You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But alas there is a printer's error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. This remarkable novel leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the real hero is you, the reader.
"Be quiet!" you yell. "I am about to start reading Branduno's review of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler!"
But as you finally settle down to read it in comfort and silence you find that Branduno hasn't reviewed anything at all, and you decide that it really would be best to find a copy of the book and see for yourself what it is about.
The novel starts of with you, the reader, opening Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. It's an espionage thriller and you're hooked. However, at a moment of suspense, you realize there's something wrong with your book. It just repeats the first chapter over and over again. Frustrated, you go to the bookstore to exchange your defect copy for a correct one. Once you have your new book in hand, you happily open it, only to realize the book is not the one you were reading before. But this one's interesting too, so you decide to keep reading. At another moment of suspense, the book ends. The pages, in a printing error, are blank throughout the rest of the book.
Wash, rinse, and repeat. Everytime the book you are reading gets interesting, for some reason you cannot continue it.
If on a winter's night a traveler delves into the reading process, the different types of readers, the writing process and the different types of authors. It questions what a story actually is, what reading really is. It addresses society's reliance on technology. It asks the reader what true creativity and imagination is. In a time when everything has been done before, isn't it impossible to truly be original? It has everything from the Arabian Nights to thrillers to Japanese erotica to a romance with the Other Reader.
Calvino doesn't let you just fall into the story. You're constantly kept on your toes. When will the next first chapter end? From the opening line, which reads "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler," Calvino doesn't let you absorb yourself in the story, becoming one with it. He keeps you at a distance. You, as the reader, are yanked from one setting to another, from one unlikely circumstance to an even crazier one. You go from searching for the original book in order to finish your story to becoming involved in an international conspiracy involved author plagiarism.
This book is not safe. It's not ordinary. But it's fantastic, and I highly recommend it.
The most striking thing about this book is that addresses you, the reader, directly: the opening line is, "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler." You then become a protagonist in the story, along with another reader, Ludmilla, to whom you feel an immediate attraction. The other striking thing about the book is that after the first chapter, the story changes. Your copy is defective - it just contains the first chapter repeated over and over again. Angrily, you take it back to the bookshop, where you receive a replacement copy, which turns out to be a completely different book. This one, too, contains only one chapter, and in trying to track down the rest of it you end up reading a different one, and a different one, and a different one. All fragments, all broken off at the moment of greatest suspense.
This is the frustration that Updike was talking about.
Nevertheless, you keep going, and you gradually become closer to the Other Reader, and a whole bizarre plot develops around you and your attempts to read the book. It sounds as if it should be a nightmare, but it really works. For one thing, the aborted novels are mostly very good. I did find myself becoming absorbed in them, even though I knew they would soon be interrupted. Calvino is a great storyteller, and this is what made me tolerate his endless digressions and interruptions.
The other thing that made me tolerate them was that the digressions themselves were often fascinating discussions of the nature of reading or of writing. One character for example, talks of the reader for whom "reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say." Meanwhile another reader "wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood."
There's a lot of falsehood even in the stories that the reader reads. There's the one about the rich man who, to avoid being kidnapped, creates endless doubles of himself, each going about his routine, and then he creates duplicate mistresses, duplicate cars, etc etc so that the kidnappers will never know which is the real one. He then even creates a fake gang and carries out fake kidnappings, before eventually his counter-plot to a kidnapping plot is foiled by a counter-counter-plot and he ends up imprisoned in a room of mirrors. At all points there are mysterious, shadowy groups, double-agents and triple-agents, infiltrators and infiltrators of the infiltrators, deceptions, fictions and confusion.
Yet amid all this falsehood you do "catch a voice" every now and then communicating something else, something deeper, and this is perhaps what Calvino is saying good fiction does. He is both a cynic and a prophet, showing us all the artifice of fiction, the shabby "tricks of the trade", and at the same time going beyond mere storytelling and saying some important things about books and reading. It's an impressive achievement to start off with such a difficult premise and to pull it off.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter'a night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - "I am reading! I don't want to be disturbed!"
Maybe they haven't heard you, with all the racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything: just hope they'll leave you alone.
And this is precisely how it continues. It alternates between chapters addressing the reader as "you", describing reading situations that become steadily more incredible, distancing itself ever more from your actual reading situation; and the opening chapter of a series of very different books.
There is a certain something about opening chapters in books. It is the part of the book that requires most attention while seemingly giving the least in return: it is where you become aware of the direction of the book, where the book (hopefully) captures your attention and makes you want to read on, but which does not yet provide any satisfaction. A book consisting entirely (or at least half) of opening chapters, therefore creates a very odd reading situation.
You end up reading it the way you normally read opening chapters: you do not feel safe in it, secure that you can skip a sentence here or there because you know what is coming; you cannot skim boring parts (I am not saying there are any) … . The book makes you automatically pay more attention to it than you otherwise might.
If I may make the connection to sex (which the book itself does quite overtly: it is well aware of the literary theory climate of the 70s), it is a series of beginning arousals that are never satisfied. It is a delicious book, but it leaves you wanting to read all those non-existent books. The only one of the stories that is given an ending is that of the reader, which began on the first page.
The first of the reader's chapters seduced me entirely. I did not stop for breath, but allowed to to completely take me over. The second stopped me short as it suddenly became apparent that the reader, the "you" to whom the text was addressed, was male. I remember stopping at this, a little disappointed, before reading on. From there on I read the "you" as "he", and the second person narrative might for all intents and purposes be third person. As a student of literature, this is of course interesting as highlighting the author's assumptions &c., &c.; but as a reader enjoying the book on a more visceral level, it threw me. I still enjoyed it tremendously, but it lost an edge I had, naively, perhaps, excepted it to carry all the way to the end. The redeeming factor is, of course, that Calvino is clearly aware of it: it is only another game among all the others he plays with reading and the reader.
The opening chapters are all in wildly different styles. Not all of them appealed to me right off the bat, as it were, but they all managed to suck me in (usually just as they ended). There is a cold war spy thriller (I think), a Japanese erotic novel, a Russian revolutionary story and some Parisian crime. And more. Following the pattern of the continuing story, though, there always appears to be some sinister opponent and a woman to be desired.
I feel I can never do justice to this book. I loved it the first time I read it. Despite the perpetual frustration of the unfinished novels, and the steadily more insane main narrative. I still love it. It keeps screaming for analysis, but only so that it can turn the tables on you. It is sneaky. And enjoyable. I doubt anyone could ever say that anything was a "typical" Calvino book (any cathegory that is wide enough to encompass Invisible Cities and Our Ancestors, well... . But that is just where I am going. Because it is so clearly not a typical book of any kind, but a book that picks and chooses (or rather, declines to choose) between any number of genres, so happily; because it soaks them in a cocktail of a not-so-subtle meditation on the reader, based in a theory of reading fueled by desire; I think that is what makes me think of this as the Typical Calvino Novel.
Even though it sings the praises of readers and reading, "If On a Winter's Night" is a pretty difficult proposition. I started it three or four times before being able to read it through. Even the novel's "literary" chapters are stuffed with subtle connections, word games, and odd stylistic stratagems. Calvino seems to want to get his readers to slow down and think about the way that we read, to reconsider a process that most of us perform automatically and, in a sense, unthinkingly. He even describes the letters on the pages of his novel taking on the characteristics of the story they tell, almost becoming physical elements in the fictional universe that they're creating. Still, difficult as it is, the book is not without it's humor. "Winter's Night" sometimes recalls Thomas Pynchon in his loopy, conspiracy-minded mode, and the plot of Calvino's novel, if it can be called that, features dysfunctional publishing houses, female commandos, and secret agents all obsessed to the point of fanaticism with literary fiction.
Still, it's obvious that Calvino has written these nine beginnings in order to further his discussion about literary theory and the art of reading, and many readers will, I fear, find them a bit stiff. I could blame his translator - the novel's own characters would - but I get the impression that Calvino's a better theorist than a storyteller. It's another sort of book entirely, but David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas," which seems to have borrowed heavily from Calvino's bag of tricks, pulled the novels-within-novels trope off much more gracefully. At its close, the "Winter's Night" drifts towards a netherworld reminiscent, perhaps, of Borges, as the author asks some basic questions about what literature is trying to accomplish and why we, as readers, feel compelled to read it. The answers he comes up with a thought provoking and perhaps even inspiring. I'm glad I had the patience and fortitude to conquer this one.
You are about to read a review of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino… Ok, I will not attempt to mimic Calvino’s style, though it would be interesting to write a review referring to a second-person You or Dear Reader. In any case, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a brilliant book in more ways than one. Not only does it tell an affecting story, but it is also a bit of a puzzler, with multiple stories told within the main story.
Calvino begins the book with a scene that introduces the mind-bending scope of the book: A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book; specifically, Italo Calvino’s new book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. The same book I am reviewing. Or is it? This is only one of the tricks in Calvino’s hall of mirrors. The main story of the book concerns the Reader (me?), his experience of reading different books, and his meeting with the Other (female) Reader. Each time the Reader begins to read a book (beginning with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller), just when the book’s opening premise is being unfolded, he (the Reader is male) is interrupted in his reading by some or other unexpected event. The first time, it is because the book has been bound incorrectly, with the same opening section repeating. When he goes to the bookshop to get a new version, he meets the Other Reader, who has the same problem. And so a strange journey to the heart of reading begins, with the Reader exploring different books while trying to get into a relationship with the Other Reader.
After a while, you realise that the main story and the other stories are not hermetically sealed from each other; they influence each other in subtle, often unobtrusive ways. The strange thing is that the main story seems more realistic than the other stories, initially at least. At first, it also seems more prosaic than the other stories the Reader reads. But this is thrown out of the window later, as the Reader chases Ludmilla (ah, the Other Reader has a name!) around the world. The main story still remains more “formulaic” than the other stories: it is the classic boy meets girl, boy tries to get into girl’s pants story (a simplification, true, but still). As with Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the subsidiary stories often seem like they could be more interesting than the main story. It seems that Calvino takes great joy in letting his imagination run free when creating scenarios, but he prefers to string the reader (the Reader?) along and then leave him (her?) hanging. Some of the secondary stories obviously cannot be taken further than the initial scenario, as they are circular, even insular, in construction, but some others seem like brilliant openings that could lead anywhere.
Calvino has entertaining things to say about reading and reading habits. This, for instance, could be the motto for anyone with a to-be-read pile of books:
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days are Numbered.
And so on. My favourite category of books Calvino mentions has to be the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified. Yes, dammit, you books know who you are! Calvino’s eccentric humour also shines through in this section.
He also writes entertainingly about writers and their existential condition. For instance, he has a whole section of the main story related through the diary of “Silas Flannery”, a mock Irish writer. At the end of this section, Flannery writes:
I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning… He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged…
Oh, what a tangled web Calvino weaves! Everything is smoke and mirrors, even the ending.
I thought this book was very clever – perhaps too clever, but that is debatable. I enjoyed it immensely, and will soon be reading more of Calvino’s books. But now it is time to read something a bit more straightforward…
Oh, this is sheer delight! From the skewering of academia (" . . . during the reading there must be some who underline the reflections of production methods, others the processes of reification, others the sublimation of repression, others the sexual semantic codes, others the metalanguages of the body,others the transgression of roles . . . "), to the satirization of publishers ("Ah, you've come to collect the manuscript? No, we haven't found it, do just be patient a bit longer, it'll turn up, nothing is ever lost here, only today we found a manuscript we'd been looking for these past ten years, oh, not another ten years, we'll find yours sooner, at least let's hope so, we have so many manuscripts, piles this high, if you like we'll show them to you, of course you want your own, not somebody else's, that's obvious, I mean we preserve so many manuscripts we don't care a fig about, we'd hardly throw away yours which means so much to us, no, not to publish it, it means so much for us to give it back to you"), Calvino gives us a humorous and incisive look at the pleasures and terrors of being a reader, as we hunt for books.
Who among us cannot identify with this trip to the bookstore:
". . . you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must neer allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too."
Our Reader inspects the home of the Other Reader. And, as many of us are wont to do, he inspects the books, not only their titles, but their arrangement, their locations, and from this he deduces that she is not a Reader Who Rereads, that she reads several books at the same time, different things for different hours of the day.
I love this book's complexity, its surprises. I love its stylistic conceits. I recommend you buy it, so that you can "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. " Enjoy.
The impression isn't so much that of a proper novel as of a collection of unfinished short works that showcase various styles and aims, linked together by an artful framing story. I read it initially as an ode to the importance and love of reading, seeing it as a metafiction - fiction about fiction, like I'd previously encountered through allegory in Ende's "The Neverending Story." There's still the other side of the coin to be considered, and a great part of the fun lies in the slow reveal of what exactly the author is driving at with all this peculiar construction.
I liked the inserted sly, self-aware commentary on how each story was being told, and how this later spills over into the portions between. During the bridging segments I began to anticipate Ludmilla's veiled introductions to each story with her "the novel I would like to read now" dialogue. Meanwhile, Calvino doesn't merely display his talents as a virtuoso in accomplishing each instance of what Ludmilla is seeking; he relates the inner workings of each narrator's mind to determine why they would want to tell their story in the way Ludmilla describes. IoaWNaT takes a while to live up to its first chapter's promise as a book to get lost in, but it does come - for me it finally happened with Chapter Eight's explicit outline of intent. This puzzle of a book was ultimately very rewarding, and I see more Italo Calvino in my future.
A certain reader is reading a novel that breaks off into another novel and the reader seeks to investigate the origin of such unpardonable publishing mistakes. It turns out that a certain translator Ermes Marana had proposed a stratagem in which he would break off the translation at the moment of greatest suspense and would start translating another novel, inserting it into the first through some rudimentary expedient. When translating literature of a moribund language, he got confused and the texts that he had translated was from another novel by a Polish writer. Such production defect in copies on behalf of his egregious blunder repeatedly forced readers to abandon reading.
Through the help the very diabolical Ermes Marana, a Japanese firm plotted to manufacture author Silas Flannery's novels by computer and contrived to produce absolutely new ones in order to invade the world market. The books were re-translated back to English and none of the critics could have distinguished which from the true Flannerys. The books were really plagiarisms from little known Japanese authors of novels that, having had no success, were sent to be pulped. The art of writing and reading what an author means for a reader to read from the writing is brought forth to the full actuality through the reader's indefatigable effort to unmask the identities of translations.
The author addresses directly to the reader and shapes the story in the perspective of the reader-in other words, the author somehow deprives his authority and has to involve reader into decision-making. The book has left open to the reader who is reading the possibility of identifying himself with the reader who is read: this is why he was not given a name, which would automatically have made him the equivalent of a third person, of a character, and so he had been kept a pronoun in its abstract condition-suitable for any attribute and any action.
Reading about Reading
The book begins (and subsequently throughout which) asks the reader to reflect minutely on the very activity of reading, which most of us take for granted. The book itself is also about characters (readers) practicing such reflection so raptly (and so absorbed in their books) that the world around them falls away. The novel explores the complex relationship between reading (what is being read, what the author means for reader to read...), writing (what is being written and not explicitly written...), and publishing (how translation of text might have forfeited the meaning...).
The most magnificent aspect of If, On a Winter's Night A Traveler is that the book explores the relationship between what the author has written explicitly and how what is being written down in the book stimulates, evokes, and obviates past experiences, memories, and thoughts. Reader might remember very well everything he has read, perhaps for whom each book becomes intensified with his reading of it at a given time, once and for all. As a result, reader might have preserved the books in the memory and prefers to preserve the books as objects, keeping them within proximity.
Italo Calvino further explores this argument about reading a "different book" other than the one currently being read. Reader, in other words, might be reading another book besides the one before his eyes-a book that yet does to exist, but since the reader wants it, cannot fail to exist. Reading becomes some abstract idea through which reader measures himself against something else that is not present, something that belongs to the immaterial, invisible dimension, because it can only be thought, concocted, and imagined or it was once and is no longer attainable.
If, On a Winter's Night challenges reader to have seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or maybe a feeling, or a question, or even just an image. The book encourages reader going off on a tangent and wandering from thought to thought, in such itinerary of reasonings that reader should feel to persue to the end.
The novel's main character is you (despite being clearly masculine), the Reader who wants nothing more than to read Italo Calvino's novel If on a winter's night a traveler. You find yourself in possession of a defective copy, and your efforts to get a new copy result in two increasingly interesting plots: 1) a series of unfinished novels that you just happen to be reading through, and 2) your attempts to win the heart of a female reader, Ludmilla, who is likewise reading these texts.
The idea, in concept, is intriguing, but as the novel progresses in its complexity, it becomes harder for Calvino to realistically keep things together. We expect as readers that the "coincidence" of the early goings will evolve into something logical and sensible, but a publisher seeking revenge on a scholar and a despotic nation-state filled with double-crossing double agents all feels so artificial and unmanageable that there's almost no sense of real resolution by the end.
Though the novel's strongest passages are those in which Calvino waxes philosophically on the nature of reading and writing, the mini-novels in the text are a bit too uneven. Some are rather memorable, including the opening piece and a surprisingly suspenseful work about a professor answering a constantly-ringing telephone, but at least half are somewhat forgettable and don't necessarily advance the main plot -- which, by the end, evolves in random, almost unconnected ways. By the time the ending manifests itself, it feels acceptable but cheap, as if it's too easy and too convenient for a novel that's been invested in such grand ideas.
The novel attempts to take a major chance with narrative, and for that Calvino's work is to be commended. But If on a winter's night a a traveler doesn't read like a fully-conceived work either, and by the end, though it's been fascinating, it too feels unfinished, leaving the reader more confused and unfulfilled than anything else.
Thus starts the two Readers’ adventure to try and secure an ending to one of the countless novels they encounter. The story is divided between the actions and thoughts of the original reader and the chapters of what he reads throughout his journey. He travels to distant lands, encounters numerous readers with vastly different opinions on reading and becomes embroiled in literary conspiracies, all in pursuit of being able to finally finish just one novel.
I gave this novel the subgenre metafiction because it’s an important factor to note when deciding whether or not to read it. As with all of Calvino’s works, the plot of this story is far from linear or anything you’d expect from your average story. This novel is fiction about fiction (the meaning of the term metafiction), and urges the actual reader (though the character readers do this as well) to think about reading and all of the varieties of reading that exist in the world. Why do you read? What do you look for in a novel? What is the most important thing you aim to get out of reading? This novel brushes on the topic of the writer as well, but primarily this story displays the vast diversity of readers and kinds of reading. The writing is witty and at times mind-teasing, but you’ll find that you learn a lot about yourself as you follow the path of the Reader.
The basic premise is that "you" pick up a new book from the bookstore, and after reading the first chapter, realize that something is wrong...like parts of another book are inserted or pages are missing or any other variety of problems. This happens repeatedly. Reading the entire book you will end up reading ten first chapters, all of which are pretty great and of course end on an extremely dramatic note that leaves you wanting more. Meanwhile, in between these chapters, "you" are embarking on an adventure to solve this mystery of the unfinished/misproduced novels and get the girl. "You" are the ultimate protagonist, since as a normal reader in a normal story we tend to get sucked in by identifying or sympathizing with the protagonist.
This book says a lot about why people read and even pokes fun at those who can't just enjoy reading for reading's sake. It also reminded me a lot of Pale Fire by Nabokov in the way the story plays with the whole structure of telling stories within a story.
What an odd book. I have to say, some of the story "starts" were interesting and well written, but by about the 5th one, I got tired of being dropped mid-story only to return to the author's self-indulgent treatise on his disgruntlement with the writing and publishing process. If you carefully pick through, there are interesting philosophical sentences on human nature and reading, but the excess around these made for my feeling it was a tremendous waste of time... and when do I ever feel that way about a book?!!
But then a horrid jolt a printing error, the 1st chapter repeated forever without end. So the reader (a version of "you") goes to investigate, the original noir tale genre bleeding out into reality with a femme fatale and a mystery: the book you started wasn't even the book by Calvino it was someone else entirely. So there's a replacement and we (you) restart it but guess what? Oh yes your right: it isn't the same and also, well it seems to have a printing error too.
So it begins, a constant starting of stories connected through the tale of one readers life. Names, themes and styles echo each other throughout this book. The tropes of westerns and conspiracy's, Russian literature all effect the main tale, which is told in torturous yet sublime 2nd person. There is wry humour, much musing on the nature of reading and of authors and many many pastiches. Each beginning is tantalising (if sometimes uneven) and I admit I wasn't familiar with all the styles. Still it was a lot of fun and the writing was superb (think wonderful long flowing sentences that were both a joy to read and sometimes too hard).
I guess in the end liking this book depends on how much post modernist antics you can take, whether the constant restarting of the tales annoys or amuses you and whether the thought of 2nd person makes you shudder. Personally I loved it, it made me gleefully read bits out to boyfriend and lets face it the main protagonist was just great ;)
I still want to know how If on a winters night a traveller ends though.
The entire book is about You, the Reader, as you search for the elusive perfect book, but come up short with only truncated works that weren't what you expected at all. The structure of the book challenges what a book actually *is,* not an inert stack of pages and ink but a process that exists somewhere between the author and reader, and subject to the whims of both.
After reading through the third or so aborted work, the Reader exasperatedly notes that you've "lost that privileged relationship with books which is peculiar to the reader: the ability to consider what is written as something finished and definitive, to which there is nothing to be added, from which there is nothing to be removed." That's quite how I felt when reading this, extremely on my guard and off-kilter, since I knew that the 'fake' novel would stop in only a few pages - to what? Get back to the 'real' fictional novel that's equally crafted and fake? If on a winter's night a traveler becomes less of a novel and more an experience of reading; fascinating and unique.
I love novelists who play with reader's expectations, whether through language or structure, so while I was a bit bemused at the first page or two with the second-person pov, I quickly found myself completely delighted with the structure of the story - and also the book itself: it's all about the acts of reading, writing, and the relationship between author and readers or between readers themselves. The primary method of looking at these subjects is through alternating chapters wherein a narrative grows around The Reader You (who is trying to read Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, just as the out-of-book reader is doing) and the beginnings of novels he encounters.
One thread I found intriguing, and which I will need to reread the book to have a better understanding, is of the "truth" or "reality" of books and the author. There is a question of authenticity - is it the "real" book the author wrote? can the book in the author's mind be accurately transmitted to the reader? and if not, which one is the real book? what happens when you add translations to the mix? if someone copies a writer's style and forges their name such that no one would know it's a forgery, does it have any worth as a real book or is it worthless as a fake? - which ultimately leads to the dual question "what is reality, and who creates it?"
I believe chapter 8 might be the pivot of the book. It is possibly the most 'meta' of any chapter and is the first to plainly link the inside book to the outside book, a sort of literary möbius strip. It's a multi-layered möbius, in fact, because it also brings the some of the previous novel beginnings into the reality of The Reader's narrative, and is the point when I felt The Reader's narrative shifted to mingle with the novel beginnings. At any rate, chapter 8 is when I sat up and said "wait a second, how did Calvino know exactly what to write to reach my heart?" - so many aspects felt exactly written to appeal to the kinds of things I like to read and to challenge my brain with, even when they were elements that stretched my comfort zone. It is playful and quietly satirical in spots, but also serious and weighty. It deconstructs the entire concept of "book", but also celebrates it.
I can't possibly give a succinct overview of this book beyond what I've written here, nor can I recommend it to just anyone. It's not an easy read, and it's going to be too weird or postmodern for loads of people. But it is exactly to my taste, and I love it tremendously, and I am so glad I finally borrowed a copy. (And now that I've just finished reading it, I'm craving a reread of other postmodern writers on my shelf - Borges and Cortazar and Rushdie...)
The novel is about books, reading, writing, publishing and the interrelatedness of all of these. The author looks at some serious subjects in a comedic way. O.K., I already feel like I'm rambling. Let me try again. The book is written in a format with twelve chapters, which are addressed to the Reader who is also the protagonist. In between each of these chapters is the beginning of a fictitious novel by a fictitious author. Sound confusing? Well, it's really not once you get into it. You see, the Reader begins a book entitled If on a winter's night a traveler but is unable to finish it due to a publishing error. It seems that two different books got put together in the binding process. This sets the whole story into motion. The Reader is on a quest to find the ending to this book, which only leads him to the beginning of another book by another author, etc. This happens a total of ten times. So, each chapter sends the Reader to a different location and a different set of strange circumstances only to find the beginning of another book.
The great thing about this book is its inventiveness and the way that it captures the way readers interact with books. In chapter eleven, the Reader finds himself in a library desperately seeking any of the ten of the novels he has begun. He encounters other readers in the library who explain the way they read and why they read. I won't go into all of them, but the one that stuck out to me is the reader who says that he encounters a new book each and every time he rereads a book. This reader believes that the meaning comes from the reader in that particular time and place. So a rereading of the same book can never yield the same emotions. I would have to say that I pretty much agree with that statement. I know I've begun books and put them aside only to pick them up later and devour them. It wasn't the book that had changed. It was me.
This is probably not a book for everyone, but I did enjoy it. It did make me stop and think about the act of reading, which I usually just take for granted. But, take my word for it, if you're going to read this, find one with a good introduction.