Review of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

Intrigued by the title, one day I opened this book, didn’t get it, put it back, saw it again years later, did the same thing, stumbled upon it again years later with a sense of déjà vu, read no more than a few pages. 

For some reason, it seemed as impenetrable as Hegel. But the title was stuck in my head like a pop song. That unfinished sentence bothered me, yet I would not play into the gimmick and read it just to find out what the fragment meant. I determined to put it off forever. This was before I realized Calvino had written Cosmicomics. Another title I adored by accident, fancied the title again, stumbled upon it years later, but I still resisted his quirky cheekiness. Almost broke down and read this one then. But didn’t.

A decade passed, I was sitting in a rental car office. It would be a few hours. There was a bookstore down the street. I walked there, found this book within thirty seconds on the shelf for 2$, purchased it. Read it within 3 hours like a person possessed. Part of that time I was sitting in the rental car. Inhaling the ineptly concealed lingering scent of tobacco smoke. Reclining in the vaguely stained cloth seat. I felt like a slice of toast left in the toaster for three weeks. Somehow drove home, stumbled inside. I couldn’t shake the surreal, otherworldly daze with which I was plagued.

Calvino, sitting in a room, typing the segments separately, shuffling papers, retyping, rearranging. Writing a novel like this should not result in a readable conglomeration. But it does. Crafting, playing games with the reader, goofing off. That was my first impression. But I kept coming back to it. Flipping it open, mulling over the elegant, irreverent quirkiness. I sympathized with the character’s search for a haunting book. Its atmosphere of heady grief infected me. It was the principal of the thing. The search for a title was the search for a book, which became more books. Doesn’t the author’s duty include closure, explanation, justification? Can an author really just write whatever they want, without regard to the reader’s puny intellect? Unless I approach it as a study, a departure, an experiment. I wasn’t used to thinking this way back then. Each book within the book was composed of sections of dissimilar books, but when put together you had the story of a book, of an adventure in textual manipulation, and a novelistic tongue-twister. It was as precise as the Golden Ratio. I had been manipulated, tricked. Calvino had planted a seed of carnivalesque whirlpools in my mind, thoughts invoking memories, spiraling into a labyrinth. It is eerily geometric, and reading the partial interludes is like dividing segments of a ruler in half, until you reach the Planck scale and your phantom ruler phases out of existence. You never reach the conclusion, but you enter into each layer Inception-wise, with the hope and joy of discovering a book, its world, its philosophy, which is normally gift-wrapped between two covers. Calvino offers up a Chinese finger-trap, where on the inside of the trap you feel other, tiny, stroking fingers. At least, I felt trapped by If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… A traveler you become, and like his knights and cities, this novel reveals hidden isles, provokes the unlikely kinds of thoughts you only encounter in fleeting corridors of strained meditation, pathological tightrope walking between the abysses of insanity and genius.

Calvino proves that traditional structure is only a limitation. Beginning, middle and end are repellent concepts, false securities. He channels Borges, who was afraid to write a novel, because of the can of worms such bold experiment unleashes. To find out if you are a Calvino fan peel back the pages and slowly wrap your head around his whimsical conceptual design, if you can, if you have enough wrapping, and if you find yourself lacking, try his meteoric Comics, his stellar stories. He is dungeon master, professor, and explorer of lost dimensions. This book is a floating waterfall. A spectacle, a bottomless well, a specter and a…

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