December 5, 2013

Starting Italo Calvino

I'm still gradually continuing through my START HERE project, and I was pleased that it gave me the push to finally read Italo Calvino, whose work I've long been curious about. I read and was delighted by two of the books on the reading pathway by Kit Steinkellner. I also tried a third and found it not to my taste, so I remain intrigued about Calvino's very wide range of styles.

IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER is a strange, meta novel from the opening sentence: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler." The first chapter introduces you, the reader, who buys the book and prepares to read. The second chapter is the purported first chapter of that book, but the following chapter returns to the reader, who discovers that due to a printing error, the rest of the book is missing. You go back to the store for a new copy and start reading that, but it turns out to be an entirely different story. Once again, just as it starts to get exciting, the text stops.

The novel proceeds in this fashion, with a series of unrelated first chapters that break off right as things become interesting, alternating with the story of the reader's increasingly bizarre quest to track down the continuations of the books. This may not sound as though it would make for a readable novel, and it's definitely a weird experience, but I found it compelling enough that I read the whole book in 48 hours. The story of the reader protagonist is fun and clever, the varied first chapters are intriguing, and throughout the novel are many great musings on books and reading.

COSMICOMICS is a collection of short stories all featuring the same narrator, though one who was present in an unspecified form at the birth of the universe as well as later living a more recognizable human life on Earth (some of that while the moon was close enough to be reached by a ladder). Also he was a dinosaur for a while: "about fifty million years, I'd say, and I don't regret it." Oh, and our narrator is named Qfwfq, which is typical of the character names in the book.

All of that might start to give you an idea of what these stories are like, but some of them are weirder than that. I liked this collection very much, but it's not going to be for everyone. Most of the stories have a connection to some real astronomical phenomenon, but portrayed in an absurd, tall-tale sort of way, so the ideal reader will be both interested in science and willing to see plausibility thrown out the window.

Many of these stories concern love (including one about Qfwfq's time as a mollusk), often with a love triangle or unrequited yearning. Long-standing rivalries are another common theme, which is perhaps to be expected among characters with infinite lives. This is quite a funny collection in its idiosyncratic way, although at moments it becomes serious. I was especially amused by two stories that are probably my favorites: In "The Light-Years", Qfwfq is seized with paranoia when he discovers that galaxies millions of light-years away are observing the actions he took millions of years in the past, and judging him for them. "How Much Shall We Bet?" involves some extremely long-term gambling. If these stories tickle you as well, I recommend the whole collection.

→ Before turning to COSMICOMICS, I started reading INVISIBLE CITIES, but I could quickly see it wasn't going to be for me, and I stopped after only about 20 pages. The book consists of short descriptions of cities, as told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. The descriptions are more poetic and metaphorical than informational, and there didn't appear to be any plot to it at all, and none of that appealed to me. Lots of other people love the book, though, and if that includes you and you think I'm missing something, I'd be interested to hear about it and maybe give it another chance.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ben Blatt at Slate performs a textual analysis of the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter series to find the most commonly used adjectives, adverbs, and sentences.


Sally said...

Well, I think the idea with Invisible Cities is that all of those descriptions are of the *same* city. But it's also more of an exercise in structure, iirc. And you're right, there's no plot, so maybe it's not exactly a novel. I loved it, but I have a high tolerance for that sort of experimentation!

If On A Winter's Night A Traveler blew my mind when I first read it back in about 1995. I just wish Calvino wasn't such a misogynist. I love his writing, but he clearly didn't see women as actual people.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, I guess I didn't give too much thought to the portrayal of women in what I read, perhaps giving it the "this is from another time" excuse, but you're right, none of the female characters had any depth.

Post a Comment