Hmm. This is a tricky one. You may recall my obsessive fangirl moment with David Mitchell where I got to the front of the queue to get his books signed and totally blanked, unable to utter a single word to him. Not cool, and I still thump my head against the wall when I remember the cringy moment. I got a copy of If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino way back in April purely because David Mitchell said it was a great book. I had to, right? So imagine my delight when my book group decided to read it for October. It would give me the proverbial kick up my backside to actually tackle it. So I was really looking forward to reading it. However, reading a book like this on the commute wasn’t such a good idea. You really need to read this sitting down, in a quite space, maybe in bed, all nice and comfy because Calvino’s book is a rollercoaster ride for the mind. A tempest-tossed vessel indeed. Because it’s very metaphysical and postmodern and all the things that somehow manages to screw with my brain.

And I see why Mitchell likes it so much because you can see the seed of Cloud Atlas in this book. Admittedly in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell has taken the most obvious aspect of Calvino’s work and turned it into a more reader-friendly narrative. With If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Calvino makes you do all the work.

The book opens with a meditation on reading which was hysterical and also makes you think about what it means to read. Then we go into the story which turns out to have been cut abruptly and the Reader returns to the bookshop to get another, error-free copy. There he discovers that it is actually the wrong book by the wrong author and he also meets another Reader whom he is attracted to. They decide to meet up and check whether their new copies are the same. Which turns out to be another mistake, in the wrong language, and so it continues. Each book morphs into another, the Reader starts reading the first chapter of the new novel and again, at the crucial point when our interest has been whetted, we are rudely stopped, awoken and must go and search for the correct novel, author, translation. It’s very meta.

There were so many times when I just wanted to stop reading just to give my brain a break. But then I continued and it became interesting and confusing and the cycle starts again.

This is a brilliant and very clever book. You can’t but applaud what Calvino has done because I haven’t really read anything else like it. And I was very impressed that Calvino somehow manages to make it work in the end. Sort of. I’m still in a postmodern haze as I type this, but I liked what he did in the end. I think I can forgive him the mind f*ck, because he ended it quite simply, quite beautifully.

My only quibble with it, and the reason why I thought about quitting, is that there wasn’t much emotional depth to it. You couldn’t really care about the characters including the Reader and the other Reader. But then again, maybe it isn’t about the characters and it’s just about the breaking of form and structure and the possibilities of stories. And it is about books and reading and writing and creating something from nothing. I’m in two minds as to whether I want to read anything else by Calvino for a while, just to give my mind a rest.

The other thing, which probably made Cloud Atlas an easier book to read than this one, was that Calvino didn’t finish any of the stories he began. So we are left with about ten half-finished tales which bugged me somewhat.

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the book group meeting as I somehow managed to do something to my back and had to console myself with some acupuncture instead. I’m so disappointed as I really wanted to discuss it to get a clearer picture and to see what insights the others may have gleaned.

Have you read any of Calvino’s books? Should I persevere? And does it get easier?

You can also find out what Kimbofo aka Reading Matters and Simon aka Savidge Reads thought of this book.