‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ – Italo Calvino

Fact File:

  • Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was a world-renowned postmodernist Italian writer
  • Both his parents were botanists
  • This book was published 1979 in Italian and 1981 in English (translated by William Weaver)
  • 260 pages long
  • ‘You’ are the protagonist (weird right?)

One sentence summary:

The novel is split into twenty-three sections, the first of which is an excursus on the nature of reading, ten are the first chapters of books which are usually rudely interrupted and unable to be continued, and the remaining twelve (not in that order) are centred on ‘You’ the reader as you, with some help from ‘The Other Reader’, doggedly pursue the novels’ threads, determined to find a link.

My thoughts:

This novel was a very satisfying read and was rich in structural power and poetic language. The ten tantalising sub-novels shift kaleidoscopically; just when I was being gripped by another story and another style, the narrative cut off like an unresolved dramatic chord sequence and I was plunged back into the unifying storyline.

As well as the structure of the novel, the language was exotic and enrapturing. There were beautiful metaphors (presenting a metal grappling hook like a bouquet of flowers) and beautiful thoughts (“Life is nothing but trading smells”) which lent the book a strong poetic feel. Indeed, the tone of the novel sometimes felt like reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez and the symbolic power given to reading as well as the dizzying multi-layered intra-textual sub-novels was only a prehistoric egg’s throw away from magic realism.

Initially, I was worried that the second-person narration would become tiresome and I was rather baffled when there was the first sudden switch to a new, apparently random story. The novel demands concentration and a commitment to the text but as a lazy reader it took me a little while to realise that. Some of the postmodernist rants also lost me a little and the dichotomy between the author as a human and as a voice seemed a little flippant and under-developed next to the power of reading.

Similarly, the latter part of the ‘You’ storyline became extremely convoluted and a lot happened in not very much time. Suddenly ‘you’ are traipsing across the globe on the hunt for the mischievous translator then you are arrested then throwing off the clothes of the woman who’s performing a test on you because you think you recognise her then the author is accosting you for being so lustful. It all becomes a bit of an acid trip. Yet the story does come back to reality and the revelation about the sub-novel titles is good fun.

In conclusion, it is undoubtedly a beautifully written book with a rich structure, if not a little confusing on occasion.

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Biblioklept Interviews Novelist Lars Iyer

A fascinating interview with Lars Iyer, someone I’ll definitely be looking to read more of.

Biblioklept

Lars Iyer’s first novel Spurious (Melville House) is by turns, witty, sad, and profound, and garnered serious acclaim on its release earlier this year. Spurious originated in a blog of the same name. There are two sequels on the way—Dogma should be on shelves in early 2012, and Exodus the year after. Lars teaches philosophy at Newcastle University (so it’s no wonder that Spurious reads like a discursive philosophy course by way of the Marx brothers). Lars was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept in depth about his work and writing. In addition to his teaching, writing, and blogging, you will also find Lars on Twitter.

Biblioklept: Your novel Spurious began as a blog and then was published by Melville House, a thriving indie publisher that also began life as a blog. At a recent talk you gave at the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy and music festival, you discuss…

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‘The Old Devils’ – Kingsley Amis

Fact File:

  • Published in 1986 (32 years after ‘Lucky Jim’)
  • Won the Man Booker Prize for that year
  • Martin Amis’s favourite
  • Set in Wales
  • So much alcohol the pages felt wet
  • Numerous affairs
  • One C-word
  • 384 pages

Summary in short:

A poignant and witty novel about the alcohol-sodden lives of a group of friends in Wales which are shaken up by the return of two old acquaintances, Alun Weaver, an irritating yet wittily-relieving pseudo-artist and B-list Lothario and his wife Rhiannon, the passive beauty and former flame of Peter and Malcolm.

In long:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/feb/15/booker-old-devils-kingsley-amis

My thoughts:

What I like most about Kingsley Amis is his ability to juggle comedy and poignant realism. Admittedly, ‘The Old Devils’ is only the 3rd book of his that I have read but in all three (‘Devils’, ‘Lucky Jim’ and ‘Take a Girl Like You’) I have particularly noticed this empathy to human pitfalls. For instance, when Charlie tells Peter to “cheer up and enjoy the music”, Peter says he doesn’t enjoy music because “when I look back, you know, music’s like chess or foreign coins or what, folk tales. Something that only interested me when practically everything else interested me as well.” Initially, this made me chuckle (well, snort), but when I thought about it a little, it also made me sad because here is a man who can never (or thinks he can never, which is essentially the same) enjoy music because he has missed the boat. That ship has sailed, and a whole raft of experiences is lost because he happened to choose different interests. This is hardly Peter’s fault and is an inevitable part of life – there will always be drawers unopened, books unread and friends unmet – but the flippant, conversational tone of this message (“you know”, “or what, folk tales”) renders it all the more poignant as it is a throwaway comment. In his ‘Desert Island Disks’, Martin Amis confirmed that his father was terrified of dying, a fear shared by many writers and artists and this is apparent in the entire tone of the novel.

The character development is really interesting. I’m not sure if I missed something, but when, around 300 pages in, I found out that Charlie has a deep fear of the dark, I was rather taken aback. Rather than make an announcement in the narrative, Amis slipped it in the dialogue. Clearly the characters knew about Charlie’s condition but the reader is only brought up to speed later and almost accidentally which has the curious, paradoxical effect of simultaneously making us feel more distant from their established relationship yet closer to the characters in understanding. Here was a fat but not the fattest of the bunch (as he is charmingly introduced) alcoholic whose alcoholism is revealed as a self-administered tranquiliser for coping with the terrors of the night and who cries for his brother when having to walk unaided down 200 yards of unlit street. Similarly, Peter, the orbicular man who justifies Charlie’s size, blames himself for an old girlfriend’s ovarian cancer and is tormented by his continuing love for Rhiannon. These confessions/revelations are not just conveniently revealed during the period of friendship Amis is narrating, but are precipitated by Alun and Rhiannon’s return. These are my favourite bits as they are windows to a shrivelled soul. Like seeing a written ‘g’ which is just a little bit more flamboyant than necessary or noticing a flash of ankle under a teenager’s outgrown pair of trousers– glorious relics of perfect human fallibility, monuments of our own magnificence that break the façade of uniformity.

The back of my copy has a quote from Anthony Burgess who, in the Observer, calls the book “sadly comic and comically sad” and this eloquently summarises what I mean. From portly Peter needing to use the mirror to see how to do up his belt, to Malcolm’s lack of confidence in wearing his matching tweed hat, Amis achieves the partnership of tragedy and comedy through his commitment to portraying real characters with all the wobbly unmentionables untrimmed. Any life through the ink of such an observant writer who is deeply aware of human transience has to contain this duality. I don’t want to read about someone whose life is in perfect order because that would be boring. What I’m looking for is that trace of humanity, best revealed by characters exposing themselves (metaphorically ideally) or being exposed by a writer who is consequently unmasked as a fellow human. Fortunately, the characters’ faults are attached to them like balloons and although disaster impends like a damoclean sword (Peter’s chest pains, Malcolm inches away from discovering his wife’s lover), the characters plod on wearily to their (probably early) graves, as we do in real life, because after all, nothing really matters so everything seems comic and sad.

Depressing, no? Actually, no, curiously I didn’t find it depressing, I found it cathartic. I don’t spend my life by acting aloof and treating individuals as flickering pixels on an infinite screen. I don’t greet human endeavour with a knowing “oh isn’t that just dear, pity nothing actually matters” smile and headshake because that would make me too unbearable even for Atlas. However, undergoing the “sadly comic” thought process then finishing the book was like bursting out of water, being baptised if you will and that brings about a deeper appreciation of life akin to pressing an emotional reset button. A catharsis is like an unburdening of emotion in a controlled space, whether that be active, like writing a blog or shouting down a well (sometimes indistinguishable in content and size of audience), or passive, like reading a book or watching a play (admittedly still quite active, unless a troupe of actors happens to hold a play next to your lolling head and listless eyes) and a catharsis is exactly what I look for when reading.

Overall, a great read which I would thoroughly recommend if, like me, you sometimes like to wallow in melancholy.

Hello friends!

As the blog name suggests, I am a book pilgrim on a (hopefully life-long) journey through reading and I would love to share it with you and meet fellow literary travellers.

That is not to say that I am physically on the move (I wish), rather it is a journey of my personal development in which I intend to meet some of the greatest minds of the last almost 3000 years.

This is not the beginning of my odyssey however, true to classical form I will begin this blog in medias res. Books have come before and not every book in the future will feature here if I can’t think of anything meaningful to say about it.

Please note that I will never tell you, dear reader, what a book is about or force an opinion on you, I will only try and illustrate my interaction with the book.

I was just editing my page and I realised how embarrassing this all looks. Please forgive me. I am not being pretentious and my love of reading goes far beyond simply being sentimental. If a book doesn’t make me laugh at one point then I probably won’t like it.

I hope that we may one day cross paths on our literary journeys.