Hear Italo Calvino Read Selections From Invisible Cities, Mr. Palomar & Other Enchanting Fictions

The Trav­els of Mar­co Polo—tales told by the Venet­ian explor­er to Ital­ian romance writer Rus­tichel­lo da Pisa—purportedly describes in great detail Polo’s encounter with “The East,” a place in the medieval Euro­pean mind as alien and fan­tas­ti­cal as the inter­stel­lar realms of sci­ence fic­tion. Like oth­er trav­el nar­ra­tives of the peri­od (notably the spu­ri­ous Trav­els of Sir John Man­dev­ille), Polo’s sto­ries mixed accu­rate geo­graph­i­cal and cul­tur­al infor­ma­tion with folk­lore, myth, and Ori­en­tal­ist mis­ap­pre­hen­sion. While the appear­ance of mon­sters and mar­vels seems capri­cious to the mod­ern read­er, these ele­ments may have felt almost mun­dane to Polo’s con­tem­po­raries. Or maybe not. After all, the Ital­ian title of Polo’s trav­el­ogue—Il Mil­ione—may refer to Polo’s rep­u­ta­tion as the teller of “a mil­lion” lies.

But let us leave the puz­zles of authen­tic­i­ty to his­to­ri­ans. As read­ers, we get lost in these fas­ci­nat­ing romances because the worlds they describe are both so strange yet so unset­tling­ly famil­iar. Medieval trav­el­ogues like Polo’s open up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fairy king­doms with out­landish cus­toms thriv­ing almost with­in reach. These tales of strange and unknown lands were, after all, promi­nent inspi­ra­tion for C.S. Lewis’s Nar­nia books. (Lis­ten to the Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia in a free audio for­mat here).

For grown-up read­ers, no author bet­ter evokes the uncan­ny geopol­i­tics of the medieval imag­i­na­tion than Ita­lo Calvi­no, whose Invis­i­ble Cities imag­ines Polo’s sup­posed jour­ney to the impe­r­i­al seat of Mon­gol ruler Kublai Khan. In Calvino’s novel—more a col­lec­tion of prose-poems—Polo regales Khan with his accounts of 55 exot­ic cities, while the busy emperor’s func­tionar­ies come and go. “At some point,” says author Eric Wein­er, “you real­ize that Calvi­no is not talk­ing about cities at all, not in the way we nor­mal­ly think of the word. Calvino’s cities—like all cities, really—are con­struct­ed not of steel and con­crete but of ideas. Each city rep­re­sents a thought exper­i­ment.”

Sim­i­lar obser­va­tions can be made of any of the author’s odd­ly enchant­i­ng alle­gor­i­cal fic­tions—Sea­mus Heaney called Calvi­no’s sto­ries “fan­tas­tic dis­plays” inspired by “sym­me­tries and arith­metics.” In the audio above, you can hear the author read selec­tions from sev­er­al of his works, includ­ing Invis­i­ble Cities and Mr. Palo­mar, a work of “even more arch­ness and archi­tec­tur­al inven­tion.” Do not be daunt­ed by Calvino’s Ital­ian. I find it very pleas­ing to lis­ten to, even if I do not under­stand it all. But if you’d rather skip ahead to the Eng­lish por­tion of his reading—recorded at the 92nd St. Y on March 31st, 1983—it begins at 8:40 where Calvi­no reads from a sec­tion of Invis­i­ble Cities called “Thin Cities.” In this excerpt, Polo tells Khan of a place called “Armil­la”:

Whether Armil­la is like this because it is unfin­ished or because it has been demol­ished, whether the cause is some enchant­ment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceil­ings, no floors: it has noth­ing that makes it seem a city except the water pipes that rise ver­ti­cal­ly where the hous­es should be and spread out hor­i­zon­tal­ly where the floors should be: a for­est of pipes that end in taps, show­ers, spouts, over­flows […]

 You can read the remain­der of the “Armil­la” sec­tion here, along with oth­er selec­tions from Invis­i­ble Cities. A por­tion of the text of Mr. Palo­mar is avail­able here. Calvino’s read­ing is long—nearly an hour and a half—and very reward­ing, both for the rich musi­cal­i­ty of his accent­ed Eng­lish and the spell­bind­ing charms of his philo­soph­i­cal fic­tions. And if you are so inspired, you may wish to read Calvi­no’s short essay “Why Read the Clas­sics?” to which I often turn for a fuller grasp his wide-rang­ing lit­er­ary inher­i­tance.

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Expe­ri­ence Invis­i­ble Cities, an Inno­v­a­tive, Ita­lo Calvi­no-Inspired Opera Staged in LA’s Union Sta­tion

Watch a Whim­si­cal Ani­ma­tion of Ita­lo Calvino’s Short Sto­ry “The Dis­tance of the Moon”

John Tur­tur­ro Reads Ita­lo Calvino’s Ani­mat­ed Fairy Tale

550 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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