Clever, but Cloying

Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler has been on my shelves over ten years, and through three or four different domiciles. I purchased it because Neil Gaiman used it as a reference for his Sandman collection, World’s End. I finally committed to reading the Calvino. While very good, and important, it was a tough, and not often enjoyable, read.

The conceit is fascinating. A man and woman reader begin a book, then are interrupted at a point of suspense. In numbered chapters, they try to find out more about the book, and it leads them on a less-than-merry chase. Alternating with chapters of their quest are first chapters of the books they find that are supposed to be the same, but instead have a different set of male female characters, different title, different setting, different country of origin, and different style. Each introduces you to a situation, then pauses at a conflict. The overall affect is deliberately frustrating. Further, many of the number chapters are told in second person, addressing the reader. This was sometimes unnerving, as Calvino seemed to be looking out of the book and into my life:

The kitchen is the part of the house that can tell the most things about you: whether you cook or not (one would say yes, if not every day, at least fairly regularly)….whether you tend toward the bare minimum or toward gastronomy (your purchases and gadgets suggest elaborate and fanciful recipes, at least in your intentions; you may not necessarily be greedy, but the idea of a couple of fried eggs for supper would probably depress you)

The first sensation this book should convey is what I feel when I hear the telephone ring; I say “should” because I doubt that written words can give even a partial idea of it…my reaction is one of flight from this aggressive and threatening summons, as it is also a feeling of urgency, intolerableness, coercion that impels me…rushing to answer even though I am certain that nothing will come of it save suffering and discomfort.

I enjoyed the ten beginnings of the stories. Like the readers in the book, I was loathe to quit them just as I was going deep. With both the stories and the characters of readers, Calvino frustrated my desire for a story, as well as my attempts to like the characters, since he took pains to make them all different, yet the same, and all readers, just like me.

This is a book about how we read, why we read, and our desire for stories and character. It’s brilliant stuff, but too often purposely dissatisfying–intellectual with a dearth of emotional attachment.

5 Responses to “Clever, but Cloying”

  1. Mary Says:

    I’ve had this on my “to be read” list for years. I remember even getting it out of the library and letting it languish unread until I had to return it (with appropriate fines since I can never remember to turn in anything on time).

    I really appreciated reading your thoughts on this book. Thanks for a thoughtful and insightful review.

    I think I’ll give reading this one another try.

  2. Elle Says:

    I think it’s a book of its time and somehow shows its age now. the elusive student, the university environment, are firmly grounded in the late sixties/early seventies and don’t translate so well into our time, I find. I particulalry like the initial chapter, describing the positions people read in, and the categories of books that look at us form the shelves of a bookshop. I have the feeling you may like even more Calvino’s ancestors’ trilogy, or whatever it’s called in English, especially the Nonexisten Knight.

  3. Theresa N Says:

    I buy books for one reason or another and it sometimes takes me a year or 2 before I read them.

  4. Steph Says:

    Hmmm… this one has been sitting on my shelf for at least a year. I always find the first few pages fun and tantalizing, and then swiftly the writing shifts into something that requires more effort and concentration than I feel I have to offer in my free time. I haven’t gotten rid of it yet, because I still harbor hopes that I will be in the right place to read it one day. We shall see…

  5. girldetective Says:

    Elle, thanks so much for your comments. It’s great to have someone from Italy commenting on this famous Italian book. I agree that it’s somewhat dated, especially in some of the male/female interactions. But I found the ridicule of the grad school type approaches to literature, like dissecting it, or looking at it for only one thing, were still relevant.

    Steph, it was a hard book to read. It took perseverance to continue, but I’m glad I did. It’s a fascinating idea, well executed. It’s definitely not a fun read, but it’s worthwhile.