Monday, August 10, 2009

If on a summer's Sunday, a blogger...

If on a winter’s night a traveler should not have worked.

It’s an indulgent, experimental work of artifice. I can picture Italo Calvino snickering as he compiles his unused short stories into a “novel.”

His willful flouting of convention should irritate me. I should be complaining about how Calvino’s book is more interested in ideas or the art of storytelling than actually telling a good story.

But it works. It totally works.

I wasn’t sure until the penultimate page if it would work or not. In fact, I was ready to call it an indulgent blah-blah-blah, and then Calvino ended the fight with a knockout blow I never saw coming.

I can’t decide if I love, hate or envy Calvino for it; but, damn him, it works.

I haven’t read much Calvino. Before a winter’s night, I had only read his compilation of Italian Folk Tales. In my limited experience, Calvino seems to like stories about stories. And that’s what a winter’s night is. It’s a story about readers, writers and stories — the ones on the page and the ones beyond it.

There’s a plot. It’s about a reader — you, specifically, or at least an implied you. The “you” that Calvino tells you that you are. And You are trying to finish a novel that You were reading. It was interrupted by a printer’s mistake. This leads You to another novel. And another novel. And another novel. None of which You can finish for whatever contrived reason.

You meet Another Reader, and her hyper-intellectual sister, and an author, and a hack plagiarist, and a friendly police chief who is in charge of confiscating banned books. The characters are not important. They are just excuses for Calvino to espouse more opinions on reading and writing. Well, except for the Other Reader.

The “novels” are all Calvino short stories. So a winter’s night is actually a compilation held together by a seemingly thin plot and a whole lot of ideas that Calvino forces into the narrative. (I swear to you, this shouldn’t work. It’s like learning to fly by jumping off your garage or traveling in time by setting your clock backward. There is no theory to support what Calvino does but, so help me god, it flies.)

The short stories differ in tone and quality, but they are all about stories.

Calvino does not break the fourth wall. He obliterates it with a tomahawk.

For example, Calvino wants one “novel” to feel hazy and mysterious. He wants you to have a feeling that you are not being told everything of importance; so he writes, “The story feels hazy and mysterious. You suspect you are not being told everything of importance.”

The first rule espoused by every creative writing instructor is “show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me it’s cold. Show a character shivering.

But Calvino is not just telling, he’s telling you that he’s telling.

Of course, Calvino has the confidence to pull off such a blatant cheat.

I wish to conclude my review/rant with an anecdote involving my wife. Every now and then, I do some writing that has nothing to do with work. They are stories for the sake of stories. Most likely no one will ever read them except for my wife.

She once suggested that I try writing a piece of fiction in second person. I told her that she was crazy. A second-person story would never work. It would drown in its own conceit.

Calvino proved me wrong. And I don’t know how he did it.

-Jason Lea,

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