Saturday, February 1, 2014

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

A word on the state of my reading, If on a winter's night a traveler :  I cannot finish it.

I made it to chapter nine, which is technically chapter sixteen, also titled, "On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon."  Up to this point, I did all I could to convince myself that the concept of this short novel was unique and interesting.

Calvino literally pulls you, the reader, into the story by assigning you the part of the main character.  You begin reading this novel called, If on a winter's night a traveler, only to learn that the beginning of the novel has been reprinted throughout the entire book.  There is no ending.

You return to the bookstore to exchange the book for another copy and learn there was a printing error; you were not reading If on a winter's night a traveler, but a completely different novel. Now you are interested in finishing that particular novel and purchase the new copy instead.

In addition, you are informed that a young woman, also in the bookstore, has just returned the first novel and decided to buy the copy of the same novel you did. You both connect.

Of course, a similar problem occurs again with the beginning of this novel, and you and this Other Reader must find the ending to that novel, only to be led into a different novel.  You go on this journey reading through the beginnings of numerous novels that have no endings because of some printing or translation error or other mishap.

Well, the story never grabbed my interest, though I did all I could to be fascinated.  The issue, however, that caused me to finally end my reading of it altogether, was due to several sections of explicit behavior that I cared not to read about.  Yes, I did consider that I have read about adultery or fornication in Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, and I also survived One Hundred Years of Solitude; but whereas Bovary and Karenina implied compromised situations, Calvino does not.  I just cannot go into any more detail.

One more thing that came to mind about this particular book, given that it was published in 1976: I could not help but be reminded of contemporary or modern artwork that is supposed to pass as art.  If you study it, you have to admit a major regression of art as we enter the 20th Century.  Since I cannot help but think of artwork when I read literature, and while reading If on a winter's night a traveler, this piece came to mind:

Contemporary art @ Norton Simon Museum

OK, maybe that is harsh.  Maybe it was more like a Picasso or a Warhol.

The Ram's Head - Picasso @ Norton Simon

Campbell Soup Can - Warhol @ The Huntington
Artwork, like literature, precipitates an emotional response from the viewer, and when I look at examples of particular pieces, like cubism or cans of Campbell soup or just an orange canvas, nothing happens.  When I read If on a winter's night, nothing happened.  That's what I am trying to say.

However, I am not saying If on a winter's night is not worth a read - the concept is really creative - but if you are looking for a deeper work, this is not it.  It just is not.  And my concern is this: as I continue reading through The Well-Educated Mind novels, which are listed chronologically, am I going to continue to find a regression of literature, too?  

For an update, see my revisit of this novel HERE.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Some artwork, like some literature, precipitates an intellectual response from the viewer.

Ruth said...


True. Art should elicit both emotional and intellectual responses. But my experience is that contemporary art (in all forms, even music) tends to be lacking in both intellectual and emotional thought. Not all, but the trend is growing. It has been well documented, too. (i.e. How Shall We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer.)

An example: Warhol was inspired to do something different in art - and he loved his Campbell soup can paintings the most. But it was just a novelty to do something different. It wasn't deep. Painting the canvas orange may have meant something to the painter, but it did not take much thought. It doesn't tell us anything about him, her, us, human nature. Nothing. That's how it makes me feel, too.

When I read If on a winter's night a traveler, it was as if I was looking at the orange canvas. The circumstances are simple, the characters are vague, there is no deep plot to delve into. It was emotionless, and there was not much to think about.

The only thing that mattered was that at some point I would learn where all of these beginnings would end up and then discover the point of the story. It was different, yes, but it did not solicit any earnest thoughts or feelings to keep my interest.

Readers are not alike; if you like the story or the orange canvas, then enjoy it freely. But for me, I just want something else.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Oh, I would never try to convince anyone to enjoy any particular book. I do not care so much if I enjoy a book myself.

I see a big aesthetic difference - you say "emotional and intellectual." I meant "or."

I meant ot give an answer to your last inquiry, and forgot. If you were reading poetry, you would certainly see a move towards more conceptual writing long before the 1960s. But fiction has proved to be more resistant.

On the Great Book list, I would identify only White Noise as more on the conceptual side among the novels. Well, that and Madame Bovary, but that is another discussion. In the poetry list, only Pound and Eliot and maybe W C Williams. Among the plays, maybe Beckett, maybe no one.

Ruth said...

Well, maybe you are right about emotional OR intellectual - but being emotional, I cannot separate the two. But that is probably because I react first, and then I try to rationalize it second.

But if there is no emotional response, then I cannot even consider it intellectually. Maybe that is just an emotional response to a intellectual idea.

All I know is, I need a deeper connection to a work for it to be meaningful to my soul.

I'll see about those other works as I get to them very apprehensively.

Thanks for your input.

Cleo said...

You know that I've been having the same struggles as you with this book, so I laughed, just a little, after I read your post ;-) ……….. and then I completely agreed with you. I think I'm reasonably adept at separating the emotional and intellectual and I (so far) have not been able to appreciate Calvino's tactics. He also annoyed me because he kept telling me what I should be doing or feeling as the reader. Shouldn't art "speak to" people in different ways? In any case, I still plan to finish it (I haven't got to the raunchy parts though) but so far colour me unimpressed.

Cleo said...

BTW, I just love you new blog picture heading, Ruth!

Ruth said...

That irked me, too - him telling me what I should be like - but not as much as the yucky situations. It's rather difficult to go from Gone with the Wind to Calvino's little book. I felt like throwing it out, and I only had like 3 or 4 more chapters to go. Well, I'll wait to see what you think about the ending.

Ruth said...

Thank you. It's French.

Cara said...

This post makes me chuckle. I've had the same reaction to various works of literature and art. Thanks for putting it into words so I can chew on the idea a little more.