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Saturday, 1 September 2012

If on a winter's night a traveller



The conflict between the world’s choices and man’s obsession with making sense of them is a recurrent pattern in what I’ve written.

You open AK’s blog to find he’s written something about that novel If on a winter’s night a traveller by an Italian writer called Italo Calvino. You remember - Calvino is that guy Sam Vega recommended in the comments some time ago. Well Sam is sound and well-read, so maybe the post is worth reading. You are comfortable and you have the time...

“But,” you say to yourself, “I’m not reading Calvino, I’m reading AK’s take on Calvino and that’s not the same thing at all. AK may have downloaded the wrong book onto his Kindle. He may be writing about some other novel by someone else.” Even so, you read on.

It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs.

Now you wonder where that came from and what it means. Obviously it must be the prologue of Calvino’s book even though AK doesn’t say so directly. Maybe Calvino is preparing the reader for something different rather than the usual novel - or maybe it’s a hint about his technique. It isn’t clear.

No, you misunderstood. Lotaria wants to know the author’s position with regard to Trends of Contemporary Thought and Problems That Demand a Solution. To make your task easier she furnishes you with a list of names of Great Masters among whom you should situate him.

Again you feel the sensation you felt when the paper knife revealed the facing white pages. “I couldn’t say, exactly. You see, I’m not actually sure even of the title or the author’s name. Ludmilla will tell you about it: it’s a rather complicated story.”

“Ludmilla reads one novel after another, but she never clarifies the problems. It seems a big waste of time to me. Don’t you have this impression?”

An intriguing piece of writing, you realise that straight away. This guy Calvino may be poking fun at Derrida and deconstruction. His novel is described as postmodern by some pundits, but you already think that may be misleading. Pundits usually are – it’s their trade.

Ludmilla, now you are being read. Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds. Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and your trills. It is not only the body that is, in you, the object of reading: the body matters insofar as it is part of a complex of elaborate elements, not all visible and not all present, but manifested in visible and present events: the clouding of your eyes, your laughing, the words you speak, your way of gathering and spreading your hair, your initiatives and your reticences, and all the signs that are on the frontier between you and usage and habits and memory and prehistory and fashion, all codes, all the poor alphabets by which one human being believes at certain moments that he is reading another human being.

Hmm – is that supposed to be sex? You hope not, but maybe Calvino is writing about the whole book-reading experience, the search for new angles on life which is after all what thoughtful readers do. They search for meaning – even in novels. Well you do that yourself - with some novels...

Meanwhile, in the satisfaction you receive from her way of reading you, from the textual quotations of your physical objectivity, you begin to harbour a doubt: that she is not reading you, single and whole as you are, but using you, using fragments of you detached from the context to construct for herself a ghostly partner, known to her alone, in the penumbra of her semiconsciousness, and what she is deciphering is this apocryphal visitor, not you.

“Yes,” you say to yourself, “I see that well enough. She and I may in a sense be reading each other, but the other we are reading isn’t the other we are to ourselves.... and so on.”

The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one piece of living that has a meaning separate from the rest—for example, the meeting of two people, which will become decisive for both—must bear in mind that each of the two brings with himself a texture of events, environments, other people, and that from the meeting, in turn, other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story

“It’s an entertaining novel about reading meanings,” AK buts in at this point. Were on earth has he been? Eating Marmite on toast probably - but better late than never.

“A novel with a complex plot interlaced with ten first chapters of ten imaginary novels,” AK intones as if reading the words from some other book, which may very well be the case.

“It does many things on many levels." he adds. "From poking fun at deconstruction to advising the reader to sit comfortably and shut out distractions before beginning to read.”

I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning... He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged...

I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader... I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary...

"Is all this complexity worth my while?" you ask AK, pointedly tapping your watch in a literary sense.

“Of course it is,” AK says with a degree of confidence you don’t yet share, although you'll admit to being intrigued. “If you are new to Calvino, then you won’t have read anything like it before," he adds. "You’ll be entertained, provoked and encouraged to think from different angles.”

“Well,” you say to yourself, “I suppose that’s enough to give it a try.”

6 comments:

Roger said...

Bookshop time. Picked up some Spanish verse and a glance revealed a pattern of esses and ohs trickling down the text's right hand - very pretty. On to Erotic Fiction and alternatives to that dull but well-marketed book. Always money in the old in-and-out. Then to C for Calvino which looks worth a read, is AK on an earner from Waterstones?

A K Haart said...

Roger - an earner? I wish. But Calvino is worth a read if you are looking for something different. He seems to polarize opinion though.

James Higham said...

“Yes,” you say to yourself, “I see that well enough. She and I may in a sense be reading each other, but the other we are reading isn’t the other we are to ourselves.... and so on.”

Heidegger had nothing on you, AKH.

A K Haart said...

James - you should try Calvino!

Sam Vega said...

Next stop: Mr. Palomar!

A K Haart said...

Sam - probably - it's available on Kindle.