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Book Club 3: If on a winter’s night a traveller

I am usually bored by the limply self-evident way in which people, having re-read a much loved book, say, “I take something different from it each time”, or, worse, “The book has changed with me as I’ve grown older”.  Of course we read a book with different eyes each time we read it.  Once we have experienced new emotions, a book will have new meaning; it will strike new chords.  But the book will stay the same — the setting and the characters stay the same, and so does the plot, and the ending too.  That is the case, except for a handful of very unusual books, of which one, perhaps the best, is Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller.

I was struck by one sentence in particular in last week’s book club post: “The novel recognises that we are not actually the protagonist (the Reader) but it nevertheless invites us to become his proxy in a more direct manner than most books would deign to”.  There is something in that second-person style that gives this book a changefulness not found elsewhere, that makes those tired statements we hear other people say about books changing ring true.  If on a winter’s night a traveller sits in the Reader’s hand like a ball of clay, moulded by the Reader’s mind and thoughts into a different shape each time he reads it.  Calvino has deliberately played with the very essence of the book, and the results are startling.  


As startling, say, as when the Visitor to the art gallery sees Velzaquez’s Las Meninas for the first time.  The painting shows a room in the royal palace.  Behind the pretty little princesses and an ugly court dwarf, the Visitor sees Velazquez himself looking out from the canvas, brush and palette in hand, painting a picture that the Visitor cannot see.  The Visitor feels uncomfortable under Velazquez’s gaze.  He wants to peer around to see what Velazquez is painting on his other canvas.  Then the Visitor spots a looking-glass at the back of the palace room.  It shows two people, dim and blurred.  A man and a woman.  The king and queen, perhaps, having their portrait painted by Velazquez.  But the Visitor stands where the king should be standing.  The reflection should be the Visitor’s.  Perhaps it is.  The Visitor leans closer, over the rail, and the gallery guard coughs deliberately.  Yes, now the Visitor starts to make out his own face in that old, far-off mirror.  And he realises that Velazquez must be painting him.  

Velazquez and Calvino are playing the same, very compelling trick.  As last week’s blogpost put its: “Calvino proceeds headlong into a story about what it means to be a reader“, in the same way that Velazquez asks what it means to look at a painting.  The Reader must grapple with the discomfort of being addressed by a writer to whom the Reader has no right of reply.  When we read a book in the third-person, or we look at a still-life painting, we can close the book or walk into another room in the gallery without the feeling that we are turning our back on someone trying to communicate with us.  If on a winter’s night a traveller sticks with you long after you shut the book, because there is a funny feeling that you really were doing all those things Calvino said you were, that there really is a shelf in your favourite bookshop of Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them.  Perhaps, as last week’s blogpost concluded, “this is Calvino laughing at himself“.  But he is also laughing at us, and he has the last laugh.

George Richards

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