Wednesday, 1 May 2013

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (Italo Calvino)

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is one of the more imaginative books I have read. Like a car full of clowns, it’s packed full of wackiness just bursting to get out and make you smile.

This book’s hero is you, the reader. The first chapter describes your attempts to get comfortable and concentrate on this new book you’ve just bought. And then, in the second chapter, the novel begins. It seems like an engaging story, perhaps a thriller, a spy story with hints of espionage. You’re hooked. But then - the third chapter explains - there is a printing error and the part of the book you’ve read is just repeated over and over again. Oh no! You go to the bookshop to try and purchase an error-free version. You end up picking up a pretty girl and a new copy which, in the fourth chapter, you begin to read. But it soon becomes clear that this is not the same story at all... You read on anyway. It is about two people who are about to completely switch lives. How intriguing. And there’s a girl involved. She causes the two main characters to get into a dramatic fight. You’re hooked! But the reading experience is frustrated, and - again - it is possible to get no further than the end of the first chapter.

In fact, every even chapter of Winter’s Night is the first chapter of a new novel. And every odd chapter covers the main story-arc that explains why you are starting all these damn books. This story-arc takes you - the hero - on a wild caper around the world, there’s international book smuggling, rouge-translators, censorious dictators and even space for a little bit of a love.

My thoughts

Winter’s Night brought to my mind At Swim Two Birds, Tristram Shandy, Paul Auster, Nabokov, Borges, and the Eyre Affair. I would file this under inter-textual meta-fiction, and I have a bit of a soft-spot for the genre.

That said, I found reading this novel slightly numbing. Every time I got to a new opening chapter, I would sigh, look up and want to put the book down. That’s because it takes a bit of effort to start reading a new book; you have to learn about a new world and a whole new set of characters. And it would be easy to resent that effort, if there wasn’t a return on your investment. And there just isn’t in this book. Ultimately, since the opening chapters don’t ever go anywhere, it felt slightly pointless reading them. I knew that I was going to be left hanging and disappointed, so I didn’t emotionally invest in any of the characters.

That meant that I found ‘a book of first chapters’ a bit of a gimmick. It’s a really neat idea, but it actually got in the way of telling a good story. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if Calvino had in some way wrapped up the myriad of stories he started. But I understand that would have defeated the purpose.

I felt the same way about the main character. When I first opened the book, and saw that it was all about ‘you, the reader’, I got a real rush of delight. ‘That’s me!’ I thought.  But that feeling wore off pretty quickly. Obviously I wasn’t doing any of the things that the book described, so ‘You’ stopped being ‘me’ and simply became just the name of the book’s main character. Again, it felt slightly gimmicky because, although it’s a brilliant idea, keeping it up for the whole book seemed redundant - and even detrimental - to my enjoyment.   

One more thing, the story arc didn’t stick as close as I would have liked to coherence. Great novels can have whacky things happen, and great writing can be written hazily and ambiguously as though looking through a smoke-filled room. But I think Winter’s Night tries to do both of those things in the same novel, and I’m not sure they go. To me, it started to feel like absolutely anything could happen, but it just didn’t matter because none of it was real.

I did like this book. I really did. There was a breathtaking amount of originality in there. And Calvino is clearly a phenomenal writer. Perhaps my reservations just come down to my philosophy of reading. I like books that contain truths about human nature, that deepen my understanding or sharpen my emotions. Calvino offers a more aesthetic enjoyment -  reading as pleasure for it’s own sake, not to get anywhere (even to the end of the book) but simply to enjoy the cleverness, and quality of the writing. It’s the kind of pleasure you get from dipping your toes in a cool mountain stream, feeling the water flow gently over them.

If you like this book, I think you will very much like two novels by Flann O’Brien - At Swim Two Birds, and The Third Policeman. To my eyes they were similar - exceedingly well written, and lots of fun - but even more imaginative, inventive(!) and crazy than If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

In fewer words

This book is a little bit bonkers, and it’s bursting at the seams with the sizzling crackle of a technicolour imagination. This book isn’t just in 3D - it’s in 7D! Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense. Neither does the book. But it will overwhelm your senses, and come at you from every direction. And the hero of it all, is you.

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