Monday, 15 October 2012

[Duel Review] If on a winter's night a traveller - Italo Calvino

Okay, I picked the book for this month's duel review. I had been glancing at it in Waterstones for a few weeks beforehand as it sat on the two for one table and had been intrigued. During my friends and my "we finished our dissertation so let's buy all the books!" afternoon, I gave in to temptation and picked up a copy. As well as the back cover making it sound quite interesting, my friend Lizzy's coworker had been raving about it to her the weekend before so it seemed a good buy.

To be quite honest, I'm not entirely sure how to describe the novel. It is definitely nothing you've ever read before. I think I may just put the back cover blurb: 

You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But there is a printer's error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. This remarkable novel leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the hero of them all is you, the reader.

I guess, at first glance, it kind of sounds like a very intense 'Choose Your Own Adventure' novel. The Reader is the main character, although, to be fair, there are instances where you realize that the author is aware of the difference between The Reader and the reader. Which shows you just how incredibly meta this novel is. 

Although there is a semblance of plot about forged books and sneaky translators, this book, more than anything, is a treatise on books, on reading and writing. It makes you think about what a book means to you and what the written word means in general. It investigates what the point of novels are and what a writer must do to be a writer and if he does not do these things, doesn't that still make him a writer? 

One thing that you will either love or hate about the book is the format. Every other chapter follows the exploits of The Reader and what he does in search of the continuation of his book. Meanwhile, the chapters in-between are the beginnings of the novels that he is attempting to read. Each one is very different, even if they sometimes explore the same things. On the one hand, they seem out of place at times but on the other hand, they really do showcase the talent of Calvino as a writer. I really enjoyed each new beginning and I think it really helps the reader identify with The Reader. When you finish each snippet, you really are curious how it would continue. It also shows you what the importance of a great set up is and how (as stated towards the end of the novel) perhaps that anticipation, the small beginning that sets the reader up, is something that can never be lived up to, no matter how good the following subject matter is.

I can't say that I particularly liked the actual plot of the novel, as I found it a bit too heavy handed and took away from some of the more interesting passages about reading in general. Even though I usually despise second person, I think it was used incredibly effectively in this book. 

I do feel that this book was probably much more revelatory in the period it was published in (the early eighties), mainly because being meta has become more mainstream, with social media breaking down the wall between reader and author and media in general becoming more interested in exploring structure through its own medium (I'm thinking Community here). However, it still packs quite a punch and gives the reader a lot to think about.

I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who considers themselves "a reader" or "a writer." It has a lot to say on both topics and will genuinely  make you think. It's an inventive novel and well worth your time.

This is my review for If on a winter's night a traveller. Here is a link to Colin's review.

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