Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reader, I...

I’ve just finished Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, a truly unusual book from its very first paragraph:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. 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."

While purportedly a novel in which two readers encounter parts of ten very different manuscripts, each written in a very different style— like Borges, like a pulp western, like Chekhov, and I’m sure given Calvino as the author, like lots of other authors I didn’t recognize— and each ending abruptly just as the reader becomes hooked in the story, If on a winter’s night actually seems like an archetype for a postmodern novel, being part short story, part philosophy, part novella, and part the reader reflecting on reading as the reader. Though I found myself losing interest in the individual manuscripts and eventually in the intertextual plot (if that’s the right word for the connecting storyline that’s not meant to be part of the story), the exploration of what it means to be reading—for example, the ways in which, no matter how much folks might try to overcome it, reading is a solitary activity; the relationship between a reader and a writer; how translations can change or lose the original author’s meaning—kept me reading if on a winter’s night through to the very end. All in all, I think If on a winter’s night a traveler might best be seen as the verbal equivalent of M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hand.

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