Posted on November 28, 2007 - by MG
This is the first of four posts about my favourite writers. About my four favourite writers. Seria A, you might say. Seria B has more than four.
I don’t write anything like any of my favourite writers; for one thing, it would be completely inappropriate for the people I write for i.e. children and young adults. But also because they are inimitable; true, blazing originals. They have influenced me though. I know exactly what little devices I borrow from them all.
How I was introduced to Italo Calvino’s writing
Calvino was an Italian writer who died in 1985. That’s when I first heard about him as an undergraduate; I became dimly aware of people discussing his novel ‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’.
But only dimly aware because as a biochemistry student I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to the literary world. One day I saw the book in a shop, remembered the enticing title and picked it up. The cover was unusual in that it consisted solely of text from the opening page. I was curious about Italian writers, but even more curious about postmodernism then because I’d been reading Umberto Eco’s essays in ‘Travels In Hyperreality’. So I bought it.
The novel was the most unusual book I’d ever read. I couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or dazzled.
Here’s the opening:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
It’s about a Reader (‘you’) who starts reading a book in a shop, gets into the story, only to discover that because of a printing error the story stops after one chapter. So You-the-Reader starts hunting down the rest of the story, and so begins a quest for this story. On the quest there are fellow travelers; other readers, academics, writers, who become involved with the Reader. Reader begins a series of novels which never fail to intrigue but which can never be continued – always for a different and perfectly good reason.
Essentially ‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ is a novel about the 20th century novel. Not a novel about a writer (there are so many of those, how dreary they are), but a novel which puts the construction – and especially the opening – of novels at it’s very core. Characters are thinly drawn and serve mainly as literary devices. They feel real but it’s clear from the outset that this is all a game; a game the Reader is in on.
For me as a scientist the analytical, almost clinical approach to the construction of the novel was utterly fascinating. Unlike most writers I’ve met (and by now I’ve met a few), I didn’t study literature even to ‘A’ level, so I didn’t know about this stuff first-hand. Living with a mother who was writing a doctorate about Spanish and German Romanticism, however, I couldn’t help but be aware of some of the techniques of literary criticism. But this postmodern approach – fragmenting everything and looking at the granularity – was something I hadn’t come across. And for a while it really captivated me.
I bought the book for many friends, only to have most admit to me that they didn’t like it. Some found it pretentious or frustrating, others simply didn’t see the point. I admit that reading it now is quite diffcult. Now that I’ve got over my POMO kick, I want a proper story, with characters that evolve.
Calvino’s inventiveness and brilliance, however, cannot be denied. But his strength, I believe lies in his short stories.
(The truth is that I think short stories are the essence of writing. The novel is a very strange beast to me, and I say that as one who tries most days to write one. It defies natural story-telling; a story, surely, is something told by one person to another (0r others) at one sitting. But a novel goes on and on, beyond what is natural in oral storytelling, demanding an intense relationship between the reader and the characters.)
Calvino also wrote other experimental novels such as ‘Invisible Cities’ (yes, that’s the inspiration for the title of Joshua book 1) and ‘The Castle Of Crossed Destinies’. Those books make me tremble with admiration. But I love Calvino more for his often sublime stories in books like‘ Marcovaldo’, ‘Adam, One Afternoon’ and my very favourite collection, ‘Numbers In The Dark’.
(I don’t approve of his forays into science fiction – t-zero and Cosmicomics…Asimov did this stuff better in ‘The Gods Themselves’.)
When I was writing fan fiction about ten years ago it struck me that the world of fan fiction was itself a fascinating little world which might be explored using Calvino’s device from ‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’. So I did just that; I wrote a whole novel about the world of Blake’s 7 fan fiction in that same style. It was a terrific learning experience as a writer, I have to say. And my fellow Blake’s 7 fans seemed to enjoy it…
I re-read two or three Calvino books every year and I always learn something new.
A good source of Calvino stuff on the Web is Outside the town of Malbork.