Sunday, July 16, 2006

Reading. Calvino.

I discovered Calvino in 1997, while browsing through the stacks of the Eslite bookstore in Taipei, my favorite bookstore in the world. I had been struggling with Umberto Eco, whose fiction I found incredibly confusing, so my eye turned to his compatriot Calvino, on the shelf above. Six Memos for the Next Millenium was the first book I read (holding true to my pattern of reading non-fiction by novelists before I read anything else). There are actually only five memos, a series of lectures Calvino was to give; he died before he wrote the last one. (Later Umberto Eco would be invited to give that same series, the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University; in homage his is called Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). It was the first book which brought to the surface everything I loved about literature, which made me begin to realize how much I loved literature and why, referencing books I already knew and loved and turning me towards other writers yet to be discovered. A year later I would study Italian; there have been two writers for whom I have learned languages, and Calvino is one of them. But the real adventure was yet to come.

Soon afterwards I came across If on a winter's night a traveler. If anything it is a novel within a novel, or rather a novel about the reader and book he is trying to read, If on a winter's night a traveler. The novel as you, the reader, experiences it is the two parallel stories of the reader in the novel struggling to read his If on a winter's night a traveler, as each chapter he reads seems like a completely different first chapter of another book entirely. You are thrown into the reader's pursuit of the real story as well as into the maelstrom of wildly different stories that make up his novel (and consequently, the novel you are holding in your hands). The entire experience was dizzying, electrifying, and I was completely enchanted by it all as my mind was catapulted between the intertwining stories.

At the end, the reader in the novel becomes embroiled in conversation with other readers in a bookstore while trying to figure out this mystery of a story that never ends, but only begins again and again as another story. One of the other readers interrupts him in his confusion: "Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? In ancient times a story could only end in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and heroine married, or else they died. The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitablity of death." I felt my mind explode when I read this, and it has stayed with me in all the years since. Later, one of my teachers asked us, during a combined History/English course I took my senior year of high school, what was the meaning of literature. He was one of my favorite teachers, and the previous year, when I was in his Physics class (and failing miserably), we would discuss Kundera and Bulgakov before class began. The next day, during a break, I read him that passage from If on a winter's night a traveler, and he looked at me for a long moment, and said, "You think too much." And smiled.

There is a small handful of books which I have loved for many years, which have exploded into my life like a bomb and completely changed the way I think about literature and myself and the world around me. This is one of them.

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