I can’t think of many novels that are as memorable as this one for its sheer audacity, its outrageous cheek, and the utter genius with which the writer sets out to toy with the reader. This is a novel-readers’ novel; from page 1, dear reader, you are invited to take the central part in what is essentially a search for meaning.
The opening page or two of this is utterly hilarious. By the time Calvino has you working your way through a bookshop, he has exposed all the deepest joys, desires and fears of anyone who truly loves reading. At this point, you’ve probably checked more than once to see if you are in fact reading some kind of foreword to an actual novel. But no, you aren’t. In fact, you aren’t reading an actual novel at all.
Well, not all of one because Calvino takes you through no less than ten novels none of which get much further than a few pages before something serves to render them inaccessible. This something is often farcical, and that’s the overall impression you get of the entire book.
But there’s something much more meaningful lurking deep under this layer of farce. Calvino forces us to ask questions about what a novel is, who makes one, whether you can read one if you can’t finish one, what the purpose of writing is, whether a novel is simply a further extension of the human narrative or an end in itself, and whether meaning is essential for the success of writing, whether reading and writing are two separate process or two sides of the same coin, and whether or not we should bother with all this deep philosophy when all we really want is a jolly good yarn.
When my wife and I had each finished this book, we decided we wouldn’t leave it in the house we were sitting in Sweden for a local family because it was a book that we wanted to be able to go back to later on.Being a world nomad, hanging onto physical copies of books is not something we do lightly. Simply that desire to keep hold of it and go back to it again is probably the biggest testament of why this is an important novel.
I can hardly wait to see what impression a second reading makes. Having read it once though, it’s bound to be unexpected!