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!