‘I speak and speak,’ Marco says, ‘but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.’
If I were marooned on a cliffless-island and could take only one book, it would probably be Invisible Cities.
Italian postmodernist god Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities congeals poetic swirls of history and lore and make-believe into a single story in which the 14th century Venetian merchant-explorer, Marco Polo, describes the many cities he has visited to the great Mongolian emperor and merchant of death, Kublai Khan. The book is not your standard issue page-turner. It has a very formal, mathmatical structure of chapters that are broken down into eleven themes – Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & The Dead, Thin Cities and so on – each theme returned to again and again as Marco tells Kublai about 55 of the cities he has known. There is no resolution, no familiar arc, no second act and all the cities are actually the same city – Venice, Marco’s home.
Oddly, it is precisely this repetition that makes it so you are able to read the book again and again. Every time I flick open a page I find something different, something more, a subtle angle of a sentence, a new way of holding a word, a different position from which to understand it all.
It doesn’t hurt that I do not live in the City & Memory. I seem to forget almost everything. Details, names, faces, books and climbs beyond knowing whether I loved it or didn’t, whether it impacted me or didn’t, everything seems to disappear.
Sometimes when I can remember routes, particularly when I was on them for the first time, tied in at the bottom and begun, my mind turns to books that reading for the first time left my entire being as if swollen by their brilliance or their newness. Shame, 1066, 26 Views of a Starburst World, Notes on a Suicide, Gods Without Men, Leaving Atocha Station, Howl, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Thunder Crack, Ao Nang Tower, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Endless Pitch, Mr Joshua, After Midnight, the Free Route, Skink, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Fuhrer Eliminate. The giddy rush of joy at the appearance of perfect sentences, the revelation of a new word, the possibility in beautiful ideas, finding the rhythm that holds it all together, getting lost in the turning of pages as it all unfolds. The terrifying anticipation. Sometimes when I finish a book I am left hollow at knowing I will never be able to read it again for the first time.
In the last few years I have repeated lots of routes, some that I have done countless times. Warm-ups, laziness, compromise, decision fatigue, the ever-tightening clutches of life and its constraints, all of it leading me time and again to the base of the known. And at the same time I have also been thinking a lot about Invisible Cities.
In trying not to shut myself off, not to be dismissive or petulant or blasé, I’ve come to think about these, The Repeated, as routes of Memory, some of Desire, some The Dead, and some as Thin. I’m visiting them all. There is a joy in returning to a book you love – or loving a book you return to – waiting for the parts that you remember strongly, the familiarity like an embrace, being taken aback by things you’ve forgotten. In the search for the new we can forget about the beauty in repetition, like the painter’s unending mission to draw the perfect circle or the baker kneading in the wee hour’s of the morning once again in search of the perfect loaf. You have to approach the repeat in the right way, with openness and in active pursuit of something be it perfection, surprise or a challenge to a failing memory. If you just tie in for another mindless burn you’ll have no hope of ever reaching the invisible city.