Monday, December 29, 2008

If On A Winter's Night a Traveler

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.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.

Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch you legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to, put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other.

Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn’t too strong, doesn’t glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best."


I immediately recognized that If On A Winter's Night a Traveler is a book best read alone, in a room with the door shut. Perhaps it would best be read alone in a cabin with a fire, snow outside. But I don't have a cabin with a fireplace, so my bedroom will have to do. I usually read over my lunch at work, and once I pulled out Calvino's book and thought better of it. It's better suited for a quiet evening where there will be no interuptions. After a while I even stopped carrying it around - there was no reason to do so, as I knew I wouldn't pick it up while stopped for a train, or waiting for the dentist or whatever. It's one of those books that requires a particular reading experience...a particular setting, and without that setting there really is no point in reading it.

That opening is so powerful, so wonderfully written. It reminds me of the opening of Delillo’s Falling Man which was also amazing… “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” I still think about those opening lines.

Calvino doesn’t tell one story in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: he tells eleven. It’s the story of “The Reader,” addressed in the second person. He (it becomes clear later on that "The Reader" is either a man or a lesbian, with evidence pointing towards the former) starts to read Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” but after a few pages discovers that the rest of the book is missing. The Reader goes back to the bookstore to return the novel, but all the copies are like that. They got mixed up with another book, “Outside the town of Malbork” by Tazio Bazakbal, at the printers. So, “you”, the reader, buy that one, thinking it might continue the Calvino novel. It turns out it’s an entirely different book. So begins the quest to find a complete novel…all the books keep getting interrupted. By about half-way through, I did start to get disoriented…I got lost trying to remember what fragment of a book I was in, and how the reader, and therefore I suppose I, came into possession of it, and how it related to the other fragmentary stories. But no matter, really. Should it be any wonder that it’s disorienting? It’s eleven stories in one.

What makes this book is the writing. It’s FABULOUS. There are so many passages…beautiful passages that I underlined about the nature of reading. “One reads alone, even in another’s presence.” “I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read…but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware?...Every time I seek to relive the emotion of a previous reading, I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before.”

I’ve been wanting to read this novel for so long…years I think. And while it was a little different than I really expected, the writing did not disappoint. Like with many other books, such as Sophie’s Choice, I wish it wouldn’t have taken me so long to read…it would be much more powerful (and easier to understand) to read it in a short amount of time. But something has come up again that’s interrupting my reading...not that I’m complaining, but I’m trying to muscle through, though it makes it difficult. I am anxious to read more from Calvino. And why are you still reading this post? Why haven’t you, Reader, gone and picked up If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler? Do yourself a favor for the new year and read the book!


Robby Virus said...

This is such a wonderful book. I remember reading it when it first came out (boy, that dates me), and I can still recall some of the passages quite vividly. And I love how each of the 10 or so first chapters all parody different genres of contemporary literature...this must have been quite fun, and challenging, to write. I've often wondered if Calvino had specific authors in mind.

I heartily recommend Calvino's "Cosmicomics", a collection of short stories, each one based on a different scientific law. It's one of my all-time favorite books, and is another great example of the power of Calvino's imagination. It's also incredibly funny.

*claire* said...

I loved this book. Like you, it wasn't what I expected but what a surprise and the writing was beautiful.

Falling Man's opening sounds so wonderful. I'm a sucker for beautiful beginnings. I will surely think about reading that.

Don DeLillo seems to have the knack for opening lines. I have only ever read The Body Artist by him but the beginning lines were so beautiful that it didn't matter to me that the rest of the book was a bit hazy.