Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: "If on a winter's night a traveler" by Italo Calvino

"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." --If on a winter's night a traveler

In a book of short stories (I'm going to guess Cosmicomics), Calvino presents a sort of readerly version of Sophie's Choice. The narrator of the story travels to the beach, and, once there, finds himself torn between two different, seemingly exclusive choices: he can either read the truly captivating novel he brought, or flirt with the attractive sun-tanning woman that is smiling invitingly at him. He chooses the former, and flips through a few enticing pages, before a gust of wind blows the book into the woman's path. A short enticing conversation ensues. The narrator considers putting the book away, but the woman seems to see someone she recognizes, and darts off. Mentally shrugging, the narrator returns to his book--but look! The woman is back! Things go back and forth in this manner, and both the conversation and the book's plot progress, to the point where, in the woman's bedroom, the reader-narrator must choose between two different climaxes. (Sorry, but if you think Calvino didn't intend the pun, then you're fooling yourself.) Torn, the narrator finally decides to---well, you'll have to read it yourself to find out.

The story, in other words, is about the conflict between the pleasure of reading and other pleasures. It's a theme that must have lingered with Calvino, as If on a winter's night a traveler enlarges on it, and, in fact, encompasses largely every conceivable factor of reading. The plot is both inconsequential and essential; it's inconsequential in that if you take it seriously, then you're going to get a lot of the reading, but essential because it traces the patterns and ideas Calvino wants to explore. The idea of the book is that it is written in second person, addressed to the reader who just bought Calvino's new book. However, upon reading the first chapter, you (the reader) discover that the first chapter is all that's there; due to a printing error, it's just the first chapter, over and over. In fact, a trip to the bookseller confirms that it's not Calvino's book at all, but Tazio Bazakbal's Outside the town of Malbork. The plot thickens.

Another customer, Ludmilla, has the exact same problem. You meet with her, and both agree that you'd like to read Bazakbal's novel instead. The bookseller gives you his book--but it turns out to be the first chapter from another book as well. And so you and Ludmilla embark on a search for the complete book, but find only one unfinished beginning after the other, and you start to wonder whether you're more interested in the reading, or in Ludmilla. (Apparently, "you" are a heterosexual male. Depending on what gender/sexuality you conceived yourself as being before this, "you" may now be surprised.) This sets up the pattern of the book: a chapter on the latest attempt to find the next chapters for the missing books, alternating with a chapter that starts a new story.

The entire book could be seen as one continuous novel, broken up by several short stories, but such an interpretation misses the point. The novel is about reading, about every facet of reading. In the search for the real books, "you" come across booksellers, writers, plagiarists, university reading groups, literary professors, librarians, book publishers, object artists, and government censorship officials--each with their own ideas on what a book is for. The beginning chapters, on the other hand, look at more varied situations: a spy looking for his contact, a man granted the power to erase the universe, a professor with a phobia for telephones. Since they are allegedly first chapters, each story is unfinished, but the manner in which they are unfinished, how they are left off and what they tell up until that point, conveys what Calvino wants to say about reading.

Exactly what that something he wants to is---um, I'm not entirely sure. Ironically, I don't think it can be entirely put into words. And I'm not sure it's the sort of thing that can be answered. Instead, he raises questions: what kind of a reader does a writer want for his books? What is a perfect reader? What does it mean to read? How does a reader want a story to end? Why does a reader want a story to end? (Further irony: this book would not have been at all out of place on the reader-response section of my literary theory comp. And if it had been there, I might have read more books on that list.) Calvino's characters bring up 1001 Arabian Nights more than once in the book, just to make sure the connection is 100% clear: stories are made up of other stories, and to say one ends is to say another is beginning.

It's also a very masculine look at reading. Wayne Booth is a literary theorist who generally gets the credit for articulating the difference between the implied author and the author; the implied author is the notion of the author you get from reading a book, and is distinct from the actual author, and often from the narrator as well. In a similar manner, the implied reader is the audience the implied author seems to be telling his or her story to. And in this case, Calvino is assuming a male "you"--or creating an implied reader that is male. Indeed, like the short story I mentioned, the pursuit of women and the pursuit of reading are put in conflict and in parallel. Ludmilla is both the perfect woman and the perfect reader. If the implied reader of the story was female, then the purpose of the novel would have to change considerably. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Wolfe claims that a woman writer writing firmly in a woman's tradition will produce a work that would be vastly different from anything a male writer has done; does a female reader read differently than a male?

Another significant factor of the book, and one that may determine whether it's worth your while, is that it is--as you could probably guess from the description thus far--very meta, and self-referential. After all, it does start off with a description of the reader initializing the process of reading it. A book about reading would most likely be very aware of how it is to be read, and Calvino addresses this awareness in several different ways. In the chapter from the point of view of the author, for example, the author wonders if he fell in love with the perfect reader and wrote her into her book, how would he keep the protagonist of the book from taking her from him, the author? Why, he would send the protagonist on a global goosechase, forever chasing down copies of books that have only the first chapter written. And if this sounds familiar... well, how could you write an overview about the experience of reading without including a sense of deja vu?

If this sort of thing sounds tiresome and trite, then this probably isn't the book for you. If it sounds overly confusing, then blame it on my own descriptive powers, and give it a chance. For my money, this book is brilliant. Calvino intertwines his themes so deftly and perfectly that when you (or "you") finally see the connections he's laid down, it's a moment of revelatory brilliance. At the same time, it's not perfect. In a previous book review, I alluded to my fondness for Calvino's Invisible Cities. If on a winter's night a traveler doesn't quite stack up to it, in terms of sheer enjoyment.

I think the problem is the plot I alluded to earlier; the subject matter of either books doesn't really lend itself to a proper, conventional plot; it's more ephemeral than that. In Invisible Cities, Calvino barely bothers to make an attempt; Marco Polo and Kubla Kahn are just there, just talking. If on a a winter's night a traveler attempts and parodies a traditional plot because that's part of the point, part of the experience of reading. It ties into the overall study of reading, and is essential from that perspective, but in accepting that necessary realism, it just doesn't, for me at least, reach the same level of sublimity.

But calling something "not as good Invisible Cities" is sort of like the opposite of damning with faint praise. (Praising with exuberant damnation? No, that's not it...) It's an excellent book, and one I look forward to re-reading for years to come.

Later Days.

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