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If on a winter’s night a traveler (thoughts)

March 5, 2008

ETA: Catherine Delors is currently giving away five copies of her soon to be released Mistress of the Revolution. It’s historical fiction set a bit before and then during the French Revolution, and I really enjoyed it (I have to wait to review it), so I highly recommend leaving a comment on this post. I am *this* close to finishing Wild Swans, but I thought I’d take a break to review Calvino while he’s still fresh in my mind!  If on a winter’s night a traveler (referred to from now on as winter’s night) sat on my shelf for quite a while, staring at my accusingly.  I had heard that it was ‘post-modern’ or something (remember-I’ve never taken a lit class), and the idea of that intimidated me.  It also just plain made me nervous; I’m a girl who loves Trollope and Austen and tends to think that books should come with beginnings, middles, and ends.  They don’t always have to be super-tidy, but it’s nice when they’re there.  I think my last jaunt into, um I don’t even know the correct adjective for Calvino-hold on while I wikipedia it-ok, apparently “postmodern” reflects on literature and the act of writing, so we’ll stick with that.  Anyway, my last jaunt into the ‘crazy book’ genre (as I think of it) was A House of Leaves three years ago, and while I enjoyed it, it didn’t really leave me hungering for me.  Oh wait, I did read a couple crazy Umberto Ecos in 2006-Foucoult’s Pendulem and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.  But still, that was quite a while ago.

I swear I’m going to talk about the book now.  My point was that I avoided Calvino, because I thought a winter’s night would be difficult to read.  And I was wrong.

So, on to the book.  The premise is quite clever: chapter one begins in second person, with you (the reader) planning on reading a winter’s night.  I really liked how I was turned into a character; it was quite fun to go along with Calvino.  Every other chapter returns to this story line, however unfortunately beginning in chapter two (only the ones in second person are numbered) the indefinite ‘you’ Reader becomes a man (for the sake of clarity, if I capitalise Reader it refers to the character in the book, if not it refers to the actual person reading  a winter’s night).  So I felt pretty excluded, which was a bit of a let down.  But as the book progresses, the second person storyline becomes more and more crazy, so it’s not like a male reader would feel the book was addressed to him either.  In between these chapters are others (usually shorter) that are titled instead of numbered.  Each of these chapters is part of a book the second-person Reader is reading; however, events keep happening so that the reader can never pick up the same book twice.  This results in little fragments of various books in various styles, which allows Calvino to play with his writing and keeps the reader on his/her toes.

I loved the first half of the book; while the fragments were all distinct, they each had an Eastern European/Cold War flavour that really appealed to me.  I also enjoyed following the story of the Reader and Ludmilla, seeing what would happen to them.  However, then something happened: I think Calvino got bored, so he decided to create some ridiculously nonsensical, complicated sub-plot that sends the Reader off on a crazy adventure. (Ok, so I can see how Calvino was exploring the validity of writers and the act of writing and what makes a particular book in a particular author’s style, and the various ways to read, so there was a purpose, but still…) And at that point I stopped really caring about the Reader’s story, although I still enjoyed the fragments (which began to roam from Eastern Europe to various continents).

The fragments were so interesting; since they’re supposed to be parts of novels, not short stories, they all end abruptly, and often just when things get interesting.  This didn’t really bother me, though; instead it let me imagination roam free.  When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers brought in this book that had illustrations and one-sentence captions.  The idea was that each illustration went with a book, but the books had all been lost so all that was left were these pictures.  I loved that book, and Calvino’s fragments evoked a similar feeling.  My favourite was “Without fear of wind or vertigo.”  It seemed as if it was set during the Hungarian uprising (you know-the one that the Soviets brutally crushed) and features two boys and girl, who are on the cusp of adulthood (probably the 18-20 range).  It’s written from one of the boy’s point of view, and I thought the whole thing was just beautiful.  The boy’s depictions of the chaos of war and revolution, and then how mysterious Irina is when he meets her.  I really like those mysterious, alluring female characters who are young but seem so world-wise.  And I find the whole Hungarian situation so tragic, I think it’d make a great setting for a full-length novel (I’m sure there have been some written-if anyone has suggestions, pleas share!).  While Irina, Alex, and Valerian only ‘lived’ for a few pages, they’ll stay in my imagination much longer.

Favourite Passages

“The novel I would most like to read at this moment,” Ludmilla explains, “should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves…” (92)

Somewhere the complete volume must exist; you look around, seeking it with your gaze, but promptly lose heart; in this office books are considered raw material, spare parts, gears to be dismantled and reassembled.  Now you understand Ludmilla’s refusal to come with you; you are gripped by the fear of having also passed over to “the other side” and of having lost that privileged relationship with books which is peculiar to the reader: the ability to considere what is written as something finished and definitive, from which there is nothing to be removed. (115)

The first sensations this book should convey is what I feel when I hear the telephone ring; I say “should” because I doubt that written words can give even a partial idea of it: it is not enough to declare that my reaction is one of rfusal, of flight from this agressive and threatening summons, as it is also a feeling of urgency, intolerableness, coerction that impels me to obey the injunction of that sound, rushing to answer even though I am certain that nothing will come of it save suffering and discomfort. (132)

I asked Lotaria if she has alread read some books of mine that I lent her.  She said no, because here she doesn’t have a computer at her disposal.
She explained to me that a suitably programmed computer can read a novel in a few minutes and record the list of all the words contained in the text, in order of frequency. “That way I can have an already completed reading at hand,” Lotaria says, “with an inculculable saving of time. What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences, certain insistences of forms and meanings? An electronic reading supplies me with a list of frequencies, which I have only to glance at to form an idea of the problems the book suggestions to my critical study. Naturally, at the highest frequencies the list records countless articles, pronouns, particles, but I don’t pay them any attention. I head straight for the words richest in meaning; they can give me a fairly precise notion of the book.” (186)

“No matter. The place where you’re going now is a model prison; it has a library stocked with all the latest books.”
“What about the banned books?”
“Where should banned books be if found if not in prison? (215)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. verbivore permalink
    March 6, 2008 4:33 am

    Calvino has such a great style. I’ve loved just about everything I’ve ever read by him. Am glad you enjoyed this one.

  2. March 6, 2008 8:50 am

    The way you felt about this one (well, the first half anyway) was the way I kept wishing I’d felt as I was reading it. But somehow I just couldn’t. Ah well, maybe someday I’ll try again.

    But despite this I love Calvino. I think my favourite of his (so far) is The Baron in the Trees. Completely different in style from this one, but highly recommendable.

  3. March 6, 2008 10:35 am

    It was a crazy book that defies categorization. I liked it but I wasn’t sure exactly what to feel about it. I always thought I’d read something else by him but I haven’t yet.

  4. March 6, 2008 10:51 am

    Wow, you’ve really done justice to what could’ve been extremely hard to describe in the hands of a lesser blogger. Good job, and I’m totally lusting after this book now. I *heart* postmodernism.

  5. March 6, 2008 11:40 am

    I read this years ago but still remember the wonderful moment when it suddenly clicked that it was the bits about the reader rather than the fragments that were the real story. I must reread it now after your review. Calvino is such a beautiful writer, I can recommend Invisible Cities by him too.

  6. March 6, 2008 2:13 pm

    Verbivore, I definitely felt like I was in the hands of someone who knew exactly what he was doing!

    Nymeth, I’ll have to look into The Baron in the Trees! Thanks for the rec. :) And sometimes we just can’t get into books-it’s frustrating, I know.

    Petunia, I really liked the ending! (and I forgot to mention that in the post-whoops) But yeah, parts of it I was just like “ok..I’m just along for the ride.”

    Andi, thanks so much! I was pretty nervous about approaching this one. If you heart postmodernism, you’ll really enjoy this one. Are you on bookmooch? I was planning on putting it up there, and if you want I can ‘reserve’ it for you (someone did that for me last week, so now I know how to do it!)

    Eloise, I’ll look into Invisible Cities-thanks!

  7. March 6, 2008 2:30 pm

    I haven’t read any Calvino yet, but this post made me want to add him to my list of authors to read one day.

    (And I tagged you in a meme.)

  8. March 6, 2008 2:50 pm

    I’ve already read this book twice (loved it both times), but your post is making me want to read it a third time!

  9. March 6, 2008 4:19 pm

    Your great review finally does justice to the art of this book. :) I’ll have to go re-read it soon.

    As to Umberto Eco, I’ve read Baudolino, Foucoult’s Pendulem and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana; but my favorite is The Name of the Rose.

  10. March 6, 2008 7:31 pm

    I’ve been enjoying catching up with you and am really looking forward to your Wild Swans review. Great book, though I’ll admit I was a bit overwhelmed with information in parts.

  11. March 6, 2008 8:09 pm

    I remember that book with the pictures and only the opening sentence distinctly! That did spark my imagination when I was younger.

    Glad you enjoyed this book, it sounds interesting, if a bit different. Sometimes I might be in the mood for a non tradition story, but other times, I just can’t get into it.

  12. March 6, 2008 10:03 pm

    Love, great! I already did that meme once, but I didn’t really like it. So I’ll have another go at it. :)

    Emily, I can see how it would stand up to a rereading or two! I’m glad you liked my post.

    Matthew, thanks so much-that means a lot to me! I’ve read all of those Ecos but Baudolino, and Rose is my favourite as well. I’m planning on rereading it this year. :)

    Tara, there was certainly a lot of information, which is going to make it a very long review (hopefully, my readers will just bear with me, lol). I’m hoping to get it written tomorrow, but we’ll see!

    Kim L, I loved that book so much-I think when my niece is a bit older I’ll et her a copy. :)

  13. March 9, 2008 7:48 am

    I absolutely loved this book when I read it in, yes, a “postmodern fictions” class. But while I like the form, it’s his description of reading – it’s complex simplicity – that I adore. Thanks for reminding me of how wonderful this is.

  14. March 13, 2008 2:44 am

    (Other) Andi, thanks for stopping by! I’ll definitely be stopping by your blog as well; food poisoning had me down for the count for awhile. I agree-his description of reading is spot on!!

  15. March 13, 2008 4:16 am

    I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for this book :)


  1. If on a winter’s night a traveler (thoughts) | Myth Night Lifestyle
  2. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino | Books of Mee

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