Tuesday, March 5, 2013

If on a winter's night a traveler

I went through a gamut of emotions reading Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, which is in some ways a love letter to reading, and in others a convoluted and compromised writer's exercise.

Both Calvino and traveler are beloved in reading circles.  The author is one of those writers who engaged his fans in a classical sense of literature, updating it in a postmodern setting.  This is the second book I've read from him, after Mr. Palomar, and like Cormac McCarthy, after two books and including one that has to be considered a definitive work (in McCarthy's case Blood Meridian) I'm confident in declaring I never need to read Calvino again.  He's shown me all his tricks, and traveler is a story about tricks.

It's the reader's version of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a satire of reading itself that seeks to explore what reading is like, and even how Calvino viewed the state of publishing, which in the years since traveler was published has only become more troublesome.  It takes the shape of a reader whose reading is continually interrupted in publishing errors, and the more he attempts to understand what's happened the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, first in discovering another reader who shares his perspective, and then the complicated reasons why the particular books he's been attempting to read have been printed with such error.  There's a certain point where the cleverness of it gives way to Calvino's inability to advance the story further without altering it, and not in the good way where the movie Adaptation becomes a movie that was described in its beginning, but where the author has simply tried to be more expansive than he's truly capable of being.

It becomes clear that half of what Calvino wanted to do was to create a series of hooks that his lead character couldn't resist, and yet the more this basic premise is repeated the more aware the reader becomes that traveler is simply a collection of short stories, not like Arabian Nights but rather Calvino stringing the reader along with an ongoing narrative that becomes increasingly loopy, As I Lay Dying interpreted by an attempt to write different narratives but sticking inconveniently in the same voice each time, Calvino's eccentric viewpoint.  The more he tries to create true variations the less successful he is.

Fun reading for the most part, with some very amusing episodes and scenarios, but played out before it plays all the way out.

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