06 December 2014

If on a winter's night a traveller by Italo Calvino

I read this book some years back, and, apart from it being a great book, I thought I would mention it here, directly after Cloud Atlas, because David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, was fascinated by Calvino's book when he first read it as an undergraduate. Even though, many years later, after a second reading, he noted that he “didn't find it ‘breathtakingly inventive’ as he had the first time...”, he goes on to stress that “however breathtakingly inventive a book is, it is only breathtakingly inventive once – with once being better than never.”

The structure of If on a winter's night a traveller, with its broken chapters and its separate stories, obviously had a very positive ‘once being better than never’ impact on the future author of Cloud Atlas. It also had a a very positive impact on me.

In essence, the book is about reading, and you are the main character in the book. At the beginning of the book, you discover that the pages in the book you are reading are in the wrong order, and you return to the book shop to get a new copy. There is another person having the same problem as yourself, and, eventually, the two of you meet, and you both set out to find a complete version of the book.

The book is divided into twenty-two sections or chapters, where every odd-numbered section (in second-person) tells about your quest to read the book you have started (a quest that always seems to be thwarted in one way or another), and every other section is about those books - a delightful mix of genres, topics and geographical locations. Forget beginning, body and conclusion, because If on a winter's night a traveller shows that such structural limitations are not necessary in the telling of a suspenseful and interesting story (or stories).

The photo of Italo Calvino is from