A graduate writing course discussion on Italo Calvino and his fabulist novel Invisible Cities

My IDS graduate course in advanced writing at Northwestern U is well underway and we (my students and I) are at the end of our first week. Such fun times! Working out a few kinks though with Canvas and time zone differences for assignment submissions, as I have students attending from other parts of the US. We're reading Calvino and engaging in some healthy discussions about fabulism and prose poetry, the author's format for the work. He recently passed away this year, leaving a good legacy of writing behind that instructs and inspires us, as I know it has for me. May his soul rest in peace and find great and endless pleasure in those fantastical boundaries and cities, which he has penned.
Book Cover

Book Cover "Invisible Cities" by Calvino (Wiki)

Some of my initial thoughts on our discussions for the first 5 chapters of Invisible Cities for this week: I said that we see the interchange taking place between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as a certain kind of inter-dependency between them. By this I mean that the Venetian traveler does not wish to displease or upset the emperor, and at the same time Khan himself leans on Marco Polo in a way as to learn and interpret the nature of his vast empire through Marco's eyes (Isn't the emperor bored by his other advisers?). I align with a student's view of Kublai Khan's vision and how he sets out to "instruct Polo to find his dreams for him" (JB). And hence, Calvino's brilliant and fantastical essence of the novel. JB offered another interesting view: "Polo wanted to open Khan's mind to the possibilities for his city, but to not look at the surface of the structure, but the means in which it is built." I agree with her view here and added that Marco Polo can offer Kublai Khan no empirical consolation except to make the ruler see a good measure of the effects of his own power, which is the one absolute thing, while everything else—the cities and their forms, their inhabitants—are just memories shimmering and moving in our imagination which their symbolism engenders. I did wonder though if Calvino was actually performing a kind of self-examination of his present-day Italy, of Venice. 

Calvino provokes an incredible aura of mystery. JB, my student, said that the author wants us to "complete the journeys and spaces" in his novel. We do, and cannot help doing so as readers, even if the descriptions of his countless cities read as sentimental artifacts of an imagined and invented past, a past that exceeds our own imaginations but now becoming more real to us through the conversations taking place between the emperor and Marco Polo. Calvino's brevity of poetic prose is like a restless Solar Flare, fit to burst out into the boundless spaces of our minds with its creative energy and intensity. JB mentioned in particular her liking for the city of Armilla, which happens to also be a favorite city of mine, among many others in the book. Surely Calvino must have dug deeper into the Romans' pragmatic methods for capturing and controlling water, and their empire has left us an incredible legacy of plumbing and water management, which we depend on and improve today. And yet I want to insist that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 BCE) invented plumbing a few thousand years before the creativity and practicality evident in ancient Rome (509 BC).