Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: If on a winter's night a traveler

Over the past two years, since I've been back in New York, I've had the great fortune to reconnect with alumni from the fellowship program I participated in while in college. Talk about a great group of folks - they are intellectual, fun, and awesome! We recently set up a book club and it has been a blast.  Last month, the book choice was If on a winter's night a traveler (or Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore in one of the most beautiful languages in the world) by Italo Calvino.

Years ago, I tried to read If on a winter's night a traveler because it's on one of those Top 100 Novel lists. I didn't get far and didn't give it much of a chance before giving up.  This time, I had to see it through in order to be loyal to my fellow book club readers, so I did. And I really enjoyed it! It was unlike anything I had ever read before or am likely to ever read again.  I held my review of it until we had our meeting and discussion because I knew that my friends would have great thoughts to contribute.  And they did.

Anything I write about this book is likely to be a spoiler, so I'm just going to share the synopsis listed on

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is a marvel of ingenuity, an experimental text that looks longingly back to the great age of narration--"when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded." [...] The Reader buys a fashionable new book, which opens with an exhortation: "Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade." Alas, after 30 or so pages, he discovers that his copy is corrupted, and consists of nothing but the first section, over and over. Returning to the bookshop, he discovers the volume, which he thought was by Calvino, is actually by the Polish writer Bazakbal. Given the choice between the two, he goes for the Pole, as does the Other Reader, Ludmilla. But this copy turns out to be by yet another writer, as does the next, and the next.  
The real Calvino intersperses 10 different pastiches--stories of menace, spies, mystery, premonition--with explorations of how and why we read, make meanings, and get our bearings or fail to.

In our meeting, over glasses of Italian wine and plates of antipasto, we explored what we loved about the novel. Someone commented on the way that the author spends so much time and attention on the experience of "The Reader" in a way that authors generally do not. Someone else said some of the most powerful and beautiful sentences in the novel made him want to go out and write himself. There was also talk around how each book that the characters try to finish breaks off at the climax, and how that can actually be a good thing, like leaving a party when it's at the best it will ever be instead of waiting for that great feeling to pass and leaving when it has already become dull. "It will never again be as great as it is right now." A powerful meditation on the present, which I find interesting because it counters my tendencies to live in either the past or future. Actually, quite Buddhist if you think about it.

We also had a couple of people who disliked the book intensely. "I hate to see a facile writer, which Calvino clearly is, produce something like this." Those of us who liked the book quickly stepped up to its defense. "It feels like something the writer produced after a long successful career, as a meditation on his career and the process of "producing" art like it is just another commodity."  A quick Google search on a smartphone revealed this to be true - the novel was written in 1979, six years before Calvino's death.

As I reflect on this book club meeting where we shared our thoughts, ideas and theories, it is as if we had become characters in the novel ourselves, chasing down the story and trying to hold it in our hands, perhaps completely missing the point in the meantime.

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