If on a winter’s night a traveler
Outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of wind or vertigo
Looks down in the gathering shadow
In a network of lines that enlace
In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?
Writing reviews for terrible books is easy, but trying to gather my thoughts about good books is so much more difficult for me. Because I loved this—it was brilliant. It was also boring (not in a bad way, oddly enough). So those two words are what I’m sticking with: Brilliantly boring. Or boringly brilliant? It reminded me a lot of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, though with a definite plot and a lot more intrigue.
It was a book about books, about beginnings, a book in which any reader will doubtlessly see reflections of themselves. (Half of my copy is dog-eared and highlighted.) The story revolves around a main character (“the Reader”) who begins reading If on a winter’s night a traveler only to find that his copy cuts off just as it gets interesting. When he goes on a journey to find the rest of the book, he manages only to find a trail of other story beginnings, each of them just as magnetic as the last, and each cutting off just when the story really starts to suck you in.
I’ve always found myself uneasy about the “beginnings” of stories. I dislike the weightlessness of it, the feeling of being on the edge of a cliff and deciding whether or not to jump. This probably sounds like the antithesis of what a reader should be, but let me explain: I’m one of those readers who likes to be in the thick of things already; it’s one of the reasons I disliked the first ASoIaF book but have loved the rest of them (and would probably love the first, too, if I ever get around to rereading it). I hate not knowing what’s going on, though I do love the slow discovery of it.
But somehow, Calvino transformed this uneasy feeling of the “beginning” into an entire book, making a novel that never fully moves past that act of initial discovery. Every time the Reader and I set out to begin the next story, I found myself embracing the weightless, ungrounded feeling, and every time, just as my environment slipped away and I entered the story fully, it was ripped away. Calvino succeeded in this every time, with every new story, easily making the Reader’s struggle, his irritation at being interrupted right when it was getting good, my own.
Now, I could have probably given this five stars, because it was, as I said before, brilliant. It’s one of those novels where, as I was reading, I was consumed by it, but after I finished I had to admit it wasn’t an all-time favorite.
So in the end, it’s not a book I’ll feel a connection to down the road, although I’m glad I read it and will definitely recommend it to others.