At 115 pages into Italo Calvino’s classic ‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller’, I’m struggling to continue and I’m thinking about giving up. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed what I have read so far, I have, and perhaps it isn’t really the book’s fault at all, but my own newfound difficulties with reading. Over the last year I’ve struggled to read, well, anything. I have a massive pile of books to get through, yet every time I pick up a new book I find that I can’t read it. I’m either too tired, or not in the mood, or I’m too busy, or the book just isn’t doing it for me, the list of excuses goes on.
Despite not having yet finished If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, I still want to try and examine it. It’s a classic, and as I have mentioned before, I find some classics difficult to read. The language that is used in classics is often long-winded and complicated, but it can also be beautiful.
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is written in second person, this is what initially attracted me to the novel. I have never read anything written in second person before and when I first started the book it was new and exciting. As the reader, I loved being included in the story as a character and found that it was sparking my own ideas for potentially writing a novel in second person.
At first the story seems to move quickly, the descriptions of the surroundings, what you can hear, feel and touch drag you in. You’re the main character, you’ve found a book that you are enjoying when suddenly the book cuts off. There are no new pages, the old pages you have just read are repeated until the very end of the book. It is obviously a mistake, so you go back to the original bookshop where you bought it to get another copy. Here you meet another reader who has had the same problem. You’re given a new book, but it’s not the story you were after and this one cuts off too. You’re set on a path to hunt down the missing pages to both books and it leads you all over the place with more books that get cut short. The premise sounds good, and it works in part, but reading a chapter here or there and putting the book down and picking it up only to find that you’re yet again starting a new story within a story, it quickly became tiring for me.
In the first few chapters there is an ambiguity around who you ‘the reader’ are exactly. I liked this aspect of the story, but as the chapters go on there is less and less ambiguity. For instance you learn regardless of whether you are actually male or female, that your character is male. As a woman I found this disappointing, I liked being a genderless character where I could imagine myself as either man or woman. Though in hindsight I know this would have been difficult to write for a full length novel. As the story goes on I felt less and less like the character I was supposed to be and more like a person who just happened to be following the main character around.
There are some beautiful sentences and paragraphs in this book. For instance I marked this paragraph on page eight…
‘You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t say a great deal. So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be. Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.’
It’s wordy, and a little tongue-in-cheek I suspect, and at the beginning of the book it isn’t too tedious to read. However, as I progressed through the story I found more and more lengthy paragraphs like this one, beautiful but sometimes tiresome to read. I like the language and the way Calvino puts his sentences together, but sometimes I just wanted him to get to the point and move on with the story.
I think I’ve probably missed the point of this novel. I imagine it has some deeper metaphoric meaning behind trying to finish a book that you can’t finish. I have no idea, but with over one hundred pages left to go, I think I’m going to try something else, something that isn’t a classic. Hopefully I’ll be able to jumpstart my appetite for reading and actually finish a book soon. Maybe someday I will return to If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, renewed and refreshed, but for now we are parting ways.