Thus begins Chapter 1, Part 1 of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, and if you believe for one second that the traveler finally placed in a train station – note the cover illustration - in Part 2 is ever going to get anywhere, you are very much mistaken. He’ll never even get past Chapter 1, Part 2. He is, in fact, never seen again.
*C1P1: Chapter 1, Part 1. Each of the first 10 chapters are divided into 2 parts, the first with the reader as narrator and the second purporting to be the first chapter of yet another novel
Nor are any of the other protagonists in Parts 2 of Chapters 2 through 10. Calvino’s protagonist is actually the reader from C1P1* who spends the rest of the novel searching for the rest of the story – or stories, as it turns out, because there are ten first chapters of ten different novels – so the novel itself is never about a traveler, or about Malbork, the steep slope, fear of wind or vertigo, the gathering shadow, a network of lines that embrace and or intersect, the carpet of leaves, an empty grave, or even, finally, “what story down there awaits its end?” Although, as it turns out, the first lines of each of the ten chapters finally make up a story outline of its own, a story outline that might even, if followed through, complete a novel called, If on a winter’s night a traveler …”
Confusing? I’d say so. I’m not a huge fan of the nouveau-novel (I just made up that term) – novels that seem to be so self-referring that they are more chore than pleasure to read.
And yet I was so taken with C1P1 – Calvino takes us on a journey through a bookstore to find his new novel and then curls us up, like a fussy cat, searching for the perfect place and atmosphere in which to read it – that I read the whole thing. Because it seems to be a novel about reading, about the relationship of a reader to the thing read, and even to the writer of the thing read. Each new beginning leaves us wanting more, and the search for more never satisfies – it only initiates another search for something that doesn’t exist – which in turn initiates … Oh, well. You get the gist.
What is it about enigmatic Italian writers anyway? I read Umberto Eco, too, even the Latin, French, or German parts which I convince myself I can comprehend if I read them out loud – like shouting in my own ear in a foreign tongue thinking I can make myself understood through sheer volume. And I like it.
Somewhere in the house is another Calvino novel, Invisible Cities . I haven’t even opened it yet. I do hope it isn’t full of blank pages, because I’m not sure I could even begin to suss out the invisible joke there. There’s enigmatic and then there’s enigmatic, ya know?