goals outside what already exists. The novel as a story about contemporary life is everywhere, and it didn’t need to be done by Calvino. He believed that literature has a grand purpose – that, in fact without a grand purpose, literature has no real reason to exist. “Only if writers set themselves tasks that no-one else dares imagine will literature have a function” (Six memos for the Next Millennium).

What kind of function, we may ask? “Weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various codes, into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.”

The bedazzlement of Invisible Cities – its inventiveness, lightness, visionary power, philosophical enquiry, its capacity to be cumulative instead of linear, its descriptive delights and cerebral precision – shouldn’t distract us from its moral purpose, a purpose that shows itself more clearly as the exchanges between Polo and Khan grow darker. It is very far from a “consolatory fable”.

“He said ‘It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city…” And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’”

The Folio Society’s edition of “Invisible Cities”, introduced by Jeanette Winterson, is exclusively available at

[See also: Benjamin Myers: “Historical fiction is not all tabards and turnips”]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War