Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: If on a winter's night a traveler

Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (1979) is one of those delightful books that arrived on my shelf unbidden and unknown, and proved to be exactly what I didn't know I was looking for.


The copy I read, a 1981 translation by William Weaver from the original Italian, was given to Michel by a coworker as a secret Santa gift, along with a copy of Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea ("a novel of the homicidal hysteria that lies latent in the Japanese character," screams the deeply embarrassing 1965 cover). Both worn, yellowing paperbacks were excavated from my favorite Detroit treasure trove, the massive book store John K. King Used & Rare Books, so I found myself naturally endeared to each. But which to read? With Michel in the middle of a couple other books and just starting his semester, I had my pick. I was drawn to the Mishima first, since I was (obviously) curious to learn more about the "astounding masterpiece of taut violence" that exposed the murderous mania apparently hidden deep in the soul of the Japanese people, but then Michel said that I should read the first few pages of the Calvino if I hadn't already. I'll reproduce the first paragraphs so you can see what persuaded me to switch:

"You are about the 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 the 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, or a 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."

Naturally, I was hooked. Calvino's novel is a smart, labyrinthine, postmodern adventure in bibliomania. (If you're overfamiliar with and/or suspicious of pomo trickery and reflexivity, it might not be for you. I've still sampled only selectively from the postmodern corpus, and only from the work of American authors, so I was sufficiently delighted and titillated.) And if the descriptor "postmodern" makes the book sound laborious or tedious to slug through, it's far from it. You can get a sense of Calvino's sly, playful style from the excerpted paragraphs; it's a joy to read.

The plot concerns you, the Reader. You're reading Italo Calvino's new novel If on a winter's night a traveler, about a mysterious man in a train station, and enjoying it quite a bit -- until you realize that after p. 32, the novel returns to p. 17. From there, it proceeds again only until p. 32, and then starts once more at p. 17. In fact, the whole book's like this. (Well, not the book you're reading. I mean the real you, not the fictional you. Calvino merely describes this maddening publisher's error; he doesn't make the real you actually read it.) Anyway, back to the fictional you: you're terribly upset that you can't finish the novel you're so enjoying, so you go to the bookstore where you bought it to demand a new copy. It's there that you meet the Other Reader, a young woman with huge eyes, exacting literary sensibilities, and a capacious memory for the details of the numerous books she loves. She too is there to demand a new copy of the botched Calvino novel, and you're immediately...intrigued.

And so the romance begins. You and the Other Reader seek out the rest of the text of If on a winter's night a traveler, but when you find it, you realize that it's not the same novel at all. As it turns out, the new text that you have your hands on is also quite good, but also incomplete, leading you to find the rest of that novel. You might imagine where this is going: If on a winter's night alternates between two threads: one follows you and the sometimes-aloof Other Reader on your increasingly disorienting quest to find a novel that keeps morphing into others, and the other consists of the first chapters of each of these incomplete novels (ten in all, each by a different fictional author, taking place in a different country, and all with vastly divergent plots). This Borgesian narrative maze might sound like it results in a frustrating reading experience, since you're being constantly yanked from each story right at the moment when you're really getting into it, but somehow it works. This is in part because the plots and styles of the different novels are so varied that you can't wait to see where the next one goes, and because the writing is so consistently good and the characters so singular and carefully sketched that it doesn't matter whether or not you finish the stories; it's a pleasure to spend any time with them at all. There's also the compelling adventure that's sustained in the parallel, second-person narrative, where you begin to realize that the baffling incompleteness of the ten novels is somehow deliberate, somehow connected.

This is a book lover's book (well, maybe a book fanatic's book) and just because it's a lot of fun doesn't mean that it doesn't ask important questions. It's interested in publishing, censorship, different ways of reading, different reasons for reading, choosing not to read,
writing and its attendant anxieties, the relationship between text and reality, the relationship between author and text, and the relationship between reader and author (to start). But of paramount importance is the relationship between reader and text. Calvino (and Weaver, his translator) meditates in beautiful, ecstatic language about reading; it's the expansive, benevolent delight and pleasure the novel takes in the act of reading (again, recalling Borges) that left the strongest impression on me. For Calvino, reading is, among much else, "that invisible movement...the flow of gaze and breath, but, even more, the journey of the words through the person, their course or their arrest, their spurts, delays, pauses, the attention concentrating or straying, the returns, that journey that seems uniform and on the contrary is always shifting and uneven." I can't think of another book I've read about reading that was more satisfying to, well, read.