A Book A Week: If on a winter’s night a traveller

My Book A Week this week is Italo Calvino’s 1980 novel If on a winter’s night a traveller, translated from the Italian by William Weaver. This was quite an apt book to read this week as it happened. A relatively short read, I was able to complete it simply on my short commutes into town and back. It revealed, if there could be any doubt, that even as we each wish for more hours in the day to be able to fit in the myriad of ‘things to do’, ‘things we really should do’, and ‘things we would actually quite like to do’, there are these bits of in-between, dead spaces of time. “Mind the gap” indeed. Anyway, all that being said, I spent each and every day of the last week holed up in a library – reading for work rather than pleasure – and began to see that there might be some conflict of interest in setting myself up for a challenge that required me to read more but not anything strictly relating to work. I’m dwelling on these rather mundane thoughts not because I’m stilling trying to think about what to say about the book that I finished some time around 1am, but because this week’s book is, in fact, all about reading and books and narrative and also in some ways time and unexpected disruptions.

The novel begins addressing the second person, you, and talking about how you have picked up If on a winter’s night a traveller, about how you have started reading it, how you may have set yourself up in a chair or bed, on your front or on your back. From the very start you realise this is a different sort of novel (if the title hadn’t already given it away, that is). Each chapter subsequently alternates between ‘you’ and your reading experience, constantly flummoxed by an abrupt disruption of the copy of the book you are reading and the discovery of a different book (that you thought was in fact the book you were reading), and the openings of these said books. So between eleven chapters following ‘you’ on a story that lacks any obvious narrative propulsion, other than to find some kind of complete version of one or all of the stories you’ve started reading, are twelve story openings that are all in themselves beguiling.

Decades on from when this novel was first published, we have perhaps become a bit more cynical about these post-modern, post-structuralist experiments, but I think in this case it is really done with some conviction and style. I think it has an underlying premise throughout, which is to question our private attitudes towards what is a true and authentic text, and what it means to read a story from start to end. In ‘your’ attempts to read the books you are searching for, you are constantly frustrated by this dark underworld conspiracy and counter-conspiracy of artful forgers trying to mix up, muddle and mystify every novel they can get their hands on. As dystopian as this might sound to you initially, the chief counterfeiter in the novel, Ermes Marana tells you:

Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved, and who knows which authors’ names will be remembered? Some books will remain famous but will be considered anonymous works, as for us the epic of Gilgamesh; other authors’ name will still be well known, but none of their works will survive, as was the case with Socrates; or perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer.

And later, as you discover more and more about these underground, dark sects, the Archangel of Light and the Archon of Shadow:

The former are convinced that among the false books flooding the world they can track down the few that bear a truth perhaps extrahuman or extraterrestial. The latter believe that only counterfeiting, mystification, intentional falsehood can represent absolute value in a book, a truth no contaminated by pseudo truths.

The protagonist ‘you’ does not seem to be all that convinced about all this, driven as he is by the narrative conceit of trying to find the woman he loves in amongst all this chaos (she is the Other Reader, you see), but these are all really quite intriguing ideas that confront our preconceptions about what constitutes a text’s value – its content, its author, even just its title? How many authors (not to mention historians, politicians, and all sorts) spend their lives trying to come up with ‘original’ and profound new idea, trying to make a name for themselves, and how many still end up with a shade of an idea that is already out there? Perhaps all the stories that there are ever going to be – that ever can be – have been written already. We already know every story. When we pick up a “new” novel, it’s really just a variation of something we have imbibed at some point already, where via a text or orally or just be living in a society shaped by them. This is the kind of post-structuralist idea that lurks around in most university arts departments, but it still has interesting contemporary relevance for society when it is mirrored in the theme of the futility of censorship.

The disorder pervasive throughout this book is obviously unsettling because, as the Reader, you would like each story to have its end, but could you not come up with a satisfactory end yourself anyway? After you catch on that none of the interspersed stories will be finished, your interest is still aroused (perhaps annoying so) by each new one but at the same time, you don’t allow yourself to get too involved because you know its inevitable fate, right? It is all a bit of smoke and mirrors, you realise, conjured up most aptly in ‘In a network of lines that intersect’, a story opening in which a man, quite literally, becomes entrapped by his own obsession with kaleidoscopes and mirrors. A book so self-conscious of itself might sound a little weary, but suprisingly it rarely feels so. Knowing and light (light on its feet rather than a light-weight, mind).

Here’s a photo of Calvino looking sort of smug. Well, I did say I wanted a contrast with Plath this week…

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