Jun 24, 2007

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

I picked the worst possible time to read this book. This is a book I've been meaning to read for years, and while I didn't exactly dislike it, I enjoyed it considerably less than I expected. I think that part of the problem was the circumstances - this is a book that demands your full attention and availability. It is a book to be read with time, and while it took me a week to get through it, I still felt that I was rushing because I wanted to start reading something else.

The premise behind this book is brilliant - the story starts as you, the reader, begin to read Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. After reading the first chapter, however, you realize that there is something wrong with the book: it contains nothing but the first chapter again and again. You go back to the bookstore to return it, and you are told that yes, there was a problem at the publisher, and yours is not the first complain. The first chapter you read, it turns out, doesn't even belong to Calvino's book, but to a novel by a Polish author. You were getting engaged in the story and you want to see where it goes, so instead of exchanging it for a proper copy of Calvino's novel, you get a copy of that novel by a Polish author. You soon find out that the novel you bought is in no way related to that first chapter you read, but you start reading it anyway, and once again you get drawn into the story, only to find out that, after the first chapter, all the pages of the book are blank.

And so on and so forth. The reader reads a series of novel beginnings, and for some reason something always stops him from reading the rest of the novel. The chapters with these beginnings are alternated with chapters with a main plot, in which the reader - you, as Calvino addresses you - tries to discover what is behind this succession of incomplete novels.

Now, I am a big fan of traditional storytelling - of stories with beginnings, middles and ends (though not necessarily in that order) - and experimentation doesn't always work for me. But I was very much drawn to this book because, as an avid reader, I love stories about storytelling itself, and stories with other stories inside them, like Russian Dolls. The idea of a story in which the reader is always left in suspension, eagerly seeking the conclusion of the stories he's being told, reminded me of Scheherazade and of the Arabian Nights.

But of course, everything depends on how this concept is executed. I've had proof in the past that Italo Calvino is an excellent writer, but one of the reasons why this book did not work for me at this particular point in time is the fact that most of the several beginnings of stories completely failed to captivate me. I found most of them too vague, too diffuse, and I was just not interested in finding out what was going to happen next. That alone made it impossible for me to relate to what the reader - me - was supposed to be feeling.

Plus, in all of those story beginnings I remained aware that what I was reading wasn't really a story, but the experience of someone, a character in a novel, reading a story. This sense of double distance made it impossible for me to get involved, and I realize that this is a part of what Calvino was trying to achieve, but it still alienated me somewhat. Also, there was the fact that I knew that the stories weren't going to be concluded. That too kept me from making the effort to get involved. And this is where the emotional availability I spoke of comes in. Whenever I start reading a book - and I believe this is true for almost everyone almost all the time - I am generally not immediately drawn in. I have to make an effort, which is both intelecual and emotional, to get into the novel. It takes longer with some books than with others, but it is only after that, when familiarity has been achieved, that I truly begin to enjoy the book. Well, a book like this demands that this initial effort is made again and again, and that was more than I could do at this point.

All in all, this is an interesting book, and there were some parts I really enjoyed, but I don't think it is for everyone. If you are a compulsive reader, though, it is likely that you will recognize yourself in some of the character. The book also contains some interesting musings on reading and writing, and caricatures of both writers and different types of readers.

There was a little story, or rather, a little beginning of a story, that was told at the very end of the second to last chapter. That one did get me interested, and I was truly frustrated not to see it continuing. It made me realize how reading this book could have been if only I had felt that way about all the stories.

Other Blog Reviews:
books i done read
Bending Bookshelf
A Striped Armchair
Books of Mee


  1. You know Nymeth, I think you're the only person who can make me want to read a book even when you didn't enjoy it yourself, lol...This book sounds so interesting! But I have a feeling that I would be very frustrated by it...My mind tends to wander with books that go off in strange directions. I enjoy a little literary experimentation every now and then, but it has to be done in a way that keeps my attention. If it doesn't, I'll just start thinking of all the bills I have to pay and totally not pay attention to anything I've read :p

  2. i've been curious about reading this ever since an english lecturer mentioned it... about 10 years ago now! i can't believe its been that long since i heard about it!

    i agree with chris. although, i am a little more wary of the book now... before people had simply said YOU MUST READ THIS and saying i'd love it. even though your experience wasn't positive its very cool that you still give a balanced view of it!

  3. It sounds like a really interesting book. Perhaps going back to it in the future might help you enjoy it more. I will keep an eye out for this one.

    Oh and I bought a copy of The Faery Reel at the weekend after your recommendation and it looks great!

  4. Chris, thanks, lol :P
    It IS an interesting book, especially for book junkies such as ourselves. Just make sure you pick a good time to read it. If, like me, you read it at a busy and stessful time, your mind will indeed end up wandering to the bills you have to pay :P It's a very demanding book, so you have to be able to give it your full attention.

    jean pierre, I think it's likely that you'd like it. Everyone I know who'd read it loved it as well. I think the problem was more mine than the book's.

    Rhinoa, I do plan on returning to it at another time.
    And.. that actually wasn't me, as I haven't read The Faerie Reel yet. The anthology I read for the challenge was "Swan Sister", but I have complete faith that, being a Terri Windling anthology, "The Faerie Reel" will be very good as well. Do share your thoughts on it when you read it!

  5. It sound really unusual...I don't think I've ever read anything like it. But I'll have to wait until I can really concentrate to try it out. I agree with Chris, though. Your review intrigued me!

  6. You have me really wanting to read this book too. I actually bought all-in-one trilogy book once and part way through it skipped a bunch of pages, including the end of the second story and the beginning of third. It drove me nuts not to know how it ended, until I finally went back to the bookstore to exchange it. I'd be interested to read this.

  7. Robin, it was unlike everything I've read before too. But yes, it's definitely better to wait until you can concentrate. Not waiting was what "spoiled" it for me.

    Hi Alyson! I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to have that happen in real life, especially when you're really engaged in the story!
    I look forward to hearing what you think about it if you do read it.

  8. Doh! I must have looked up their other anthologies and gotten confused which one you read. I have them in my basket on Amazon but then spotted one for cheap ina bookshop. It looks really good and has tales by Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire and some beautiful illustrations by Charles Vess.

  9. Rhinoa, it was a great purchase anyway - Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire AND Charles Vess! How can you go wrong!

  10. I remember picking this book up in a store once and putting it right back after reading the first page. The over-the-top tone put me off. I've heard that Invisible Cities is excellent though.

  11. Your description reminds me a bit of Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. That book is told from an experimental viewpoint, but unlike this one, it resolves its stories.

    It also provides a tour through the history of philosophy, which seems like something that you'd be interested in (given your voracious consumption of all the mythology this spring!).

  12. Imani: the tone didn't bother me, but I can definitely see how it could bother people. I haven't read "Invisible Cities" yet, but it's on my list. The other Calvino books I've read are great though - I loved "The Baron in the Trees" and "The Viscount Split in Half."

    Kim: I've read Sophie's World, and I really liked it! It's been what, though, 10 years? I really should revisit it. I should also read more Jostein Gaarder. I LOVED the other book of his I've read, "Live is Brief". I read it in one single take. It's absolutely beautiful.

  13. Hello Nymeth! I'm sorry I haven't made it over to your blog before today. I've enjoyed reading your comments on Carl's, Chris's and now Jean Pierre's bogs.

    This book does sound like it has an interesting concept but it sounds like maybe that's really just it. A nice idea but a story lacking a real purpose and/or heart. Please let me know if I'm off base hear or not. Thanks for the review.

  14. Hi Jeff! I'm very glad to have you here, but no need to apologize! I enjoy reading your comments as well :)

    And, well, I'd say it depends on the person reading and on the particular mood they're in. I can definitely see how some readers will feel that way, because there were moments when I did myself. But there were other parts I really enjoyed. For example, there's a section that is the transcription of the journal of a fictional writer, and it gives great insight intro the creative process, how writers feel about readers and critics, etc. But yeah, this is just one of those books that is bond to polarize opinions.

  15. Nymeth - Now that section on the creative process sounds very interesting to me. I'm going to look through this book the next time at Borders. My interest is defiently peaked. Thanks again for the review. Have a great weekend.

  16. Jeff, I'd love to know what you think after you take a lot at it. Have a great weekend too!

  17. lol i cant believe you blame your misunderstanding or dislike of this book with your reading it especially since, in the very prologue, it ephasizes being an active reader. oh well not everyone can do that i guess

  18. I knoow. Next time I'll make sure to say, "I didn't enjoy this book because I'm STUPID." That's the only possible reason why anyone would ever dislike a book, after all.

  19. Wasn't this book visionary of what happens to us today with facebook, Twitter, e-mail etc. An nfinite variety but with a danger that people loose their identity amd become swamped... It creates challenges but I think deliberately leave ends open, so that one is compelled to contemplate the facades and plastic lives we live, but also seek for true meaning underlying all this on various levels.


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