Italo Calvino has always been kind of a Holy Grail author for me. You know, “one day I’ll read him, and it’ll be awesome.” Everyone else seemed already to have been inducted into the Calvino Readers Hall of Fame. Meanwhile I was just hanging around, checking into Young Adult hotels and digging an interminable Literary Classic hole (it goes all the way to China). But it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried reading this book before. My beloved (whose book collection is smaller but more respectable than mine) has a copy from when he’d read it 8 years ago. On my first attempt, I found the first couple of pages too clever-clever, like the person you never sat next to in university classes.
You are about to 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. 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’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!”
I like a tricksy literary conceit as much as the next girl, but Calvino be damned if he thought this would charm me. Ok, so he clearly had a handle on the context of modern, even postmodern, reading. But I was tired and didn’t want to go to Overtly Self-Referential Narrative land, so I tossed it aside.
Skip a couple of years, and three of my friends were reading, or had lately read Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Something fun and good was happening in their brains, and I wanted in. Again I forced myself through the first pages (they serve a purpose but with some vulgarity, possibly the only false notes in the novel) and to my surprise I was quickly in love. Though If on a winter’s night a traveller is assiduously metafictional, its assays are preternaturally acute, and playful to boot.
The protagonist is a Reader who is not dissimilar to you. You are putatively reading the same book as he is, after all. But are you as committed, seduced, overwhelmed by the pleasures of reading? To follow Calvino’s Reader through his Arabian Nights-style journey (feminists be appeased or outraged, there is a female Other Reader) is to turn the mirror on one’s own most cherished experiences of reading. The book is intellectual, yet intimate; Calvino balances the esoteric with the congratulatory to make the reader feel like a distinguished accomplice.
Guess what? It’s a bonafide
Recommended for: (and I might be overstating this, but) people who love books stupid.