If On Winter’s Night A Traveler: Playful and Surprisingly Readable

If on winters night

I think, with the exception of a Stephen King novel, I am finally through reading all the novels I received for Christmas. Though I do love Pynchon, I am wary of getting into a lot of experimental fiction. I think I got into it decently heavy last year and it really ruined my ability to just read a story. However this year has been the year of the story for me. My favorite books have, with the exception of Bleeding Edge, been novels that are pretty much straightforward experiences. A Brief History of Seven Killings was quite dense, and at times provided Joycian type passages, but nonetheless it never felt overwhelming. Any experimental writing it contained was overshadowed by the narrative. I think at one point last year I would have had some sort of issue with that. I remember trying to read Yukio Mishima at one point and being unable to finish because I found the novel too ordinary in its structure.

Unlike then, I now think that is quite silly of me. I would like to think I have found a happy medium between experimental fiction and other types, but perhaps I am wrong. I don’t remember which point in If on winter’s night a traveler I began to lose interest in the novel, but nonetheless it occurred. It’s strange, around 25 pages into the novel I remember thinking that this was, so far, the best thing I have read this year, but that didn’t hold up. I don’t think the novel lost steam as much as I just bored with the trick. I think I could read 400 pages of Italo Calvino writing about what it is like to read (which is essentially the first two chapters of the novel, not including the beginnings of the two novels he entwines into the narrative around the first two chapters), but once the narrative that the novel carries throughout itself picks up, the book lost a lot of the magic that had originally drawn me in.

Nonetheless, I can quite easily express that the book is brilliant in its use of metafiction, and beyond that, playing with the concept of metafiction. Immediately a reader is thrown into Calvino discussing what it is like to read If on winter’s night a traveler, while obviously you are reading the book. He then does something to throw a wrench in that entire system, in that he ascribes “the reader” “you” characterizations that are not your own. Suddenly it emerges, maybe, that “the reader” Calvino has been going on and on about, that you have been getting cozy with because it appears the reader is most certainly you, is not you, but a character… maybe. As is to be expected, the book gives no answers, only raises question after question. I cannot definitively say whether or not “you” and “the reader” are simple characters in the novel or whether Calvino is writing every reader into the novel. I’m not sure it is even possible to say and be entirely truthful.

I don’t have much to say about the book. In some respects, Calvino does successfully what many writers try and fail at: writing a book about reading. In other respects, the book works against itself. The novel is certainly at its strongest in its metafictional sections that delve into intense discussions on the nature of the novel and the types of readers that exist within the world. And interestingly, as much as I can say that it lost steam, the novel appears to accomplish the task it lays out: examining the nature of the novel itself (Can If on winter’s night a traveler be called a novel?). What is commendable is how Calvino accomplishes it. He never once falls into the pitfalls of postmodern impenetrability. The novel never pulls a Finnegan’s Wake, that is, being more of a punishment than a source of entertainment. Yet, as short as the novel is, it took a long time for me to finish (over a week). Originally I felt that the novel would be one I would have to savor, but by the end, I felt that the end couldn’t come soon enough. Bluntly: I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

Recommended to: Those who adore metafiction, those who want to read a good book about books, and those who want to get a taste of true, unabashed postmodernism that doesn’t make a point to overwhelm you.

Avoid as if mentioning to anyone that To Kill a Mockingbird is a decent, not great, novel: It’s difficult to say. I wouldn’t say anyone that is inclined to read should avoid it, but if you just want a story, you will hate it. As would you with most of the books I review.

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