Italo Calvino: Letters 1941–1985

Leland de la Durantaye in the Boston Review:

Calvino-webPaul Valéry once said that whenever he opened a novel and found that it began with a standard formula such as “The Countess went out at five,” he immediately shut the book. There is much to be said for patient readers, and much for impatient ones; much to recommend time-honored tropes and traditions, and still more to recommend novelty and innovation.

Italo Calvino’s most famous novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), includes just such a formula in its title but does not begin with it. Its first lines are: “You’re beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Relax. Take it in. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” A few pages later the voice addressing you walks you back through how you came to find yourself in this position: “You went to the bookstore and bought it. You did the right thing.” This voice then turns back the clock still earlier, telling you of your past experience with books, of the other books in the bookstore and the many categories into which they fall, “Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to intimidate you,” and which are not to get you down because

you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written.

This voice soon returns you to your home—or, at least, a home—sees to it that you are—or a character with whom you are to identify is—comfortable and ready to begin doing what you have been doing: reading. “You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it at all.” After a moment of uncertainty, you are told that “you prefer it this way, encountering something and not yet quite knowing what it is.”

More here.