Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Reading the 80s - 1983

Second person singular (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino).

First published in English in 1983 (Italian 1980), this book is so experimental it should, by rights, be annoying. That it isn’t is a tribute to both Italo Calvino and William Weaver, who has translated the text into English. 

A very large amount of it is written in second person singular, and the bits that aren’t are mostly first chapters  - fifteen or ten, or six or seven pages – of different books that the ‘You’ that Calvino is addressing gets to read before something goes awry and reading gets interrupted and in searching for a complete version of his lost book 'You' find another book and the process begins again.

There are also a number of characters – other readers – who pop up from time to time to describe what they want from a book, or how they read, or various shenanigans around censorship and so on, and although these are all supposedly different people that forms a kind of dialogue which holds the many different stories that you get to start (but not finish) together.    

In less talented hands this would all be quite unbearable. With Calvino there’s a feeling that he isn’t just doing it to be difficult. That there is a reason, and that he can hold your interest even with such an complicated and unpromising premise. 

It is the loosest of holds though. I said in an earlier post that I put this book down about halfway through before and just didn’t pick it up again, not because I didn’t enjoy it but because it’s an easy book to do that with. There are any number of stopping places, and I found the ‘what happens next’ drive didn’t kick in for me until very near the end.

As a book from the 80s? I don't think it is particularly, although perhaps I'd need a better knowledge of the literature of Cuba (where Calvino was born) or Italy (where he grew up and wrote) before I could judge. The main ‘You’ is a man, which was occasionally disorientating, but there is also a parallel and balancing female reader, and often I got the sense it was her that the author was really writing for – frustrated that he could not read her mind well enough to understand what it is she really wanted to read. Perhaps because she doesn’t know herself until she picks a book up. That’s just the kind of reader she is. 

Susan Hill – The Woman in Black

I don't feel like I gave this book a fair chance. Reading it in the sunshine in the park, and then on public transport, was not at all conducive to letting a ghost story give me the appropriate chills.

Pluses include; that it's very well written and paced and held my attention, and the attitude and internal dialogue of the central character is entirely believable. The other characters are at least as fleshed out as needed for such a short story.

But I didn't believe in the ghost and I predicted the end. So although I could appreciate the book as a lovely piece of craft, and thoroughly enjoyed it as such, it didn't quite deliver for me.  

Next year up is 1984, about which I said 'Anything but The Wasp Factory' and still haven't made up my mind. To get a real flavour of the year it should probably be Jeffrey Archer, who I have never actually read, Deathtrap Dungeon, which I have, Brother in the Land (which I haven't read since I was 11 or 12 and don't really want to read again because it's depressing) and The One Minute Manager.  

Or perhaps I should stop thinking about what I remember the flavour of 1984 being (mostly findus crispy pancakes and blue slush puppies, if memory serves), and go completely random, pulling books off the shelves of second hand bookshops and libraries until I find something I never knew I wanted to read. 

Calvino would approve, I think.

As ever if any of the very small amount of people who read this want to join in, please feel free to link/post your own reviews below. I will be back in 1984 on the 15th of next month. 

No comments:

Post a Comment