IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER
A romp--a grand Calvino-style romp, complete with a fun-house tilt, a high-gloss (but consistently good-humored) elegance, and a big, telescoping, central conceit. This is a book about reading books, about the shivery comedy of that act. Urged to shut off the TV, remove shoes, and lie back, the reader is then introduced to a Chirico-esque railroad-station scene in which "the lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of indicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog." In this story, a traveler is supposed to meet someone, exchange something. . . and then suddenly Calvino's beginning has been succeeded by the opening of a wholly other and different novel: Outside the town of Malbork, written by a Pole! What's going on? A mistake in binding, it turns out. And when the Reader (now enrolled as a full-fledged, understandably puzzled character) goes to his bookstore to exchange copies, he meets there a woman, Ludmilla, whose copy of the Traveler novel was similarly frustrated by faulty binding. But inside the new copies they receive is yet another novel: one in a dead language called Cimmerian and titled Leaning from the steep slope--which Ludmilla's professor at the university is an expert on. (Marxist students there dispute him, however, claiming that the book is actually one called Looks down in gathering shadow.) And so on--through the starts of ten different novels, each parodied style overruling the previous one: existential; rustic; political; murder mystery; psycho-perverse; revolutionary; German; Japanese, Russian; South American. Yes, Calvino is toying with the discontinuities of literature here--and his wildest creation is the figure of a shadowy young translator who goes around the world writing novels and substituting them for other ones in languages few know well enough to call him on: "a literature made entirely of apocrypha, of false attributions, of imitations and counterfeits and pastiches." The issues addressed are important ones: the whole sincerity/ artifice issue in modern literature, as well as the "erotics" of reading, the sham mysteries, the question of authorlessness. The satire is frequently that of an editor (Calvino's longtime occupation in Italy). And the philosophy--seriously visionary yet light as clear broth--is that of a working writer. True, about halfway through the concept knots itself up a little densely. But it pulls out straight thereafter--and in all this is a delightful, never too-coy book (yet very Italian and mischievously gestural), a dandy trick done with mirrors that are all but smudgeless.