So, all of this talk of tense and which point of view a story should be written in, and how many beats it should have, reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on winter’s night a traveller. This is a novel which breaks all of the rules, and does such an excellent job of smashing them to bits that you’ll forget all about it once you are in. It’s an intelligent book that doesn’t take itself dreadfully serious. Just watch out for those copies with duplicate signatures!
…complicated by the fact that, if you’re reading in English, how much of what you’re reading did Italo Calvino write?
Rather than breaking all the rules, I think "If on a winter’s night… " demonstrates one rule in particular: delay creates interest. If you lead the reader to expect one thing, then interpose another, you can keep them reading, wanting what you’ve promised but withheld. The old dictum: “Make them want it…then don’t give it to them!”
Or, as one screenwriter put it… ‘make’em laugh, make’em cry, but most of all, make’em wait’…
If On A Winter’s Night is fab. Calvino in general is fab, a bit like an Italian Clive James but without the Princess Diana obsession.
Calvino is one of my all-time favourite authors. I read ‘Invisible Cities’ first, and was hooked, and I’ve just finished ‘The Castle of Crossed Destinies’. Amazing books, even in translation.
I’m sure most of you know, but for those that don’t, Calvino was a member of a group of writers known as the Oulipo. It’s worth looking them up–a good place to start might be oulipo.net/ if you speak French (which I don’t )–but, in short, they place artificial constraints on their writing in order to release new material: potential literature. It’s fascinating stuff, so take a look.
Just a little side note: one of the group, Raymond Queneau, wrote a book called ‘Exercises in Style’ which is well worth grabbing if you can find it (the English translation’s been out of print for a number of years, unfortunately). It taught me more about writing than almost anything else!
Thanks for the recommendation, Dom. I suggest AbeBooks. They have a massive index of independent booksellers around the world. You can find new, used, and rare volumes in a snap. I found 67 copies of Exercises in Style, most very reasonably priced. Good for the bargain hunter and the bibliophile alike. And of course, anything to help support the small bookstores around the world who are pitched in a war against the massive retail outlets is dandy.
Oooh, that’s a very nice site. Thanks! I’ve, ahem, "book"marked it… oh dear
Which raises the point that translators are the unsung heroes of literature. Milan Kundera once wrote a book of essays entitled “Testaments Betrayed”, in which he ungratefully derided translators and literary executors for their lack-of-respect of the original authors. Well, Milan Kundera may have written two great books, but he is a misanthropic tw*t. Here is a guy that slags off Max Brod for not respecting Kafka’s wish to have all his books burnt, but who then loves and praises and emulates said works - his knowledge of which he ultimately owes to Brod.
Ultimately, the translators of such works are heroes. David Magashak is a name I know because he translated so many great Russian works into versions that I love - Brothers Karamazov, Turgenev, Chekhov… Then there are the translators of Murakami, who make creative choices in their use of past and present tense in order to emulate a difference between informal and formal forms of the English word “I” in Japanese.
Ultimately, when you are reading a work in translation, you are reading a work by two authors - two great authors if it is brilliant. So, whether these effects were those of Calvino or not, they are still great effects created by a great writer (Calvino or his translator).
Just my random three-pint thoughts,