Thursday, November 07, 2013

If On A Winter's Night A Traveler: If On An Afternoon A Reader

If on an afternoon a reader sits down outside to read If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, and the friend she was waiting for arrives and asks her if the book is any good, what should the reader answer? What did the reader answer?

The reader buried her head in the book and sobbed in exasperation, "I don't know!"


I wish I could tell you whether or not I liked If On a Winter's Night A Traveler.

At first it wasn't bad. I was on board with the whole idea that the main character, The Reader, started reading a book, but found that it was missing all but its first chapter because of a binding error. I was OK with the archaic descriptions of tearing apart the pages of the folios of a new book. I have never done this ever, and none of my parents' books -- many of which predated the publish date of If On A Winter's Night A Traveler (IOAWNAT) -- seemed to have had their pages physically ripped apart, but maybe in Italy in 1978 books were still sold with their folios uncut.

And it didn't even irritate me at first that even though the book addressed the actual reader -- i.e. me -- in the second person as if it was telling my story, the main character was a sexist heterosexual male. I mean it's not as if Italo Calvino is unique in portraying women as secondary, undeveloped characters in the stories of men. He wrote the book in 1978, a year when everyone thought it was OK that Tony and his pals weren't arrested for rape and attempted rape, so what can you expect, really?

The entire book is the story of The Reader and his attempt to find the rest of the book he's started reading. Each time he thinks he has the rest of the book, it turns out to be the rest of another book. So he basically keeps reading bits and pieces of different books, never actually finishing any of them.

He's accompanied on his odyssey to get the rest of the book -- any of the books, really -- by Ludmilla. The Reader meets Ludmilla when they both go to the same bookstore to get the rest of the original book they were reading -- which is If On A Winter's Night A Traveler. They decide to read the book together.

At first Ludmilla keeps him at arm's length for reasons he can't glean. For some reason The Reader doesn't realize that he's a creepy guy at a bookstore who just asked her for her number. But hey, it was OK to harass women for their phone numbers in 1978. So we'll let that go.

Eventually, though, Ludmilla starts introducing The Reader to all kinds of scholars and whatnot to get to the bottom of all these books they're reading. It's like a real-life version of going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole: you start at the list of Twilight characters and keep clicking on the links until you end up reading about fricative consonants.

I stopped reading around the time when it turns out Ludmilla is the Sultana that some author or agent or something wrote about in his letters about some manuscript, a manuscript Ludmilla may or may not have a copy of.

Now, just so you understand -- whomever you are -- I didn't stop reading the book because it was too confusing. I was able to follow just fine, thank you. I didn't mind the ride.

What pissed me off was that I wasn't sure if I did or did not like the book!

The problem was that each book excerpt was supposed to be a random passage from a book, but each random passage contained too much backstory to be a random passage. Each passage was like a book written by someone with a love for Exposition Fairies. It became tiresome after a bit.

So I was OK with the attempts by Ludmilla and The Reader to find the books, but I really didn't like reading the books these guys found. They were really crappy books.

On top of it all, each book excerpt was written in almost the same post-moderny baroque style as the rest of the book. Maybe I should blame that on the translator?

So yeah, I can't tell you whether or not I liked On A Winter's Night ATraveler because I liked the story, but not its stories. It was like existential angst in book form, but not in a good way.

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