It's that time of year again, when I buy a list of books I liked the look of as presents, but feel unable to let go of them without opening the covers, then carefully turning the pages, then continuing... I am a careful reader, the pages are not spoiled, the cover is not damaged. But my reading has to be critical - is this really suitable as a gift? Am I willing to take responsibility for this book when I give it? And then the crunch - am I really going to publish a review before even wrapping the gift?
Be honest. At one stage I was very negative and suspicious and I had a phrase in mind (truly): "It was a dark and stormy night..." But that very phrase turns up at page 176 in my copy. Calvino mocks his own story in the very words I had planned and I was forced to consider that he was ahead of me, anticipated and more importantly pre-empted my complaint, destroyed it, ensured it has no validity. Indeed, he has so many crafty devices that mark him out as a terrific story teller, that any suggestion his book fails to tell a story falls flat. It is as though he turns around to the reader and says - "Oh I beg your pardon, is this what you were expecting?" Then he demonstrates that very thing. I suppose like a comedian who suddenly, faultlessly plays a superb piece of music before returning to a sketch.
Oh I concede the point. This is a very well assembled novel but is it nevertheless unsuitable for other reasons? Surely it is sexist? Well I have seen the defence written in an earlier review that the problem lies in translation and that is not without weight. Even so, my own feeling is that, on quite a number of occasions, the reader addressed by Calvino has to be male and the scene has to be seen from a male point of view. That is simply the way I read the book and I think it is not as simple as the language in which I read. I am sticking to this opinion for now.
I have in fact read a number of books in Italian. Painfully slowly I admit, but this translation does clarify a problem I experienced. There is a body of Italian writing in which the sentences really do hop from topic to topic in the most unexpected ways. The effect is very attractive in the end, close to prose poetry in my view, and I love to read it. But I despair of ever joining in. I just have no idea where the writing will go in the next sentence, let alone the next chapter. I am not a good translator.
What type of reader does that make me? Calvino offers a number of models from which I can choose. Are these intended to be serious? Should I have taken notes? Oh no - I am not that type of reader for certain, the type that takes notes. So there may be little point pursuing this question. If I ever knew, I already forget.
I probably enjoyed this book hugely, when I could stop arguing with it, a stage I reached at about the half-way mark. I think I did. When you unwrap my gift and read it, I hope you will be pleased and maybe then we can discuss it further.