Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Review: "If on a winter's night a traveler"

Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (Mariner Books, 1982) is a complicated, exquisite exploration of writers, readers, and the act of reading. The "meta" nature of the text is clear from the first sentence ("You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler") to the last (which you'll have to read the book to get), and continually reiterated throughout. After the first chapter, the Reader discovers an error with his copy of the book, and in returning it to the shop initiates a series of events which result in his reading the beginnings of about ten different works, each very different from the next (and all of which somehow manage to connect).

Between these readings, the meta-story intercedes, as the Reader and the Other Reader take each others' measure and connect.

I found myself lost at times, having to go back and read the inter-chapter vignettes to make sure I knew what was going on between each story. But I didn't mind this - Calvino's careful language and lovely evocations of what it means to read and to be a consumer of books only made close examination all the more pleasant.

The wry, humorous observations about academics, publishers, translators, literary pirates, and readers are wonderful apt, and Calvino's opening lines about the original trip to the bookstore should sound familiar to anyone who makes that trip regularly (it was these, quoted in Eco's The Infinity of Lists, that made me pick up the book in the first place):

"In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must neer allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out: the Books You've Been Planning To Read for Ages, the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success, the Books Dealing with Something You're Working On At The Moment, the Books You Want to Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case, the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer, the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves, the Books that Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified. ..."

If you're looking for a complex, fascinating, novel from which you'll almost certainly learn something, I recommend this book. It's as nice a meditation on the art and science of reading as any I know.