It is with great mental pain that I write this review before consulting Wikipedia and Amazon ratings to find out what the heck this book is about. It would be easy enough to make up some intellectual-sounding drivel (too easy, in fact – If on a winter’s night begs for multiple interpretations) but I’d rather skip the college book report B.S. and nail down what will actually stick with me after this reading experience.
One of the most memorable aspects of this book is its mind-twistingly self-referential tone; Chapter One opens with “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel.” Of course, by the time I had read that, I was in the process of reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, not about to begin, which was just a taste of the surreal, logic-challenging, expectation-defying prose to come.
“The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences (10).”
Easy, you think, this is obviously a novel about novels. Yes, but no. It is also a novel about inspiration and the experience of reading. Or maybe, its incorporation of ten different, abortive sub-stories makes If on a winter’s night more of an un-novel about the relationships between reader and book, reader and writer, reader and reader, writer and book. Whether these are “correct” interpretations or not, this book resonated deeply with me, though perhaps more in the re-thinking of it than in the reading. In contrast to novels, which follow strict rules (whether acknowledged or not), life is a labyrinth of disjointed narratives, started without beginning and ending without resolution, a tantalizing journey at the end of which we will “arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” At least, I hope that’s the case. It is more likely that the end will find me rubbing my eyes hazily and reaching for the Wikipedia article.