You are about to begin reading a review of Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Close all those apps and alerts that might distract you. Best to turn off your e-mail entirely; there is always another message. Tell your friends on Twitter and Facebook that you’re going offline for a while.
Find the most comfortable position; seated on your sofa with your laptop on your lap or at your desk with the computer in front of you. In the park, on the beach, or on the train.
Well, what are you waiting for?
Italo Calvino begins his novel by addressing the reader directly, reminding the Reader (who later becomes more clearly a him) of the effort it took to obtain the book he’s about to read. He had to make it past shelves of Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages, Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success, and the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves, and find this, the book he’d come to the store in search of—Calvino’s new book. Calvino enjoins the Reader to see to it that he’s comfortable, is in a well-lighted space, and has everything he needs at hand. Now, with the preliminaries out of the way, the Reader is just about ready to begin:
You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t vary a great deal. So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be. Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.
Okay, not the subtlest metaphor there, but it certainly captures the ecstasy of reading, which is what this book is all about.
The novel appears to get underway with a story of a man who missed an important connection in a railway station. Just when it’s getting interesting, it stops. You, the Reader, realize that there’s been a printer’s error, and the same pages have been printed again. Off to the bookstore you go, looking for the remaining chapters. Instead, you end up with a different first chapter, also broken off when it’s getting interesting. The rest of the book is a series of opening chapters, each different from the last, alternating with descriptions of the increasingly complex efforts the Reader must go through to get a complete story—and the story of all these stories.
If this book sounds like a confusing mess, let me assure you that it isn’t. The chapters about the Reader are almost all charming or funny or wise—or all three. The Reader encounters another reader, Ludmilla, who reads for sheer pleasure, despite the scorn of her more analytical sister. There are academics getting into disputes over obscure languages and translations. False translations under the name of a popular author make their way into the text. A publishing employee finds it impossible to think of the books he sees being born and dying each day as the true books. Oppressive governments try to ban questionable literature. Everywhere there is some sort of barrier to pure reading. Lots of people are interested in books, but how many are interested in reading? I nodded and laughed in recognition more times than I could count—my book is a mess of underlines and dog-eared pages!
Here’s a passage I particularly liked, when Ludmilla explains why she won’t go to the publisher to find the endings to all these books:
There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want. This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers. Of course, readers are also growing more numerous, but it would seem that those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books and nothing else. I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for a few minutes.
This reminded me of the many conversations among bloggers about our relationships with the publishing industry and whether those relationships lead us to lose our pleasure in reading. I don’t necessarily think the line is as clear as Ludmilla claims, but it’s a feeling I can relate to, just as I could laugh at the satirical depictions of those who analyze literature without bothering to enjoy it without necessarily thinking the analysis and enjoyment are mutually exclusive.
The chapters about the Reader were almost pure pleasure. Toward the middle, when Calvino abandons the focus on the Reader and offers instead an author’s diary and some bits focused on Ludmilla, I thought the narrative was getting unnecessarily murky and lost a lot of his charm. It was, perhaps, turning into too much of a proper story, with actual characters who have inner lives and motivations. Overall, though, the book seems more like a parable, with each character representing a type and thus not needing all that dimensionality I’d normally demand. Here, it’s a distraction, and I wanted none of it.
As for the 10 opening chapters that alternate with the tale of the Reader, they did show signs of depth and full-blooded characters that we just didn’t have time to get to know. Each chapter is different from the others, and several felt like the beginnings of very good novels that I’d want to finish. A couple of times, I just about forgot that this was just an opening chapter and was taken aback by the sudden ending. A few of the books probably wouldn’t have made it past the opening audition—one in particular would face an uphill battle to convince me that it wasn’t a particularly unsettling piece of erotica. However, with most of the chapters coming in at 15 pages or fewer, I didn’t have time to get annoyed by the less pleasing chapters but just enough time to want a little more.
Jenny read this back in 2008, and her review contains some more particularly good quotes, so do go take a look. The book is extremely quotable, and I could have shared dozens more! This was also one of the books from the list Jenny gave me to read this year. If you haven’t read it yet (and I know many of you have), perhaps you’ll add it to yours?