Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Weirdest Book: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

If you're in the mood for something weird, consider Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979). I picked this up because I had read a feature in which British writers were asked to list their favorite translated novels, and the only post-World War II book to appear on more than one list was this one.

At the beginning you, the reader, have just bought Italo Calvino's new book, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. You settle down to read – you are male, incidentally, although there is a failed attempt to create a parallel female you later on – only to discover the the book is misbound, and instead of a whole novel you just have the first 16 pages repeated several times. Irate, you storm back to the bookstore to demand a clean copy. But there are no clean copies. Not only that, but the story you have been reading is not by Italo Calvino, but by some Polish author. You decide to purchase a copy of this book by the Polish author, but you get a completely different book that also breaks off after a few pages. But you, clever person that you are, notice that the names of people and places in this book are not really Polish. Looking up the places in an atlas, you discover that they are actually Cimmerian.

So you pay a visit to a famous professor of Cimmerian literature, at which point things really start to get weird. After an interlude in a feminist studies seminar where, of course, nobody actually cares about the book you are obsessed with recovering, you enter a surreal world of secret police, rebel groups known only by acronyms, book forgers, and political intrigue that reminded me of Thomas Pynchon at his most bizarre. In between strange encounters with secret agents you keep reading the first chapters of novels, none of which turns out to be what you were looking for, and these novels keep getting ever weirder, too.

One scene: you run into a best-selling hack novelist who is suffering from writer's block in his Piedmont villa. But every day a lovely woman comes outside to read by a house across the valley, and watching her through his telescope he becomes fascinated with her complete absorption in her books. He begins to write again by imagining what she is reading from her positions and the tilt of her head, trying to recreate the story she seems to be feeling. And of course he ends up recreating, word for word, the book she is reading and getting in trouble for plagiarism.

It is, in short, the sort of post-modern nonsense I have always hated, all about readers and writing and signs and what all. But for all that it is at times playfully creative, and I never thought Calvino was either mocking me or taking himself too seriously, so I finished it and sometimes enjoyed it rather a lot.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

The description reminds me of the vast "annotation" segments of the original The Princess Bride, with that strange 1970s cheekiness about telling a story which is ostensibly about real life, but of course actually isn't, but of course that's the entire point. It's all very self-indulgent and too clever by half, but done well it can be fairly entertaining and even interesting.