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

If on a winter's night a travelerIf on a winter’s night a traveler was given to me by one of my WriMos during our TGIO party after NaNoWriMo 2011. Half a glance at the book and I knew it was so far out of my typical reading zone that it may as well have been in another solar system. However, he assured me it was good.

Of course, I put off reading it. I had a draft to finish, then other books that were more interesting, that I was more excited about. But finally, finally I sat down and started it, because I wanted to expand my reading horizons and because I needed clear off some of my growing TBR list before I’m allowed to get any more books.

It’s not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a book to make you think, really think, where the author never uses a ten-cent word when he has a shiny five-dollar word at the ready, and where every single person talks as though they picked up their vocabulary from a doctoral thesis in the fine arts.

And the paragraphs are longer than a football field.

And the paragraphs are longer than a football field.

It’s difficult for me to review because it’s not the type of story I’m most familiar with. It’s almost as though If on a winter’s night a traveler is an experiment in storytelling, a new way to write a novel, through the lens of a reader reading other novels.

That being said, the style and structure of it ultimately fascinated me, and that was what kept me reading. I wanted to see how Calvino was ultimately going to tie all the disparate threads together.

The novel begins with, perhaps, the most meta opening sentence in the history of novels:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.

That’s your first clue that this isn’t the typical novel: every other chapter is written in second person, talking about you, the Reader, on your journey not just through If on a winter’s night a traveler, but the beginnings of nine other novels, each interrupted for one reason or another at a very tense moment.

It’s a viewpoint decision that makes sense, considering what Calvino is doing, but it definitely takes some getting used to, and it was a struggle for me to initially get into the story.

However, there were a number of slyly amusing moments early on, like this excerpt about types of books that any booklover will recognize:

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 the 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… 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.

Sections like this made me smile and made it easier to read, particularly early on. Calvino has a wonderful way with words and an adoration of long sentences and longer paragraphs. He excels at putting words to universal concepts, so that while you’re reading you have to stop and consider the words and say, “Yes, I understand that. I’ve felt that.”

And it’s very interesting to follow the Reader and the Other Reader on their journey through the books, through what novels mean to them and through the search that brings them closer together. It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever read before that it was cool just to see how it would turn out.

About halfway through the book, though, the main story gets to a point where it starts requiring a suspension of disbelief far more sizable than I usually allow, and I read fantasy and sci-fi on a regular basis.

Not to mention Ludmilla (the Other Reader) is the type of female character I don’t particularly like: the attractive, mysterious, slightly aloof woman, whom every male character in the story is absolutely captivated by for no discernible reason.

And frankly, the less said about sex scenes here, the better. Yeesh.

However, mentioning those things seems almost like I’m missing the point of the book. While they might have annoyed me, it wasn’t enough to stop me from reading, or to keep me from recognizing Calvino’s skill, particularly in handling what had to be an ambitious project.

It’s like this is a book you read because it does something more than simply tell a story, and if you look at it only on that level, then it’s like only seeing one part of a picture. It might be a very pretty part, but if you take a step back and refocus, you’ll find so much more.

This book is certainly not for everyone, but it what I’ve mentioned intrigues you, then you should pick it up and give it a try.