If on a post-modern novel Italo Calvino

If on a winter's night a traveller marathon. Photo: @kellywritershouse [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

If on a Winter's Night a TravellerIf on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This would have to be one of the most unusually good books I have read. It is not quite a novel and not quite a collection of short stories, organised in an unusual way. It is partly written in the second person (Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City was my first second-person novel) and on several occasions, the author speaks directly to the reader (a literary technique known as "authorial intrusion"). 

The main story is structured using numbered chapters, interspersed with the beginnings of several books (with the relevant book names as chapter headings) that relate directly to the main story. It is rather complex in terms of its structure and I couldn't help thinking it is very much a "post-modern" novel. But it works. 

I am often surprised by the number of books that are about books and authors, a bit like 42nd Street - a musical within a musical. But this book is very clever. While at times I couldn't help thinking that Calvino had turned a number of "false starts" into a publication, it is too good to have been written so perfunctorily. 

Two stand-out parts work for me. First, Calvino addresses two types of writers (pp. 173-4):
One of the two is a productive writer, the other a tormented writer. The tormented writer watches the productive writer filling pages with uniform lines, the manuscript growing in a pile of neat pages. In a little while the book will be finished: certainly a best seller - the tormented writer thinks with a certain contempt but also with envy. He considers the productive writer no more than a clever craftsman, capable of turning out machine-made novels catering to the taste of the public; but he cannot repress a strong feeling of envy for that man who expresses himself with such methodological confidence... [The productive writer] feels [the tormented writer] is struggling with something obscure, a tangle, a road to be dug leading no one knows where... and he is overcome with admiration. Not only admiration, but also envy; because he feels how limited his work is, how superficial compared with what the tormented writer is seeking.
I certainly feel like each of these authors depending on the type of writing I am engaged in. That self-consciousness is part of the process is something that Calvino weaves into the plot perfectly. Second, Calvino picks up on how I read (p. 254):
Reading is a discontinuous and fragmentary operation.
What I find most interesting about this reflection is that Calvino's work, or at least the several of his works I have read so far, all seem to play to the discontinuous and fragmentary reader. The structure of this work, much like Invisible Cities and Mr Palomar, suits a style of reader who is unable to read in large chunks of time. 

While not being able to read long and uninterrupted is far from ideal, Calvino's work is presented in convenient and memorable chunks that suit the fragmentary and disrupted peace of the post-modern worker. 

There is still a little more of Calvino's work for me to read, but I have now covered his most famous works. And I am delighted to have "discovered" Marcovaldo in a Shanghai bookstore which introduced me to one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century only a few years ago.

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