If you are taking just one book on holiday this year, take the book I would choose as pillow and plate, alone on a desert island.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a series of descriptions, really conversations, told by his fictitious Marco Polo to an invented Kublai Khan. As Marco travels round the world on the Emperor’s business, his job is not to bring back treasure or trade, but to barter in stories – the accumulated wealth of his imagination.
Here are all the cities ever dreamed of; thin cities, cities and desire, cities and the dead, cities and memory, continuous cites, cities and signs. All are named after women – Raissa, Irene, Phyillis, Chloe… ‘In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the street are all strangers. At each encounter they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no-one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.’
Calvino was writing about Venice – all the Venice’s collapsed, folded or vanished behind the tourist façade. Anyone who loves Venice, knows that its true life is half-glimpsed or dreamed, that the city reconfigures itself, yielding suddenly as you turn into a deserted square, snapping shut, as you walk past San Marco.
Venice has not disappeared under the pressure of mass tourism – it has dissolved. It is no longer possible to look at the buildings and see anything of value. The only way to get at Venice is to use the water- its refractions, reflections, the play of light and shadow, and to re-create Venice where it has always been strongest – in the imagination.
There is a city surrounded by water, with watery alleys that do for streets and roads and silted up back ways that only the rats can cross. Miss your way, which is easy to do, and you may find yourself staring at a hundred eyes, guarding a filthy palace of sacks and bones. Find your way, which is easy to do, and you may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune, depending on your face.’
Not Calvino, me, writing The Passion in 1987 before I had been to Venice. The Venice I found when I arrived was not a disappointment – it was unreal. Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice is the one where every canal and palazzo and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venice’s, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value.
Venice’s extremes – its Disneyishness and its invisibility, are not unique, they are the lesser experience of many cities. In Venice the experience is concentrated. There is nowhere less rewarding, nowhere more maddening. The secret Venice guidebooks are useless. This is not New York or Rome. Venice can only be read as fiction. Visiting Venice is to become a fiction yourself – at least if you want to get any sense of it. The facts tell you nothing. This is a cusp city, working at the intersection of art and life – where the best fiction works too.
Reading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge fails us. So much of life resists the facts. Imagining Venice is imagining yourself, as Khan discovers – an unsettling exercise, but necessary, perhaps.