If on a winters’ night a traveller had come and described this novel to me, I’d have gone cross-eyed and then run a mile.
I knew Italo Calvino was a name uttered with reverence, but I came upon his ‘If on a Winters’ Night a Traveller’ (1980; English translation 1983) cold, so to speak. It was (is) winter so I was moved to pick the book off the shelf and was suckered in by the recommendation on the back cover. This novel is ‘Breathtakingly inventive’ according to David Mitchell. I love David Mitchell (the writer, but also the comedian, equally).
I find David Mitchell’s novels breathtakingly inventive. What takes away the breath of the one who takes away your breath, is clearly a novel worth risking.
Well, I did need to take more than a few deep breaths as I read ‘If on a Winters’ Night a Traveller.’ This is no traditional narrative with a prescribed structure and clear character arc. Any thread of ‘story’ involves a protagonist who is The Reader, addressed as ‘you’ throughout, which as I read implicated me as the reader of the moment. The trickiness of a second person narrative… Especially when ‘you’ is clearly male and the ‘you’ reading is female.
So this Reader (‘you’) is joined by the Other Reader; and even, at one stage, an anti-reader who has released himself from the slavery of literacy and taught himself to make the written word disappear. Which is exactly what this book is not about.
‘You’ is in search of the next part of a novel, when a fragment he is reading leaves off at the most suspenseful part of the story (I still want to know what happened to that suitcase!). Very Arabian Nights – the idea of leaving them wanting more in spades.
The next part of the putative novel is eventually found, but it turns out to be a new story and it too is interrupted. And so it goes, each fragment found is the beginning of yet another new narrative that leaves off at the most suspenseful part, and so on and on as The Reader’s reading is thwarted by increasingly bizarre interventions.
This storyline is often an excuse to discuss aspects of reading and writing. There’s a whole thesis here on the relationship which is fascinating for someone who is both a reader and a writer (‘me!’). Readers discuss what they expect in a novel and the ways to read it; the productive and the tormented writer envy each other; says one character, the ideal is a writer who produces books “as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins” (p. 189).
Wouldn’t that be nice! It sounds so easy. Reality gets a look in to balance this ideal: one (fictional) writer’s diary describes writing ‘as an operation of such weight that I remain crushed by it’ (p. 172).
But elsewhere, all the angst of writing is rendered obsolete, because once the manuscript leaves the writer it is a thing apart. In the shemozzle of a publisher’s office, ‘books are considered raw material, spare parts, gears to be dismantled and reassembled’ (p. 115). What does it matter whose name is on the cover?
‘Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved, and who knows which authors’ names will be remembered?’ (p. 101).
For any writer with an ego they want to salvage, remember this dissolving of specific authorship is not just supposition. Think of examples from the past now attributed to that prolific entity Anonymous, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, or consider examples of groups of stories attributed to one author, like Homer, who probably never existed as a person.
One of Calvino’s narrators describes an old Indian legend which puts paid to any last shred of an idea that writers are special. In this ancient legend, the Father of Stories continually tells stories which are the one and only universal source of ‘narrative material, the primordial magma from which the individual manifestations of each writer develop…’ (p. 117).
On rereading what I have written here, I’m not sure I have fully conveyed how meta- and involved and strange this gets at certain stages.
And I haven’t even got onto the huge parts of the book which are the fragments of the novels The Reader has been reading, the fragments that keep leaving off at the most suspenseful moment. Leave off and never resolve. Once I realised I was never going to find out how each story ended, I wondered how much I wanted to invest in the next. But Calvino can write, boy he can write. Like The Reader, this reader kept getting involved. Despite warnings: ‘Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it – a trap’ (p. 12). Because such is the power of the written word.
For lovers of David Mitchell, the structure of stories leading to more stories, might be sounding echoes in your head. But then, ‘Cloud Atlas’ (2012) successfully addressed my frustration about absent endings. In Mitchell’s novel, each new narrative is also broken off, but then the novel is hinged in the middle and begins to mirror itself, so the stories are finished.
It seems Calvino had thought about ending his stories, but, in the end, he tells us there are only two ways to end: ‘having past all the tests, the hero and heroine married, or else they died’ (p. 258). Ends either celebrate the continuity of life or indicate the inevitability of death.
That’s not enough, I cried! This was a compelling read but, in the end I am unsophisticated, and I want endings to all the novel fragments contained within ‘If on a Winters’ Night a Traveller’!
As I was poking around the interwebs, I stumbled across the original article by David Mitchell from which his book cover recommendation was pulled. From 2004, it reveals that ‘If on a Winters’ Night a Traveller’ did indeed influence ‘Cloud Atlas’ and that Mitchell as a young undergraduate was enthralled by it.
But not so much upon rereading… The two words on the cover of my copy are definitely David Mitchell’s but that is not the whole story. The full quote reads:
‘however breathtakingly inventive a book is, it is only breathtakingly inventive once. But once is better than never.’
The judicious editing says a lot about the written word and spirals back into all the discussions in the novel…
What a read. Stimulating. Compelling. Mind-boggling. Frustrating! I even learnt a new word: telluric. It has such a chivalrous and metallic ring to it. Luckily I looked up the actual meaning.
Plus, I found my new motto for life on page 4. Can’t ask for more than that from a book.
You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst.
Feature Image: Albert Ankar’s 1893 painting about being read to. ‘If on a Winters’ Night a Traveller’ also discusses, amongst all the other aspects of reading, the differences between reading to yourself in your head and being read to. And they are very different experiences.