Annabel’s Shelves: C is not for …

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino – DNF

calvinoOh dear, I tried and tried to like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, but I fear it is not a book for me. So, sorry to Karen and Dark Puss who both championed this book.

It has a wonderfully inventive structure – being a novel of alternating strands. In the first framing narrative, written in the second person, the reader is trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night …. Then, in the second half of each chapter we get the book he is reading, except that it appears to have been mis-bound and consists of a set of different first chapters, which of course, I think, will turn out to be linked.  I say ‘I think’ because I gave up at about page 69, although I did flick through to the end skimming the conclusion and I realise that I’ve mostly missed a love story between the narrator and Ludmilla, who also buys the defective book.

My problems with reading the book were two-fold. Firstly, I didn’t engage with the smug narrator – who spends half the book telling you how to read. Secondly, I didn’t really engage with the stories because I had one of those moments reading the first one where a particular sentence irked me – and I obsessed over whether it was the original or the translation (William Weaver, 1981) that was annoying me (I still don’t know which). The sentence that got me was:

In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor.

It was the repetition of ‘odor’ that got me (that and the American spelling probably!) It just felt lazy to use the same word twice.

On the next page he then goes on to use it many more times:

…with the odor of train that lingers even after all the trains have left, the special odor of stations after the last train has left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of inidicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog. I have landed in this station tonight for the first time in my life, entering and leaving this bar, moving from the odor or the platform to the odor of wet sawdust in the toilets, all mixed in a single odor which is that of waiting, the odor of telephone booths when all you can do is reclaim your tokens because the number called has shown no signs of life.

Maybe it was deliberate the first time too, but by then it was too late for me, I’d been sensitised. Instead it just all felt totally smug, and thus all the parody about books, reading, writing and style, plus the metafictional aspects which I’d been looking forward to fell flat.

So, if I try Calvino again, I’ll go for The Complete Cosmicomics, stories about the evolution of the universe – but I might leave it a while!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Vintage Classics) trans William Weaver. Paperback, 272 pages.
The Complete Cosmicomics (Penguin Translated Texts) trans Martin McLaughlin. Paperback, 432 pages.



31 thoughts on “Annabel’s Shelves: C is not for …

  1. Ah well! We can’t all like the same things! I think I like it for the things you hate in it – the metafiction aspects, the cleverness, the knowingness, the playing with the boundaries. But we’ll just have to differ, though you might get on better with Cosmicomics! 🙂

    • Being a Paul Auster fan, I normally revel in metafiction. I agree it is clever, but I didn’t engage with the reader at all which soured it for me (the same as with HHhH). 🙂

  2. One of my favourite books that took me, if I recall rightly, a third attempt before I got into it, and then was hooked.
    Maybe odor/odour could have been substituted for synonyms but then we’d wonder at why the different judgements they might imply (stench, aroma etc.) when the more neutral word leaves you to bring those odors to mind on your own terms. Calvino’s purpose here is to play with the way that words conjure up worlds whose details are filled in by readers. The book deliberately investigates these non-symbolic sensations that words have to try and handle, such as olfactory ones.

    • I realised that after the second para a page later, but I was sensitised by then! The Master & Margarita took me 3 goes too, so I will hang onto this book in case I have the inclination to try it again.

  3. I can’t weigh in either for or against, as it’s been a very long time since I read this and cannot remember much about it (obviously did not make that much of an impression, then). But I love the way you don’t mince your words!

  4. Sorry you didn’t get on with this one, and you’ve articulated your reasoning very clearly. I have to confess to being a bit of a fan of this novel, but it took me a while to catch its rhythm. As Karen has said, we can’t all like the same things. Life would be very boring if we all felt the same way about the books we read. 🙂

    • I will try it again one day – as I suspect that like The Master & Margarita, it’ll take me a couple of goes to get on with it. I would certainly read a different Calvino too

  5. This was such a hard one to get through! We read it for our book group and I think everyone struggled. I wanted to read it because David Mitchell had based the structure of Cloud Atlas on this but the latter is so much more pleasant to read!

  6. Oh yes, I didn’t get on with this book at all. It was my idea to read it, and then I HAD to finish it because I was meant to be reading it for the podcast, but I was just not at all into it. I do truly like metafiction on many occasions, and I suppose this particular instance of metafiction just wasn’t a good fit for me. :/

  7. Well, I’ve never read this and I’m afraid I never will — I can be quite a bold reader sometimes, but from what you say, this one would not be for me. We can’t all love the same things, and there’s no shame in that!

  8. I’ve tried many times too only to be left bored to tears, (ditto The Master & Margarita). It’s such an ‘ought to’/seminal work that I keep it though now suspect it’s time to Oxfam it. LOVE David mitchell’s novels however and will reread.

      • It’s good to appreciate why certain works are highly rated I think. There are plenty of other works I’m more sure in my reaction too.

        • Appreciation doesn’t have to mean you like it. I appreciate the compositional skills of Mahler and would say that he is a “great” composer but I do not choose to listen to his music as I do not like it and I certainly don’t feel I ought to like it.

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