Introductory Note: Shortly before 1/1/12, I resolved (à la New Years) to read 69 books. These books would be non-assigned reading, but otherwise, there were few other limitations. Now halfway through the year, I’m on #14. Hey, it’s not great- the semester was rough. But I am, as ever, optimistic.
For #1-13, as well as a reflection on why I chose the number 69, please look at the “Books” page and follow the link to my other (and lesser) blog, “Atoms As They Fall.”
Now, without further ado…
Woops! Actually, I meant to put…
Oh no, I’m sorry. It’s really…
Oof. Okay for real this time.
What’s It About: You pick up a book called If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, and after a a couple of pages, realize that some pages are missing. You go back to the book store owner, who tells you that the book is actually misprinted. It is not If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and in order to finish your reading, you must go find the “true” book. Thus begins a long search for your book, leading you through ten different book introductions without conclusions and your own reflections on the nature of reading and writing.
And when I say “you,” I mean you. Every alternating chapter is narrated in the second-person.
Why: Italo Calvino is one of those names that I have heard tossed around in the past year, more so in my internet wanderings than in academics. A few weeks ago, I read his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, which I found wonderfully provoking.
Thoughts: Calvino attempts to completely eliminate “the author” from this text. He continuously subverts our reading experience by essentially de-centering the narrative of the book “you” are supposed to be reading. In fact, by the end of the book, we don’t even know what “book” we were ever intended to read. The real narrative is the the process of reading and writing, which Calvino shows is detached at various stages from any semblance of authorial intent. “Your” subjective reading experience is the only concrete narrative we can depend upon.
It’s an ambitious goal to create an authorless, completely subjective text and If On A Winter’s Night certainly revolutionizes the structure and power of narrative. It reminds me most of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is essentially a 100-page poem with 300 pages of footnotes (written by the poet’s neighbor/stalker/obsessor/killer?/incognito prince?) that completely subverts the poem’s history, authority, authenticity, and intent.
Sounds fan-freaking-tastic, right? Well, my reading of both Pale Fire and If On A Winter’s Night began wonderfully and ended on a more indifferent note. If On A Winter’s Night throws “you” into a whole entanglement of political subversive groups, each trying to out-falsify the other, much like Pale Fire. And frankly, all I got out of those plot twists was confusion.
In addition, while If On A Winter’s Night does succeed in compellingly recreating the subjective reading and writing process, there are a few notable biases, most notably the fact that the “you” is definitively male. As a female reader, this male appellation to me as a reader was a bit discomforting. There’s also a connecting theme of elusive females in every one of the narratives presented to us. This theme deserves contemplation, since it does seem to be the main preoccupation of every “writer” in the book. However, if Calvino wanted to involve me in his subjectivity, I only felt further alienated. Perhaps Calvino’s elusive female proclaims his inability to write for women readers? I sense a postmodern honors thesis evolving…
Overall, If On A Winter’s Night provides a unique, contemplative, and quite compelling read. You’ll never trust a narrative wholeheartedly again.