Fiction – hardcover; Everyman’s Library; 304 pages; 1993. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver.
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler was Italian author Italo Calvino’s much lauded 16th novel. A rather clever, knowing book, it pokes fun at reading, writing and publishing. From its opening passage, I suspected it was going to be a rather enjoyable read:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
But sadly, I found this book so clever as to be pretentious, and so contrived as to be patronising. Most of all I just found reading it an incredibly frustrating experience.
The nub of the novel, which was first published in 1979, is this: a reader tries to read Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler but discovers that the book is faulty. He takes it back to the shop for a replacement, only to discover the replacement book is also faulty. And therein lies the pattern: in alternate chapters we follow the reader’s adventures as he tries to track down a perfect copy of the book. This is interspersed with the actual text of the books he acquires, none of which turn out to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.
Confused yet? I found it excruciatingly perplexing in places, particularly as the reader’s side of the story is told in the second person, so the “you” feels like it is being addressed to you personally, even though it becomes increasingly clear that that is not the case. It gets worse when characters associated with the reader, including the enigmatic Ludmilla who also bought a defective copy of the book, cross-over so that they also appear in the text the reader is reading, blurring the lines between the reader’s life and the fiction he reads.
Essentially, this is the type of novel that just gets your brain in a complete muddle. And while I’m not averse to this kind of post-modernist technique, where the author also appears as a character (think Paul Auster or J.M. Coetzee), and where different literary styles and genres are “sampled” in the one novel (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), I found If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler rather exasperating.
It doesn’t help that the alternate chapters of the book, which are presented as opening chapters of what is supposed to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (but never are), is that they all end abruptly at a climatic moment, so you are left dangling and never find out what happens next. This happens 10 times. (At one point Calvino compares sex to reading, so perhaps these abrupt endings are his idea of a joke about failing to climax.)
Each of these 10 chapters are written in a different style or genre, so Calvino gets to show off his ability to write a satire, a romance, a thriller and so on. But unfortunately each chapter does not feel sufficiently different to the one that precedes it, so the “trick” failed to truly work.
The saving grace, for me anyway, is the illuminating insights and ideas Calvino presents about the intertwined and ever-changing relationships that authors and readers have with books. He makes it clear that every author is looking for the perfect reader, and every reader is looking for the perfect book. He makes other statements about different readers wanting different things from books, and that every time we read a book we bring with it our own prejudices based on our life experience. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that our enjoyment of reading a book can be influenced by something as inconsequential as to where we are sitting (or lying) when we read it and what is going on in our personal lives at the time.
While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas, his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me. The elegant prose and the courageous experimentation (with its nod to James Joyce), couldn’t make up for its lack of narrative drive, detailed descriptions and rich characterisation. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is one of those books that takes you right out of your comfort zone; it’s intelligent, a little bit witty, a little bit cynical but ultimately it’s too emotionally shallow to offer any real insight into the human condition.