Every now and again you read a book that drops you into a world of wonder. That’s how I’d describe Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. What’s it about? It’s difficult to say. It’s a novel about reading, and more specifically, interrupted reading. You might call it Post-Modern, but in a good way. I came across the book in a manner that, like the story itself, emerged from different narrative structures. First of all a colleague sent around a quote from the book that grabbed my attention. I decided that if I ever found a copy in a bookstore I’d buy it, based on that quote alone. A second stream was the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. One of this year’s categories was a book in translation, which this is. And yet a third factor was that I found the book on the shelf of a used book vendor in Ithaca. And so I read.
Like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—and having nothing to do with the fact that it was the most recent novel I’d read—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a nested story, a story within a story. Breaking the “fourth wall” Calvino addresses his readers in the second person and makes them characters in the plot. The reader buys a defectively printed book and when he tries to return it to the seller, a fantastical world opens up. I’m not sure that there’s a particular genre here—literary fiction constitutes a genre of its own—but there are a few speculative elements that keep the story pulling you along without really giving any conclusions (that the po-mo aspect to which I referred).
Apart from being merely fun, the story is thought-provoking. What goes on when we read? Do we not get absorbed into the mind of the writer? And not only of the author but also of others who’ve read the book with whom we might discuss it? Writing is an endlessly addictive activity. One of my observations about careers without sabbaticals is that those who wish to practice the art must carve time out from days interrupted by work to be writers. For me that means awaking early, for this blog is only one of many writing projects I have going. To write well, however, means reading much. And if you’re casting about for a story that’s hard to classify and difficult to put down, I would gladly recommend If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.