(Vintage e-book, originally published 1980, translated by William Weaver)
This is a strange, unusual book about books and reading, where the author(s) – whoever he may be – constantly addresses the reader, and where one is always aware of the novel’s artifice. It begins describing a man at a railway station, his train delayed, with an unspecified something in a suitcase he needs to give to someone else. But the narrative breaks off and becomes another story, following the Reader (male) and the Other Reader (female, named Ludmilla), endlessly chasing books which consist only of beginnings. Later involved are the thriller writer, Silas Flannery (though no thriller writer I’ve ever read would begin a novel in the way that Flannery does!) and the mysterious translater and forger Ermes, who seems obsessed with Ludmilla, a pure abstract of the ideal reader. Ludmilla’s attitude towards reading appears to be that the text is all, and her reactions to it, and this is contrasted with the attitude of her sister Lotaria, who endlessly questions the text, breaking it down into words, analysing, criticising, determined to know the author’s mind and intentions – no longer a mere story.
Perhaps it’s a philosophical treatise on reading; perhaps Calvino had lots of ideas for novels but could never decide how they’d end. In this book, characters appear, recede, seem part of larger stories of which we see only glimpses, are conflated. People behave strangely; confusion reigns: nothing is as it appears.
It’s beautifully written (and well-translated, as far as I can tell). The style is compulsive, despite its wordiness, its lexicographical dexterity, its literary playfulness. It doesn’t pretend to be realistic – perhaps it’s a Surrealist novel – fantastical and dreamlike – where nothing, not even the printed word, can be trusted.