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Posts tagged ‘Calvino’

Bookshops of London and other places

Down a small side street off the King’s Road near Sloane Square there is a small and perfectly proportioned bookshop. It’s cool shady shelves and rich hardback stock is like a glen of sleeping dragons in the heart of London’s brash and bustle. 

Like any good bookshop it is a place of thoughts as much as of sales; a harbour for thoughts, paper bound, cloth bound, shelf-bound thoughts and it is to this, among several other similar harbours (I think of the Edwardian splendour of Daunt Books in Marylebone, the clinking quiet of the London Review Bookshop, the rambling excellence of Foyles) that my idling brain has fled from its daily labour and innocently wondered whether, if there really is an afterlife, it must be as an independent bookseller in London, Paris or Istanbul. 

The richness of London’s book selling scene is that its reading scene can support diversity. In other cities where I have bought books (Moscow, Newcastle and I am told Zurich) books can be prohibitively expensive and small, independent bookshops are if anything a thing of the future having played little part in the past.   

In Beirut, in downtown Hamra, I lived for a while near a newsagent that specialised in adult and second-hand literature with amusing if not enlightening hand drawn cover art. For a tiny city with its share of issues to cope with it was well serviced by bookshops. The Virgin Megastore, rising above the old rubble of the newly re-built Downtown area was packed thick and deep with books of every type and language like a sprawling metaphor for the country. Antoine’s in Hamra was two floors of raw discovery, brimming with students, text books, comic books and sparkling with literary gems. From this delight I mined a sequence of nobel laureates who have come to form my own canon: Calvino, Saramago, Pamuk, Hemingway as well as Kundera, Le Clézio and de Saint-Exupéry. The copy of The Old Man and the Sea which I picked up there is one of my favourites, devouring it in one long gulp on a balcony overlooking the mediterranean sun – all of us sprinting for the horizon. I bought a copy of The Tropic of Cancer from a bookshop in Damascus, nestled in the side of a hotel, as unlikely a place for Henry Miller as for anyone and a copy of Coming up for Air for 10p in a street market near Damascus University. And in their winding, Levantine way, those cities seemed to hold back their greatest discoveries from me – each revelation suggesting another (and rumours of a nightclub with a library, a bookshop on an alleyway down a backstreet on the right past the shawarma restaurant which I could never find and so on).

The bookshopping experience of any city has become like a window to its heart. The large extravagant, Barnes & Noble-type monsters that have failed are no place to buy a book. The small, intimate, even arcane, bookshops like Shakespeare & Co in Paris, like John Sandoe in London (where once they bought and sold books only by weight), like Nomad Books in Fulham or Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market or Simply Foxed at Gloucester Road or any number of second hand and seconds bookshops on the Charing Cross road – these are portals of discovery through which books whisper their secrets to those who are willing to listen.

 London’s book selling scene is a lively hotchpotch of Edwardian galleries, varnished parquet flooring and thick, still air. For those who disagree that the fall of Barnes & Noble and the Amazonisation of everything is the toll of the bell for bookshops it should be the source of great pride to note the expansion of the great British book selling names – six shops of Daunt, six shops of Foyles and one yet to open (and three of those in St Pancras and Westfield of all places), a recently refurbished John Sandoe and independent local bookshops surviving, even expanding, diversifying and supporting a deep-rooted culture of British reading which is second to almost none. And all this as succour to those of us hoping these shops will be there, at least until we die.

The Editors

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

Book Club 2: If on a winter’s night a traveller


If on a winter’s night a traveller – Italo Calvino

“Il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter.”

[“We must choose: to live or to tell.”]

The protagonist of Sartre’s existentialist classic Nausea tells us we have to choose between living and telling, that is, between doing things and talking about them.  The problem is that the things we choose to do only seem to acquire meaning and relevance when we talk about them, and this hopelessly complicates the relationship between our active self and our contemplative self.  In many ways, this is the paradox at the heart of Calvino’s novel, or anti-novel, which uses the second-person format to drag the reader kicking and screaming from the safety of his armchair/sofa/bed to the madness of a multi-layered hyper-narrative.  Of course, the reader cannot be in both places at the same time, as the first piece in this series pointed out, and passages in the book often becomes false the moment they are read (see, again, the opening line: “You are about to start reading Italo Calvino’s new novel”).

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.  Admittedly, this is more difficult for female readers once it becomes clear that the Reader is a man, but this detail is postponed for several chapters, and then the narrative blip is ‘rectified’ when we are introduced to the Other Reader.  In any case, the novel blurs any and all distinction between the reader as man/woman of action and as observer of action: in asking us to make ourselves comfortable at the beginning of the novel, Calvino is in fact demanding that we do the opposite.  After all, for a book to address its reader in real-time is no less unnerving than the idea of any other inanimate object attempting to put itself on speaking terms with a person in its vicinity.

And yet, having recognised the inherent absurdity in making the reader and the protagonist one and the same person, Calvino proceeds headlong into a story about what it means to be a reader, a story that swings from the disconcertingly plausible to the most far-fetched fantasy.  At bottom, it is a novel that asks: what is the reader’s story?  And in attempting to answer its own question, it dramatises the reader’s struggle to engage with narrative.  As it turns out, this struggle is a fruitless, albeit fascinating one, in which the Reader’s frustration is indeed the reader’s frustration:

“Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find.”

Perhaps this is because literature and reading can be all things to all people: narrative perspective is something that can be changed at the author’s whim, and in this case that is exactly what happens, as we pass from detective novel, to neo-realist drama, to exotic romance, and so on.  There is no straight-faced novel that can hope to capture the diversity of human existence simply because the scope is too broad to convey in conventional narrative.  Even Balzac could only do one city properly.  If on a winter’s night a traveller is a novel that takes a step back and laughs at the futility of realism, and in the context of the author’s career as a writer, this is Calvino laughing at himself.

The Editors