Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a travelerAs I mentioned last week, it was all but impossible for me to be in the right head space to become absorbed in fiction while I was working two jobs. As much as I’ve always loved words and writing and reading, it has likewise always been extremely difficult for me to focus and concentrate if there are other, simpler things that need to be done. I’m not sure how to convey or explain this, it’s just something I remember always having and being shocked to discover that other people didn’t.

Anyway, my buddy Joe sent me Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler and I finally got around to reading it. And when I did I was absorbed into a book for the first time in quite a long time. It is made up of the first chapters of ten different novels, but between reading those Calvino tells us the story of the Reader who is reading those first chapters and the journey he goes on. The story begins by talking directly to us, the reader, addressing us, as well as all readers of the book in a magnificent opening. I quoted part of this passage last week and promised more, so now that I’ve finished the novel, here are some other favorite bits:

With the written language it is always possible to reconstruct a dictionary and a grammar, isolate sentences, transcribe them or paraphrase them in another language, whereas I am trying to read in the succession of things presented to me every day the world’s intentions towards me, and I grope my way, knowing that there can exist no dictionary that will translate into words the burden of obscure allusions that lurks in these things. (Pg. 61)

“Reading,” he says, “is always this: there is a thing that is there, a thing made of writing, a solid, material object, which cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belong to the immaterial invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead…”  (Pg. 72)

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stores are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told. (Pg. 109)

Your house, being the place in which you read, can tell us the position books occupy in your life, if they are a defense you set up to keep the outside world at a distance, if they are a dream into which you sink as if into a drug, or bridges you cast toward the outside, toward the world that interests you so much that you want to multiply and extend its dimensions through books.  (Pg. 142)

Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies (on that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost.  A direction can be recognized in it, a route to an end, since it tends toward a climax, and with this end in view it arranges rhythmic phrases, metrical scansions, recurrence of motives. But is the climax really the end?  Or is the race toward that end opposed by another drive which works in the opposite direction, swimming against the moments, recovering time? (Pg. 156)

I say to myself that the result of the unnatural effort to which I subject myself, writing, must be the respiration of this reader, the operation of reading turned into a natural process, the current that brings the sentences to graze the filter of her attention, to stop for a moment before being absorbed by the circuits of her mind and disappearing, transformed into her interior ghosts, into what in her is most personal and incommunicable.  (Pg 169-170)