Enda O’Doherty writes: Italo Calvino, in his playful late novel (1979) If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, enters in the first chapter (or rather it is “you”, dear reader, who enters) a bookshop, with the settled purpose of buying Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller ‑ hoping perhaps that it might be a bit better than the last one.
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, The Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
… the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
… the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
… the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
… the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
… the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
… the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
… the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.
And so it goes. Calvino’s list is extensive, but of course far from complete: indeed I doubt if it ever could be completed. There are, for example, the Books You Thought You Might Read But Realise Now You Bought Only Because They Were Cheap, and the Books You Have No Interest In But Accepted With As Much Of A Show Of Good Grace As You Could Muster Because They Were Offered Free. More positively perhaps, there are the Books You Bought But No Longer Own Because Having Praised Them Endlessly You Were Forced To Lend Them And Never Got Them Back. And there are the Books You Bought Because You Thought It Was High Time You Knew Something Practical, Like How Many Types Of Tree Or Bird There Are [Too Many] or All The Wonderful Things You Could Do With Your Computer If You Only Knew How.
Italo Calvino was born in 1923 in San Remo on Italy’s Ligurian coast. The town, blessed with a near perfect climate but impeccably bourgeois and deathly dull, is perhaps best known for the fact that its annual festival of popular music “inspired” the Eurovision Song Contest, now the continent’s most widely and enthusiastically endorsed expression of our common culture, particularly since we were joined, around twenty years ago, by those odd eastern Europeans. (That famous Buck’s Fizz double skirt rip brought us all together across the nations way back in Dublin in 1981, at a time when the British were happy about Europe and Jacques Delors was still just an MEP.)
Calvino joined the anti-fascist partisans in the Maritime Alps (his was a communist unit) as a very young man during the war and he remained a committed communist writer/intellectual until 1956. It is perhaps as well for his writing that he left the party then, after the shock of Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising, for Marxism-Leninism as interpreted by the party did not tend to have a great deal of time for literary, or indeed any other kind of, playfulness.
Calvino was first a student of agricultural science at college (in deference perhaps to his the interests and wishes of his parents) but he later switched to literature. In the later 1940s, he completed a master’s thesis on Joseph Conrad, one of many influences on his later non-realist, ludic fiction. Conrad’s masterpiece, Nostromo, is for me one of those Books You May Need To Attack Several Times Before You Are Likely To Get Beyond The First Few Pages But Once You Do You’ll Be Flying. And tackling, overcoming (or even bypassing) difficulties is what readers must do; whatever the cynics ‑ always plentiful enough in Ireland ‑ might say, the fact that many literature students over several generations have failed to finish Ulysses reflects more negatively on those constrained “readers” than on the book itself.
This principle I intend to keep in front of me and to focus on in spite of any and all distractions or discouragements. For an important and numerous bibliographic category is certainly those Books You Started To Read And Thought Were Wonderful And Original But Somehow Or Other You Got Stuck About Forty Pages In Though You Really Intend To Get Back To Them Some Day Soon. For me perhaps the most important of these is my now yellowing copy of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, bought very many years ago in a handsome Picador paperback edition for IR£3.21.
Postscript: the above text is a very slightly edited version of a blog post that was first published in November 2011. I hope to bring If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller with me on holiday later this month.