Alarm bells. Alarm bells!
Those are what should ring in your head when you read the below sentence by none other than Mr Simplicity Himself, Salman Rushdie:
“If on a winter’s night a traveller is quite possibly the most complicated book you (and You, too) will ever read.” (Source)
Now, I know that you, my readership, are not enamoured of structurally inventive books. When I wrote what I cheerfully thought was a rave review for The Luminaries, more than one of you said to me: “Oh dear. All that structural stuff. I’ll give it a miss.” Well, consider this a warning. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (IONWNAT) is the weirdest book I have ever read, and you’ll almost definitely hate it. As I did.
Written in 1979, it is a postmodernist landmark text, and the first chapter is sort of wonderful. It begins thus:
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!”…
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocket, the deck chair, on the hassock…”
The hero of the book is you, the reader, and it starts with such a host of situations that you as reader can be in that you feel it does indeed encompass any potential reader. This all goes down the plug’ole, however, when you, the reader, starts fancying “The Other Reader”, the mysterious Ludmilla. Immediately 50% at least of the readership (those who don’t fancy women), suddenly realise that this is thoroughly chauvinistic, with no eye on the non-heterosexual-male reader at all.
This is in many ways the least of the problems: this book is so fractured, so theoretical, that’s it’s a bloody nightmare to read. The premise is this: you buy a book, begin to read it. There is an error in your copy, you get a replacement but it’s a different book. You try to track down the rest of this second book, and find instead a third. And so on, for ten books or so. There are alternate chapters of the beginnings of the books ‘you’ find and your story in getting them, which itself becomes a maelstrom of underground literature suppression and people distilling books into formulae. Constantly cut off in mid-flow, the book infuriates. It’s entirely intentional – this book is so self-aware that there are few criticisms you can level at it that it hasn’t anticipated. But just because it’s self-knowing doesn’t negate the fact that it’s an utter pain to read. The book relies heavily on the idea that each of the ‘first chapters’ we encounter are rivetting, but while some are genuinely intriguing, many fall flat, a stylistic pastiche.
David Mitchell was heavily inspired by IOAWNAT when conceiving Cloud Atlas, but as he explains in this article, in that book he took the step of deciding to return to a series of prematurely terminated narratives, and thus maintain the reader’s emotional connection with the book as a whole. Many dislike Cloud Atlas for this, but it’s a great leap forward as a narrative from Calvino’s kaleidoscopic, mirror-like (and yes, these themes are obstrusively introduced) prose.
Ultimately IOAWNAT is not interested about being a novel, still less about being one you’d like to read. It’s interested in what it’s saying and what it’s doing; a profoundly complex and contorted piece of navel gazing that philosophises about fiction for obscure page after obscure page. Alarm bells! Do not pass go, do not pick up a copy. Students only need apply.