An autopsy on literature…reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino.

Hooray! I have FINALLY finished reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, admittedly it has almost put me off reading forever, but I have just about survived until the book’s final pages. For a novel which is completely saturated with the themes of writing and reading…this book has done little to promote either of its themes to me. Calvino’s novel is a thorough examination of the acts of writing and reading, word by word, piece by piece Calvino analyses the part of the writer and the reader as if he were carrying out some sort of autopsy on literature itself. Clever?…this book certainly is. Interesting?…it is this also. Entertaining?…at first perhaps. Enjoyable?…it is not.

As a student of literature and an, at times, wannabe-writer I anticipated myself devouring this book quickly, enjoying Calvino’s well-thought out and insightful take on storytelling. I read the book’s opening pages feeling thoroughly entertained, smiling wryly at Calvino’s literary devices and omnipotent manipulation of his readers. However, as I later discovered, you can have too much – far too much – of a good thing. I won’t say too much about the storyline (well, storylines) of the book, but suffice to say that within Calvino’s book are the openings of ten different novels. Yes, you heard. The openings…nothing more. Calvino uses the openings of different books to cleverly depict how an author ‘reels-in’ his reader. He deftly captures those initial moments when one begins reading a new book…the introduction of setting and characters…the style of narration…and he does this all with a knowing wink to you, his reader. See what I’m doing? Calvino taunts. I’m reeling you in again. A new story all over again. Endless beginnings, ceaseless manipulation. Eventually you begin to wonder if it is in fact the themes of writing and reading that Calvino is manipulating or, rather, whether it is you who he has manipulated all along.

I found this novel very interesting and immeasurably frustrating…probably just what Calvino intended me to feel. He very much appeared to me as a God-like figure, looming overhead…giggling sadistically as I became increasingly irritated by his work. I frequently questioned my own weakness….was I being childish in getting annoyed by such an obvious trap? All the signs were there, from the novel’s opening pages Calvino was perfectly upfront with me, writing, “…the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky…” and, “he [Calvino] is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognise him as himself.” He told me that in choosing this book I might find myself unlucky, he warned me that he is an author famed for changeability. If only I had taken these statements more seriously.

As I have already mentioned, I did not enjoy reading this book. It is probably one of the least rewarding books I have ever read in terms of enjoyment. Perhaps if I had approached this book as an academic experiment, an intellectual in-joke, perhaps then I would have saved myself a lot of frustration. Sadly, I did not. I approached this book as I approach all other works of fiction; but while this book is about fiction, I’m not entirely convinced that the book itself is a work of fiction. It is more of a high-brow examination of the relationship shared by writer and reader. Don’t get me wrong, this book is interesting in that it cleverly analyses the themes of writing and reading not only examining its themes on the page, but also drawing you, the reader, into the investigation as some sort of three-dimensional guinea-pig.

I will not be reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller again and would not really recommend it to the casual reader. To me, it is a text that only has much to offer in an academic setting…to students of literature. I believe that an academic library shelf is the only possible, and deserved, resting place for this novel. The irony of this is not lost on me…now it is my turn to look upon Calvino’s novel with a tiny sadistic smile.

I read this book as part of the ‘Back to the Classics Challenge’ in the category of ‘Classic that has been translated from its original language’. I move on to ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier.

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8 Comments

Filed under 20th century, Back to the Classics Challenge, Books, Fiction, Italo Calvino

8 responses to “An autopsy on literature…reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino.

  1. Congratulations! I’ve tried two times and haven’t been successful yet. I love the concept but the voice doesn’t grab me.

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  2. Pingback: Deception and delusion…reading My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. | In my good books…

  3. This is one of only two or three books I have ever physically thrown across the room in frustration. I remain a little terrified of ever being somewhere where the only book available is a Calvino. He’s in that rare group of authors whose work I see no pleasure in at all, no matter how hard I try to consider it from someone else’s perspective!

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  4. I was thinking of including this book in my November list, and this review, along with themisanthropologist’s comment (hello), makes it quite intriguing. I’m not a literature student, but I think I’ll be reading it soon. 🙂

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  5. I read this halfway before finally giving up on it. Like you, I was also thoroughly entertained in the beginning…then I felt a bit frustrated…then confused…then, after a while, it was just too tedious. And that’s when I gave up! I still want to finish it, someday, but I’m in no hurry.

    I’ve read some of Calvino’s other novels and I really liked them. I think “If On A Winter’s Night….” had potential, but after a while, it just lost me.

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