If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino (1979) 259 p.
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is a metatextual novel about a reader attempting to read a book of the same title. At each turn he is frustrated by incomplete volumes, forced to seek out the next only to find that it is an entirely different book, and so the novel consists of an ongoing march of interrupted stories. It was a primary inspiration for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is my favourite book of all time.
I hated this book. Hated it. I originally had it on my pile because it was the inspiration for Cloud Atlas, but shuffled it up the rank after reading this retrospective piece by Mitchell himself. Although finding his opinion on it had changed since he was a younger man, he still found it to be an excellent and important novel.
I’ll be blunt. The problem with If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is that Calvino’s writing style is ponderously complex and tedious. It shits me to tears. Here is a random sample paragraph for you to enjoy.
Reading is a discontinuous and fragmentary operation. Or, rather, the object of reading is a punctiform and pulviscular material. In the spreading expanse of the writing, the reader’s attention isolates some minimal segments, juxtapositions of words, metaphors, syntactic nexuses, logical passages, lexical pecularities that prove to possess an extremely concentrated density of meaning. They are like elemental particles making up the work’s nucleus, around which all the rest revolves.
It goes on and on like that. I can’t be bothered transcribing any more. Suffice to say that not since Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore (another author Mitchell admires, oddly enough) have I actually told a book, out loud, to shut up.
Mitchell claims, in his reflection, that the book features “twelve manuscripts written in the style of a Bogart movie, Chekhov, a spaghetti western, Mishima, and so on.” I didn’t see it. Unlike Mitchell, who has a breathtakingly brilliant mastery of different styles, genres and narrative voices, I didn’t see any change in Calvino’s style at all – just one long slog through a frustratingly boring landscape of metatextual postmodern bullshit. The word that would usually come to mind is “pretentious” (or, to be less polite, “wanky”) but I have little doubt that Calvino actually understands and enjoys all the abstract concepts he endlessly blathers about. I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t.
I hated this novel. It’s a perfect example of a book that I disliked reading so much I was reluctant to pick it up, thus stretching out the time it took to finish it and prolonging my misery. I found it quite surprising that David Mitchell – a writer who is so wonderfully complex yet enjoyably readable – loved it. I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. (Somebody who loves Calvino and can’t stand Mitchell is reading this and rolling their eyes.)