New favourite book alert!
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is breathtakingly original (as David Mitchell put it), playfully clever, sharp, insightful, masterfully written and besides all that incredibly readable.
It’s actually kind of hard to explain without making it sound wanky. Every odd chapter is addressed in the second person to ‘the reader’, a man who goes into a bookstore to buy the newest Italo Calvino novel, ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’. See what I mean? The reader gets involved in his new book and then just at a crucial moment he finds out there’s been a huge printing error and the story is cut off. He returns the book to the shop for a replacement but finds out too late he’s been given an entirely different book, which is also then cut off at a climax. So every second chapter follows the story of the reader and another female reader to find the end to their books. Their story ends up getting pretty crazy too, with book conspiracies and censorship regimes and famous novelists. Meanwhile the other chapters give the stories that they’re reading, a man missing a mysterious meeting at a train station, a Polish countryside story, a paranoid billionaire’s kidnapping etc.
So for starters it’s pretty impressive to keep cutting off stories and still maintain the readers’ (me, the reader, not ‘the reader’) interest, and also to keep thinking of new ways to do it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s going to happen to the next story. But the stories themselves are part of what is so impressive about the book, each with different genre, characters and plot, each in a different style. Then to weave it all together in the second person, a narrative form that I do not find very endearing. But none of that is what got me.
Apart from being a great exercise in Italo Calvino showing off how clever and what a great writer he is, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is also a book about the book. It’s about who picks up a book and why, what books say to them and what authors mean but most of all about the joys of simply reading, of what reading says about you. And it’s never laboured. It actually made me cry at the end because of its beauty and simplicity and insight.
I am a reader. I’m someone who spends a really large percentage of my time reading and writing and thinking and talking about books. I have planned my holiday, my career and probably my life around books. This book spoke to me about who I am and what I do and what I want to do, and it reminded me of why I want to do it.