This is not a review or recommendation of If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, one of the most surreal novels I've encountered. Much of it seduces the reader in second person, making the Reader part of the bizarre quest for the ideal book. Like the film Inception, the novel doesn't make literal sense, its plot is not linear, and few people I know would have the patience to slog through it, yet throughout the story lay beautiful tidbits of prose about what it means to be a reader and writer, the dichotomy between writing and publishing, and how reading binds readers together.
Through the novel’s characters, Calvino gently unfurls what may be his own beliefs about story. According to Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, an expert on a dead language, “Reading is …a thing made of writing, a solid material object… through which we measure ourselves against something that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible, world….Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be…” The professor describes literature as, “The book I would like to read now is a novel in which you sense the story arriving like still-vague thunder…”
Ludmilla, a fellow bibliophile the narrator pursues, qualifies literary novels further by saying “the novel…should have at its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth…”
These kinds of books such as If on a winter’s night a traveler may frustrate you at the time of reading, and you may have the desire to toss it across the room, yet something revealed in its pages stays with you, and you realize the problem is not with the book itself but you, the Reader.
Those of us who are writers are intimate with the whole writing- is-an-art, publishing-is-a- business blah blah blah. We are encouraged to ‘be original, not derivative,’ yet there is a sameness throughout the fiction section. If you write young adult like I do, you are doomed unless your hero has a superpower or is facing the end of the world. (Thankfully zombies and vampires are on the decline.) The publishing industry decides what we will read because the book business process relies largely on the popular novel, which is parodied in this passage of Calvino’s tale:
“In New York, in the control room, the reader is soldered to the chair at the wrists, with pressure manometers and a stethoscopic belt, her temples beneath their crown of hair held fast by the serpentine wires of the encephalogram that mark the intensity of her concentration and the frequency of stimuli…..to be subjected to the uninterrupted reading of novels and variants of novels as they are out by the computer. If reading attention reaches certain highs with a certain continuity, the product is viable and can be launched on the market; if attention, on the contrary, relaxes and shifts, the combination is rejected and its elements are broken up and used again in other contexts.”The narrator takes us to the publisher, “an enterprise that perhaps nobody else can understand…” because “there’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least transformed into something else…” As a writer, I perceive how agents and editors, bombarded with thousands of manuscripts not of their choosing, suffer the loss of “the unsullied pleasure of reading,” and lose the patience and time to sink into a tale that arrives like a slow moving storm. In our techno-cluttered world, we must “hook” the reader on page one, or face the ubiquitous rejection. To quote another character, Lotaria, Ludmilla’s sister, “what you want would be a passive way of reading, escapist and regressive…”
Those of us who write fiction aspire to write the kinds of novels we want to read, yet “it would seem those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books.” Publishing companies love a series. A sequel to story that pulls in good numbers, such as The Hunger Games or Twilight, whether good or bad, guarantees sales because readers crave being able to retreat inside the tale and assess life through someone else’s experiences and thoughts.
My friend Cindy S. says when she dates a man, he may be Harrison Ford handsome or as rich as one of the Shark tank sharks, but “if he doesn’t read, that’s a deal breaker.” For readers, lovers should be able to feed one another’s heads and hearts.
I can be in a room with twenty or thirty people and feel utterly alone unless I find among these relatives, acquaintances or strangers someone who reads, someone with whom “a language, a code between the two of you, a means of exchange signals and recognizes each other.”
While having coffee with my friend Cindy R, I feel heartened by sharing passages from this novel and watch her face convey recognition. In the cafe, we are two foreigners able to speak our unique language. “We need to get our book discussion group back together,” She says. Our monthly book group devolved a few months back when each of its members had personal tragedies, yet the dissolution of group could also be perceived as tragic. Just as sports fans need to yell at the television together during a game, readers need one another to dissect the fine points of what we’ve read because it “enabled me to master the forces of the universe and recognize an order to it.”