If on a winter’s night a traveller

I’ve been meaning to write about books. Partly because I am actually finishing books now (three done in the last year! Which is good by my standards). So I’ll aim to get those written about.

This one is confusing. And it’s actually not one of the three I’ve finished. I’m about a third of the way through, and it’s hard work. I don’t know if this style is standard for Italo Calvino, as I’ve not read any of his other work. So what is this style?

The book starts off by addressing you, the reader. It goes on, in conversational style, about how you go about reading the book. And then it starts the book. But you get a chapter in, and it turns out the book Calvino tells you you are reading is jumbled up with another book. So you start reading that, but there is an issue with that new one, and so on, until you’re fifty pages in, and you’ve read excerpts of multiple books, while also being told in excruciating detail, how you feel about it, which courses of action you could take, which you do take, and planting the seeds of a meta novel, in which you are awkwardly trying to form a romantic relationship with a woman who is also struggling with the novel.

Some of the stories are discovered while “you” are trying to find out which books you were accidentally reading. You ask a professor of some dead language if he know of a book with these characters and those places in. He says yes, but then you’re given something completely different. Any time you think you’re getting into one of the books, you’re given another, whether you like it or not. Because whether you like it is not the point.

So what is the point?

Well, it’s a very clever essay, on the nature of writing: what is a novel; how do we engage with characters, scenes and settings, and how does an author work to make that happen; what was going on with the author as artist in the late 70s vs pairs or groups of writer, and how pure fiction compared in popularity with non-fiction; how language itself evolves or else dies; how clever Calvino is.

And it’s the latter element I’m getting at the moment. Given that the novel is from 1979, there’s a definite feeling that If on a winter’s night… is a prog rock album of the world of written fiction. Lots of changes, metatextuality, breaking the fourth wall, and seeing if you can keep up with his scattergun combination of critical theory and conflicting narrative.

I got a bit stuck on one bit, a war story-come-erotic fiction. It lost me a bit. But now I’m back in the “real world”, so I guess I’ll plug on. But I’m writing this in case I don’t finish; I want it to be clear why I didn’t. I’m also super late for a book club discussion (by weeks), so I just want to log some analysis of the book somewhere.

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