In September, in the car of a friend, I first met the book If on a winter’s night a traveler. It was in the original Italian, the language of the author Italo Calvino which was a language my friend was learning via memorising this book. As a test of his progress, he recited the first few pages in Italian, with great expression and flourishing gestures – missing the same turn three times while doing so. I would never have told him when to turn because I wanted the recitation to continue. Every few lines he would translate what he had said; even so roughly translated I determined I must read the book (in English) and so made a note of the title.
Later in September the same friend called as I was walking to the social dance studio and apologised for interrupting my walk to which I replied that his calls are only ever a welcome interruption as I adore his voice. Ah, he exclaimed, then I should read to you! And he read something so evocative and spellbinding that I curled up in the foggy dusk on a bench to listen. People walked past, half-smiling half-curious, and if any of them had brought me a pillow and a blanket I would have stayed on the bench listening until the story was done or my friend gave up reading. But I was chilled, and I was expected elsewhere so reluctantly I bade him stop. But tell me, I implored, what is this book so I can finish the story. It’s just what was by me here he replied.
Both stories, or rather the beginnings of both stories, stayed with me for two and a half months as I travelled around between friends’ houses and hopped between countries in Europe. My third day back in Canada I walked to my local bookstore and asked the owner, “Do you have a book called “If on a winter’s night a traveler”? He breathed Oh! as one does on hearing the name of a cherished lover from one’s past and clasped his hands to his chest “Yes! Oh, yes, I hope we do! Where would it be…” and we dashed to one shelf then to another from which he pulled the book – white with black lettering in handwritten script and an image of a silver book. A quick transaction transpired and I was on the sidewalk clutching a book that starts “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel…”
At the nearest coffee shop, I began reading. I laughed aloud. I paused to soak in the words. It’s been a long while since I held a book that the reading of which was so pleasurable that I took my time to savour it, and to absorb it in slower doses to delay the time when the book must end. Throughout the reading of this novel I often laughed out loud (I am not always an out loud laugh-er either) with genuine delight.
The first chapter went down smooth and easy and then! the second chapter! it was the story my friend had read the beginning of which to me over the phone while I sat in the mist on the bench! I won’t explain why, but my reaction to this fact turned out to be key to the unfolding of the remainder of the book. I won’t explain because I want you to read this book and to have the same exquisite conflict between wanting to tear forward devouring, and to linger linger linger savouring.
Chapter 4 begins with two paragraphs that – wait, I’ll show you:
You see? This is the start of when it felt as if the book were reading me. Previous to this I thought “Oh, I can relate to you!” but in Chapter 4 that started to turn into “You are relating to me” and progressed like this until it was uncanny and I would have been suspicious if it weren’t for the fact that my friend had read this book several times, including in Italian a bit, so it can’t be that the book is changing based on the reader. I wonder if then it is true that I changed instead, that the book was less reading me and more editing me.
In any case, several days and deeply satisfying chapters later, I did give in to finishing If on a winter’s night a traveler and so the pleasure it brought resolved yesterday in my being teary-eyed and contented and oddly lonely. It was like having watched a three-act play that was poignant, intelligent, and evocative to several layers of your being and when the curtain falls and the lights rise, realising you have no one at all to share these theories and connections and musings with. You just gather your belongings, button up your jacket, and smiling benignly at the strangers who are buzzing with their private conversations, you exit the theatre and watch as your breath marks a little sigh in the cold air before you head home on this winter’s night.