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If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1981) Italo Calvino

 

This is a very original book where you, the reader, become one of the characters. You buy a book but it has typos so you take it back to the shop where you meet a woman, also wanting to read the book, and then you both speak to a university professor about the book, then another professor, then a publisher about a different book, then a writer about another book, then you begin a relationship with the woman, then you go to another country to find the completed manuscript... and so on, etc.

Sadly, that didn't work very well for me because after the first couple of chapters where you're in the bookshop, having a coffee, thinking about the writer, you then go on an adventure with a woman called Ludmilla that instantly makes the idea of you as a character entirely redundant. It very quickly feels like you, the reader, is in fact not you at all, but rather some blank individual that doesn't matter in the slightest. The initial chapter really worked and grabbed me immediately but after that, I found myself tolerating the parts of the book where you, the reader, are doing this or that.

Meanwhile, the fictional chapters (opening chapters from books that you, the reader, are trying to find complete versions of) were far more interesting to read. There's a really great one about a couple who kill a man and are trying to dispense of the body somewhere. And one where a man is traumatised by ringing telephones; and an excellent erotic story set in Japan. Plus the others are pretty great too. When these chapters ended, I genuinely wanted to know more, what happens next, which I guess is the point. Calvino even mentions how writing opening chapters alone is very easy because there's no expectation to fill in the blanks. I even wonder if he deliberately squeezed a lot of his own aborted ideas for novels into this book purely to do something with them.

Overall, it's an interesting idea. But it doesn't entirely work. The first chapter is wonderful and really excites you but the rest of the book always feels like it's chasing that initial burst of inventiveness. It can never quite live up to it. Which is the problem with a lot of experimental novels.

I read a quote by David Mitchell about the book which rather perfectly sums up my feelings. He essentially said he was magnetised when he first read it, but on rereading it, felt it had aged and was not as "breathtakingly inventive" as it first seemed. To be honest, I didn't need a second reading to reach that same conclusion. It tries to be something breathtakingly inventive but never actually achieves it.

Definitely worth a read though.
 
7/10
 
 

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I considered buying this when it first came out but had heard that it didn’t quite work in parts. Interesting that you think it’s worth reading despite that. Maybe this year I’ll give it a try :)  

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2 hours ago, Hayley said:

I considered buying this when it first came out but had heard that it didn’t quite work in parts. Interesting that you think it’s worth reading despite that. Maybe this year I’ll give it a try :)  

 

It's worth reading in so much as it's quite a unique narrative. And the writing is of a high standard. That still doesn't necessarily mean you'll like it though. 

 

I've certainly read a lot worse. 

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) Carson McCullers

 

A superb exploration of loneliness and the roles we are forced to play.

The book revolves around a deaf/mute named John Singer. After his friend (also a deaf/mute) is put into an institution, Singer moves into a new room where, slowly but surely, four characters come to view him as a kind of spiritual leader. They go to him to tell of their woes, their frustrations, their dreams. Because he can't speak, he is forced into the role of listener (whether her wants to be or not) and they quickly transform him into a blank canvas for their worldview. Unbeknownst to them, however, Singer also has a life. He too requires a figure in his life whom can give meaning to his loneliness (this being his deaf/mute friend). That Singer has his own life never occurs to them. He has been unpersoned by them in their desire for him to have the answers.

The four of them begin to visit him on a regular basis. First, there is Biff the café owner who represents the middle-class view. Then Jake Blount, the working-class alcoholic. Then Dr. Copeland, the African American idealist. And finally, Mick, a young girl who dreams of being a musician but who is inevitably forced into conforming towards a more conventional role as a woman.

Each of these people are oppressed by the role they must play in life. Blount and Copeland seek answers in a simplistic and utopian form of Marxism. Mick in romantic ideals and Biff, the most important character in my opinion, in hoping for a better tomorrow.

The writing is wonderful, full of fluid and detached prose which works perfectly (despite often not being my cup of tea). McCullers has a great gift for telling a character's story whilst simultaneously placing you in another moment. She can switch between the two with ease. The narrative flows nicely and slowly builds a realistic world. At no point does she throw in an affair or a murder. The book essentially has no plot (my preferred type) and simply tells a self-contained story of lonely people looking to escape the chains that life has put them in.

I interpreted the ending as ultimately pessimistic though. It ends with Mick showing signs of slowly conforming to her role as a socially acceptable female. She now wears earrings, has embraced the 9 to 5, and is moving away from her tomboy persona. Some may view this as a positive (that she is blossoming) but I saw it as Mick succumbing to the social norms, to the daily grind.

Because, eventually, we all do.

A fantastic debut novel. Highly recommended.

 

8/10

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