If on a winter’s night a traveler

CalvinoThe Short Version: The reader picks up the latest novel by Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler – but a few pages in, his reading is interrupted because of a printer’s error. Flummoxed, he attempts to retrieve the whole book and falls into a strange, seemingly-never-ending pattern of getting the first bits of a story without anything more to show for it.

The Review: I’ve known about this book ever since reading Cloud Atlas, largely because of David Mitchell’s professed love for it and how it influenced the structure of that marvelous novel. But it was only at the behest of my BookClub that I finally picked it up – a fitting turn of events, considering that this is a book that (at the end of all things) is largely about a love of reading and the adventure of doing so. The second-to-last chapter, where our unnamed narrator (Us? You? Me? Calvino? Someone else? – we are all, when we read, reduced to the same pinpoint of Reader) ends up discussing stories and reading habits with several scholars, seemed to me to house the point, in a way: reading is simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) a solitary experience, unique to each reader in how they interpret any given book or how they read in general, and also a universal one, because we’re all reading the same words even if we’re experiencing them differently. What greater joy could there be?

Unfortunately – and perhaps this is because this book has been built up so much for me – I found that Calvino’s writing lets him down on trying to get this message across. The chapters written about the Reader are fine in and of themselves, but it is Calvino’s pastiches that are… well, they’re sometimes fine and sometimes kind of bad. Mitchell learned from but also transcended Calvino in this – to our great benefit, as readers.
It perhaps defeats the purpose and asks too much of the novel, but wouldn’t it have been something to really experience totally different stories each time the Reader opened a new book? To really get a sense of the whole “it’s a completely new story” thing? But Calvino’s mystery reads rather the same as his action which reads rather the same as his Western which reads rather the same as his Russian novel which… and so on. It is a failure of the reader to wish for a different book than the one they are reading (even simply insofar as to say that one should’ve picked up a different book) – but I wished that the pastiches were more visceral. Imagine turning the page and suddenly finding yourself reading an actual Tolstoy novel… then, when the next section starts, it’s le Carré. And the next? Cormac McCarthy.  To really put the greatest writers in any given ‘genre’ up against one another in that way.  I’m almost tempted to re-read Calvino’s book in such a way – because I don’t know that I could read it again with the stories he currently has in there.

This is a shame, really, because it turns out there’s an overarching narrative to the whole thing. In any description of this book, I’d never really gotten the sense that it was anything other than (like the first half of Cloud Atlas) the beginnings of stories without the ends – but there is a curious and often humorous tale weaving this ten pieces together. The Reader is unexpectedly wrapped up in a sort of conspiracy, really – there is a bit of mystery to it as well as some clearly-shading goings-on with translation and foreign rights and publishing ephemera that nobody in the wider reading population will know or care to know. He keeps ending up just starting a book and each time he tries to track down the rest of it, he’s delivered another book – a book that, oddly enough, has a long title that all kind of blends together into a single opening sentence. (Savvy readers will spot that in the table of contents, by the way – so I don’t consider it a spoiler. Also, this book came out in 1979.)
There’s an engaging lady who comes into his life, another reader – and I, as a young man who has always judged a person on their literary habits, took to that immediately. I’ve had those awkward conversations with pretty girls in bookstores & bars – and I have those slightly-less-awkward but just-as-nerdy conversations with the pretty girl in my apartment these days. (We also have those conversations at bars, in bookstores, and nearly everywhere. It is nerdy.) And I won’t spoil the final chapter but a massive grin split my face, because it is the perfect sign of to a love letter to reading and the reading life.
I just wish that the novel had held together better. Calvino pretty much always sounds like Calvino here – and that felt a little disappointing, to be honest.

Rating: 3 out of 5. I wish the pastiches had been better, is really my thing. The conceit of the novel is excellent and, as a passionate love letter to reading, the book is in the top tier. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that while Calvino can write ideas really well, he can’t always pull off the actual delivery. It doesn’t help, perhaps, that I read Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas first – a book that takes on a bit of Calvino’s conceit with its own twists and changes. But Mitchell, a consummate chameleon of prose, outstrips his inspiration. And so is an idea enough to sustain a book? Or must the writing hold up through the decades?

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