Sunday, March 26, 2023

If on a winter's night a traveler

Apologies for the long silence on the blogging front! Some Life Stuff has been happening, and I'm also still deep into my loooong Portugal game of EU4. Pretty much all of my limited leisure time has gone into playing that campaign, leaving me with no time to write about that game or do much else. But I'm finally making an effort to return to reading, and am kicking it off with a good one: "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" by Italo Calvino. Appropriately enough, this is a book about reading!


My edition came with an introduction. I'm always on the fence about whether to read those or not; invariably they describe some amount of what happens in the book, and I often want to go in cold and be fully surprised. But sometimes they do give extra insight or highlight things that I might otherwise miss. The best approach would probably be to circle back and read the introduction after finishing the text, but I never do that. Anyways, this particular intro was pretty engaging and worth reading, and while it took away from some of the novelty it didn't ruin any surprises or anything.


One thing the introduction mentioned that I totally agree with is how fun this book is. Meta books can sometimes seem too clever, abstract or self-absorbed. IOAWNAT is clever, but focused on the joys of reading, and makes this book a joy to read. It kicks off with an amazing opening paragraph, probably in my top 5 openings of any novel:

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.

That's a fantastic opening, and as we learn, this book is entirely about fantastic openings. The conceit of the book is that you are reading a book, but find that it cuts off after the opening chapter. You find another copy, and find that it's an entirely different book, which also cuts off after a few pages. You then try to find a complete copy of that second book, and find yourself reading a third novel, and so on.

The structure of IOAWNAT consists of alternating chapters: numbered chapters, told in the second person, about your search for the book(s), and named chapters, each in a distinct style, as opening chapters of different novels. The second-person storyline is pretty engaging: Calvino admits not knowing much about you in particular, offering some conjectural thoughts about your background and how you might be feeling. As the novel continues, the "you" gets more firmed up: "you" have a specific reaction to these interrupted novels and feel a certain way about pursuing them. There's also a romance: Ludmilla, another reader who is on a kind of parallel quest to you. You hope that you will bond over your shared love of reading, and of these books in particular, and find that she approaches novels in a different way, one you can never quite pin down.


This reaches a climax with a pretty amazing lovemaking scene, in which Calvio uses the analogy of reading to describe two people discovering one another in bed. The descriptions are all specifically literary, but with very direct 1-to-1 correlations to physical activity. The language here is really amazing; as with the other numbered chapters, this is told in the second-person "you", but as the scene progresses it shifts between the masculine "you" and the feminine "you" before eventually inhabiting the plural "you". I kind of wish I could read the original Italian, which probably worked directly with gendered and plural pronouns, though the translation here is smooth and fun.

As the novel continues past this point, the division between numbered and named chapters begins to break down, and stories start to invade the numbered chapters. Some consist entirely of journal or diary entries, told in a first-person "I" voice; I think that in this situation, though, "you" are the one reading those journals. And there are entire new stories contained within here, mini self-contained cycles that in the past would have inhabited their own chapters. We cross over from reading to writing to publishing and back again, tagging along with the prolific author Silas Flannery as he spins out scenarios for new stories, and step outside the story to see him meeting "you" but from his perspective instead of yours. There starts to be some understanding of what exactly is going on: this eternally frustrated search for endings isn't caused by a streak of bad luck, but has been specifically engineered by a former lover of Ludmilla, seeking to sow chaos and entropy throughout the world of fiction. This feeds into a nicely conspiratorial tone, resonating between the stories and the narrative: "you" know that there is an active hand in these matters, but it's still almost impossible to trace specific acts back to that hand.

This book is unique, but also shares a similar psychic space with some other novels I've really loved. I found myself thinking of "V" by Pynchon, "S" by J J Abrams and Doug Dorst, Breakfast of Champions by Vonnegut, and many of the works of Borges. I wouldn't call IOAWNAT a book of magical realism, and have been describing it as "surrealist" in conversation, but that might be more because of cultural associations I have with both words than anything else. They all exist in a kind of playful, meta space that explicitly comment on the text being written.

One subplot that seems especially resonant now has to do with computers writing novels, specifically in the style of particular authors: either being fed the opening of a book and writing its conclusion, or creating an entire new novel from scratch that sounds like an existing author's work. In 1979 when this book was published, that must have seemed like science fiction, but it's one of the main ways people have been using ChatGPT in the last few months, and it's really cool to see Calvino anticipating this development over 40 years ago and questioning what it means.


As I wrapped up this book, I found myself mulling over the difference between the opening pages of a novel (what Calvino calls the incipit) and a short story. George Saunders kind of wrote about this in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: the novel and the short story are fundamentally different art forms. The short story must be economical, focusing on achieving a particular outcome and cutting away extraneous detail. The novel can be broader, supporting both a plot and evoking a range of emotions and exploring interests of the author and the reader. But the opening of a novel does need to serve a specific purpose: it has a few pages in which to engage the reader and convince them to continue reading through the whole volume.

Could you see "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" as a collection of short stories set in a framing device? What exactly is the difference between an interrupted first chapter and an abbreviated short story? I think they're distinct things, but it's interesting to tease out why, and it's something I never would have thought about if it wasn't for this book.