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If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

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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.

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Good review, and echoes my thoughts about it too, although I haven't finished it.


 I started reading this at some point last year. I loved the beginning, but around halfway through I started to get bored with it, I set it down and completely forgot about it. I really liked the idea of it but for me, it just didn't work. 

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