If On A Winter's Night A Traveler

Italo Calvino

11.29.2018 – 12.08.2018

GENRE Fiction

Cloud Atlas
One Thousand and One Nights


Better gimmicks

Bits of other books

Man, I hate hate hate being the only person to dislike a book that has like 20 five star reviews right up top. In this case I feel like a killjoy saying that I dislike this because it’s all highfalutin. Does that make me a worse reader? The kind of anti-snob that turns into a snob (just, in reverse, like the tumblr kids who are spending a lot of time these days talking about how symbolism is stupid)?

This wasn’t an easy opinion for me to arrive at. My notes app contains nearly 300 words of reaction to this book, which is unusual for me, and doesn’t even include the full paragraphs I transcribed from the incredible opening chapter or my tweeting throughout. There’s a narrative to my opinions – my first note is “AMAZING FIRST CHAPTER.” Somewhere in the middle is “Gimmick is getting old 1/2 of the way thru.” Near the end, “More and more I’m feeling condescended to by this book.” This wasn’t a long book but I wonder if this would have benefited from the economy & brevity of a book like Clash of Civilizations; one of the things that keeps popping up in my notes is just how old it’s all getting.

In books like this (or in most books, but whatever) where I can’t decide how I feel I spend a good chunk of time thinking about other books I’ve read. My early notes include a favorable comparison to the heavy reliance on Literary Device (one day I will reclaim the word gimmick!) in The Luminaries and the surrealism of The New York Trilogy. Later I compare it to Cloud Atlas, less favorably, when the narration performed the same meta self-callout by pointing out the gimmick and then asking the reader if it’s dumb. In both books, it deadens the gimmick, introducing a sense of defensiveness and shame to the otherwise confident, if confusing in this case, use of structure. As I said on twitter: “IMO the meta ‘is this too gimmicky’ reeks of insecurity and is irritating …it always pops up in books with gimmicks by men. I say gimmicks with love! We love a structure! But calling attention to the artifice is unique to the class of authors who are most concerned with ending up in the Canon yk.”

This is when I admitted I was feeling awfully condescended to. It began to feel complicated for the sake of complication, and made me think in turn of the vastly superior One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh. In both Winter’s Night and Nights, the book is about stories, about books, about writing or telling respectively, but the latter is less mathematical, less concerned with its structure, less self-aware, and thus more immersive and satisfying; my memory of Nights is feeling thoroughly, satisfyingly, lost the entire time, whereas in Winter’s Night I was painfully aware of my reading experience the entire time.

As a side note, the self-awareness also sets my hackles on edge when it comes to his treatment of women. He acknowledges that he treats them like objects with very little inner life, but it’s not like he writes that and then stops… treating women… like objects. Acknowledging it, much like acknowledging the Literary Device in the first place, doesn’t do anything but point out that you know you’re doing it. Apropos of nothing, I think it’s worth mentioning that this was the first book by a white man* I’d read in ages (since early September 19 to be exact). I have no idea if that contributes, but you know. Correlation, causation, both/neither.

In some review on here I saw someone say it was sometimes funny. It’s true that I write a specific note about Chapter 9 being very fun, and maybe if I was to reread this ever (unlikely) and read it as a satire/comedy I would enjoy it more. But it didn’t feel funny, and I am of the personal opinion that comedy should not be something you have to search for, even when it’s subtle.

Look, this is definitely the book David Mitchell wanted to write – and it definitely did things right! A lot of things. It experimented with genre, and jerked the reader through tons of stories without completely losing them (unintentionally, at least). Its prose is lovely, and it’s in many ways a reader’s book. It luxuriates in words, in the idea of a story, and it trusts the reader to enjoy truncated stories just for the sake of the read. It was still hard at times to find myself actually caring about anything in the book in more than an academic way, and second person was a risky and brave choice here – the only person I can really invest myself in here is myself and my own experience reading, which unfortunately means the returns diminish faster once I decide I’m not thrilled. But it’s a daring move, and that counts for a lot.

My notes end with “Well… certainly an interesting read. Should have been a novella.” I’m still torn, a month later, on if that’s really my takeaway. It’s too bad Calvino felt he had to hold his own structure at arm’s length, as if in doing so, in calling out his own artifice, it remains more literary somehow. Could a more earnest, tryhard attitude towards his structure have held up a book this long? Maybe it would have been less condescending but more irritating! I am not an author, so I have no idea. But as someone who reads a lot, in many ways the exact kind of reader Calvino was writing for, I wish the book had been less concerned with its own bookishness and more with the joy of getting submerged in great story.

Postscript: since I just spent a while bashing this book, here are two fantastic quotes I wrote down early on, since they felt incandescent. The prose really was great in this one.

Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.

…there are no more provincial cities any more and perhaps there never were any: all places communicate instantly with all other places, a sense of isolation is felt only during the trip between one place and the other, that is, when you are in no place.

*no idea how various axes of oppression worked in Italy in the 70s, so obviously this is a generalization, but you get it