If On A Winters Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

I have been back in London for a few days this week before another little ‘procedure’ and my next return for some convalescing back up home this weekend, which coincides with my mother’s birthday. Whilst back I made sure I managed to get to The Riverside Readers book group for our discussion of ‘If On A Winters Night A Traveller’ by Italo Calvino which was chosen by Anirban. I have to admit I felt a bit of a cheat because I hadn’t finished the book… because I had thrown it across the room and given up on it a few days before. So this isn’t a ‘review’ more a public exorcism of a book that started off with a ridiculous amount of promise and then swiftly became the bane of my reading life.

Italo Calvino’s ‘If On A Winters Night A Traveller’ is claimed by many to be a ‘masterpiece’ and that always intrigues me with a book and makes me feel like maybe I should read it, apart from that I knew nothing of the author or his works. When I started the book I had high hopes, as I do with every book, and the quirky initial opening paragraphs of the book seemed to charm me…

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”

I liked this starting point, it seemed playful and so I was gearing up for a really enjoyable read that would take me away. However after the initial brilliance of the opening chapter (and I do mean chapter) which is a rather wonderful set of pages about reading, it just went down hill for me. You see the plot is rather confusing. We follow ‘you’ a reader who buys a copy of Italo Calvino’s book ‘If On A Winters Night A Traveller’ however there is something wrong with it after exchanging to for another copy he gets a completely different book, and again, and again each one in a differing genre style. We then get the first chapter of each of these books in alternating chapters… well I wont lie I was really, really confused by it all.

As we started to have scenes set such as a scene in a café where Calvino starts to analyse setting with things like ‘could this story all be in the café, is the outside world important, maybe we will find out, maybe we wont’ I just started to get really annoyed. I felt I was being patronised and that the writer was being rather smug, and that’s when I decided to throw it across the room. I found it mildly amusing after being so cross that in the initial chapter when Calvino describes varying books Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them Too, Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days are Numbered, Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified”  and seemed to include one that described his own “Books You Needn’t Read” and so I stopped.

I also laughed when Armen, one of the other members of book group, dug out his copy which was in another language (sorry Armen I have forgotten which language) and it looked like it might possibly have made more sense to me in a language I couldn’t read.

A weird book that annoyingly defeated me, almost non fiction in the way it looks at how readers read and writers write it should have worked for me but instead almost brought me out in hives. Pretty much everyone else managed to finish it, bad me, and you can see Kim’s review here. Anyone else managed it or anyone else who has been defeated?

This was a book that Armen from our book group gave me at our Christmas book swap at book group last year, and then it ends up as a read, how random!

22 Comments

Filed under Book Group, Italo Calvino, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

22 responses to “If On A Winters Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

  1. Thats quite funny because I’ve just done a post on what happens when you dislike a book that everyone else loves. Sometimes it just works out that way doesn’t it?

  2. I finished it but it was a real struggle for me too. However I did think it was a brilliant book but it really messed with my mind. I wonder whether anyone else liked it.

  3. Armen’s book is in the Farsi language. But it’s difficult to understand this book regardless of which language it is written in!

  4. Count me among the defeated. I maintain that the best thing about this book is its lovely title. Everything after that went downhill, fast.

  5. Aww. I’m a bit–and unnecessarily–hurt that you didn’t like this. This book, as well as its author, is one of my all-time favorites.

    • Oh sorry Aldrin, I just couldnt get it. However I havent given it to charity, its on my shelves as ‘one I might just try again one day’ aswell as ‘oh look I tried to read that one’.

  6. This book sounds quite odd. I don’t blame you for throwing it across the room. Always necessary from time to time 😉

  7. This sounds hideously frustrating! I wonder who deemed it a masterpiece?

  8. Shame you didn’t like it! I loved it, myself, but it is a funny one to approach. It’s a bit like book marmite 🙂

    • Yes it is like book marmite, I was pleased I wasnt alone in not liking it, even if everyone else managed to finish it. I am a little cross at myself for not finishing it as I always try to with a book group choice.

  9. Someone mentioned this when I put up a brief Cortazar story the other day, and I was intrigued – your review has dis-intrigued me, if that were a word! This sounds like the most self-indulgent kind of postmodernism.

  10. jane

    Aaaagh, even seeing the cover again is too much for me.
    It was me who commented on Stuck in a Book, he posted an excellent Cortazar short story which i thought was a beautiful example of how to say the sorts of things Calvino was perhaps trying to say, but effectively and concisely and without being pretentious and confusing. Worth a look!
    You did a good thing in not finishing. I know it doesnt seem logically possible but it just gets worse and worse towards the end.

    • Hahahahaha, its a book I think gives that feeling for anyone who has tried to read this book and failed or failed to love it. It was like reading torture for me I have to say.

      The pretention drove me crazy.

  11. Pingback: Multiple Reading… How Did That Happen? « Savidge Reads

  12. Pingback: If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino « chasing bawa

  13. Ed

    I actually really liked this book. I admit that it is very unconventional, and so it is not really a book for everybody. I particularly enjoyed the alternating chapters which were written as different genres.

  14. I had the SAME EXACT EXPERIENCE with this book earlier this year. A friend of mine told me it was her favorite, so when I got it (then STUPIDLY) told her I was starting it I was screwed. I never finish books, and I just couldn’t with this one. The worst part about it was it made me not feel like reading….ever…again…

    or at least that night. EGGHHHH!!

    On a positive note, I do want to read some of his other works, I hear the short stories can be great…but we know where that got us.

    And I must apologize for not wishing you well sooner! I hope you feel better soon and can keep on wowing us with your wit and charm! 🙂

  15. Sorry so late with this… I gave up on it too and on his ‘Cosmicomics’… just too much bother!

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