Recently, my students at the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong Joint Institute are reading and studying the style of Italo Calvino in his Invisible Cities, and to say the least, they find it frustrating. This book, like many of his books, is hard to categorize and fails to be a novel in any traditional sense of the word. The climax is in the middle of the book, there are only two characters who never really develop or face any solid conflict, and instead of a plot there is only the thoughts and reflections of what a city is and the human reactions to those cities. The entire book is a thought experiment, and I love this book desperately. I love it for how unique it is. I love it for how much it makes me think, and I love it for trying to do something different so boldly.
I would never try to write such a novel at this point in my life because I think it would be impossible to publish or market. It is the kind of novel an experienced writer can put out because he or she has a predefined market, but for me, a writer at the start of his writing career, putting out such a novel would be a challenge.
That said, I think there is much to be learned from Calvino, and what I would focus on would come in the form of adjectives and reversals of expectations.
Adjectives are often redundant in writing. In many beginning writer’s works, I find that adjectives only serve to reinforce what I imagine to already be there rather than complicate the noun it modifies. The tall basketball player feels like a rather weak description because I imagine that most basketball players are rather tall. On the other hand, if the writer chose to describe the basketball player as confused or wide or comic, then the basketball player is now more unique. What was the rough idea of a basketball player is now etched into my mind as a reader. Calvino is a master of the odd adjective.
In many ways, I’ve always felt like Calvino takes odd adjectives to a level that most readers are not prepared for. Despite holding an English PhD, I often have to reach for the dictionary sometimes when reading him because some of his word choices are so specific as to boarder to confounding. Since his book is mostly comprised of descriptions of cities, he has to really push the descriptions to make them more unique and make them feel special to the reader. For example, the first city of Diomira is a “city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower.” Each of these descriptions features strong adjectives that make the city of Diomira to be more unique.
At times, he falls so in love with his descriptions that they seem to go on and on in an endless list, and they give the feeling that a traveler might have walking through the city, with the stream of buildings and landmarks all around them. In the city of Zora, a traveler might remember “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, the Turkish bath, the cafe at the corner, the alley that leads to the harbor.” This epic sentence is so filled with specific images and adjectives that you almost get the feeling that you yourself are walking towards the harbor, which is certainly a success in writing.
The other successful lesson that I think can be taken from Calvino is the value of telling. As writers, the idea of showing versus telling is one that is given to writers on day one. They are told to write and then told to show. Calvino shows for most of his pieces, but he also tells at very key moments. From time to time, he pauses, tells the reader a profound idea that they would have never gotten on their own more than likely and then moves on. He is able to do this, though, because he earns the tell.
For example, let’s look at this short paragraph at the end of one one of his city descriptions. He has spent the better part of a page showing Olivia, but after this long description, he brings it all home with some telling of Olivia. He notes that, “This perhaps you do not know; that to talk of Olivia, I could not use different words. If there really were an Olivia of mullioned windows and peacocks, of saddlers and rug-weavers and canoes and estuaries, it would be a wretched, black, fly-ridden hole, and to describe it, I would have to fall back on the metaphors of soot, the creaking of wheels, repeated actions, sarcasm. Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.”
This hard reflection back on his own description has been earned because he has already shown it as clearly as it can be shown. He has described it in great detail. Now he is giving readers a bit of payoff by telling them something profound. As a result, I don’t think he is breaking the show don’t tell rule. Instead, it must be modified and become more nuanced, “after you have shown as best as you can, consider a sprinkle or two of telling.” As writers, we always hope readers will understand our pieces through our shown scenes, but sometimes, telling can take your work to a place you would have otherwise never found.