Over at the World Literature Forum, a book group has started up, and this month’s pick (the first one), is this novel. Unfortunately, this novel and I have some history – I first tried to read it about five years ago at school, when we studied postmodernism. I didn’t get past the first chapter though. After several more attempts the same year, it lay on my shelf, abandoned, until now. And I’ve finally finished it. It’s only taken five years, but it’s worth all the pain.
You pick up Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and get yourself ready to read this author’s excellent work. As you read, however, you realise that something isn’t right. The first chapter is not of the novel you thought at all. Returning to the bookshop, you realise the wrong pages are in your copy. However, once you read another incorrect novel, you begin to realise that something far bigger is going on here.
The term ‘postmodern’ is bandied around a lot today to describe anything that is even a little bit out of the accepted terms of realism. But here we have a bona fide piece of postmodern literature, commenting on reading and writing as acts of reader and writer, as well as being self-reflexively aware of the stories that are contained within this specific novel. Calvino’s focus is on the act of reading, and how each person approaches it, and how people can come together by reading similar novels, or by investigating the world of the novel as a group. The main character (arguably the person reading the novel at the time) meets the Other Reader, whose world is far more complicated than it appears at first glance, and together they travel across the globe trying to sort out the literary mystery of Ermes Marana, travelling through a whole swathe of literary styles as we go.
There are a lot of sly digs at literary critics in universities and the work they do in relation to telling the public how to read certain novels, and the petty fights they get into about translated and world literature. These caricatures of professors are just one example of something that pervades this novel – humour. With all the literary pyrotechnics going off the background, there was a big chance that this novel could have come off as a giant pretentious waste of time. But it’s not. This is actually a quite funny novel, which is probably for the best, because the premise is so ridiculous and bonkers, that had Calvino tried to treat it as a weighty, serious tome, it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he is happy to revel in the insanity of his characters and situations, and allow us to remember the reasons we read – for the joy of being able to escape the world, to find out about the world around us, or any one of the many other reasons.
I should make mention of the pieces of text that we read as the story moves along. Some of them are absolutely brilliant short vignettes in their own right, and are playful nods to many literary movements and styles of the twentieth century. Special mentions must go to the first extract, with it’s murky train station and briefcase exchange, as well as the South American one, which I loved for no reason in particular. Of course, these extracts are not just sidesteps from the main narrative – they tie back in, and continue many of the themes that the two main characters are exploring in the real world. Well, in the not fake world. Well, somewhere, anyway. That’s another concern of Calvino’s, by the way, and one that certainly fits in with the postmodern mindset – what is real, what is fake, and can anything be original anymore? Does it even matter? One fictional Irish author had seen someone writing in his style and thought that the end result was better than anything he had ever done.
There’s a lot – and I mean a truckload – of stuff going on in this novel, so I should probably stop now. But this is an excellent, excellent novel. It has so much to say about literature and reading that anyone who calls themself an intelligent reader should read this. Now. I’m sure I’ve missed at least half of what Calvino was trying to tell me, but this is definitely a book that deserves a careful reread.