Thursday, June 30, 2011

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino

I think it was in response to my befuddled reaction to Don DeLillo's Point Omega that an English major friend suggested I try Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler.  Given her expertise I assumed this would be a similar writerly, post-modern work.

I was wrong.  Winter's night is not a mirror held up for writerly self-examination.  Instead, Calvino shatters the mirror so that all its fragments reflect back a complex and likely incomplete view of both writer and reader.  Neither does it seem to me that Calvino is taking a stand or position - rather, he seems to simply be offering up questions for contemplation as though the book was of a style he intended to attempt only once - "See, what did you think of that?"

Consider first, the plot to which you, the Reader, are central.  You're just getting engrossed in Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (yes, the book references itself and you directly in deepening and circular layers, kind of Inception-like) where a missed connection in a train station strands a traveler carrying a mysterious metal briefcase when you agonizingly realize that due to a binding error, your copy of the book contains only chapter one.  You resolve through various gambits to get a complete copy so you can finish what has intrigued you only to be foiled at every turn by receipt of a different book than the one you had previously been reading.  Ten times, ten books, ten chapters.  Along the way you are joined by Other Reader and the two of you follow the trail of books.

Structurally, the book consists of ten chapters separated by the interludes in which Reader and Other Reader attempt to get the complete book.  Each chapter is written in a different style of which my favorite is "On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon" which begins with a debate on whether it's possible to experience each individual leaf as it falls from a tree and ends with the conclusion "the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone."  You are probably wondering "So what?"  I think this goes back to one of the issues addressed by the book which is whether readers experience individual books or their entire body of reading (i.e. the falling leaves versus the carpet of leaves).  After all, the more one reads, the more one's viewpoint changes however subtly.  Rereading a book after an interval of years can result in a profoundly different experience because of how you've changed.  Or Calvino could be making a reference to the printed words on a page.  I dunno.

Rather than trying to expound, likely erroneously, on the other issues raised by the book I'll simply list the ones I noticed.
  • The alignment of the writer's and reader's expectations.
  • The writer's lack of control over their work between writing and reading (e.g. translation, printing).
  • The societal role of reading and writing including censorship.
  • A reader's approach to books - linear reading versus an almost fractal-like exploration of each individual idea.
  • The friction, good and bad, from readers' differing viewpoints of the same book.
  • The physical manifestation of writing - pages, books - and subsequent uses including the interaction of white space and the printed word.
Calvino's book is highly sexually charged - reader and writer, reader and reader, reader and non-reader - and I suppose the author would say a) that says more about the reader than the writer and b) that's indicative the passion that can be invoked by reading.  Oddly, if I remember it correctly, the only person whose advances are rebuffed are the writer's (i.e. the writer has to be content with the intangible action at a distance).  Here's a quote from one of the interludes: "What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space."

Thanks for the recommendation, Dani.  Maybe I should re-read DeLillo.

P.S. I certainly don't pretend to understand this book or its significance.  I did, however, enjoy it because it was different than anything I had read before.

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