May 8, New York: When I talk about constructing a personal canon, it’s works of genius like this one that I want to elevate to sainthood. If on a winter’s night a traveler is not just an amazing book, it’s an inspiration of the highest order.
Quick synopsis: The book begins with the story of you, the Reader, buying the book and beginning to read. But the reading is cut short, and you, the Reader, begin a quest to complete the book only to find a dozen other books that you begin and don’t complete. It’s a formalistic masterpiece. The novel switches easily between first and second person (also raising the question of if all the first person characters are the same as well) while remaining fun to read.
All the people involved in the experience of a book are present in the book— the Reader, the Other Reader (the love interest!), the writer, the translator, and more. The conceit is played through beautifully and subtly, as the writer dictates the next chapter, for instance.
This book was probably the first of a series that really pushed me to love formalistic narrative and want to experiment with it myself. There are two half-finished projects I worked on in college: In the first, inhabitants of a nameless city prepare for the end (of the book and therefore of the city). Philosophers and activists posit that the world is nothing but words. And a time traveler has figured out how to live forever by traveling back in time one day. (There would be a hole tunneled through the pages in his journey).
The second was a film idea I cooked up with my friend and roommate Justin Taber working-titled “Movie Movie”. In it, there were three (four?) layers of movie production. People making movies about making movies about making movies. Justin and I talking about a movie made by filmmakers like Justin and I who were making a movie… well you get the drift.
Re-reading If on a winter’s night a traveler makes me glad that those projects were never completed. I could tackle them now, or maybe tackle them later. But what I realized in this reading was that form was only half the genius. Calvino is a brilliant crafter of prose. And that’s the only way he gets away with such a self-referential book. In anyone else’s hands (in mine!) it would be an act of ego, of masturbatory self-reflection, but instead it’s a sincere expression of love of the form. And a mastery in every possible dimension and direction.
Have a lovely weekend with Italo Calvino. Buy this book in support of all books.