The Bookish Time Travel Tag!


As I rule, I don’t often get tagged for memes and the like, but englishlitgeek mentioned me in connection with a rather nice bookish time travel tag and I really couldn’t resist. The tag is created by The Library Lizard and you can see their site here. Apparently all you have to do is answer the questions as best you can and suggest some other bloggers who might be interested in taking part – with no pressure and no obligation of course! So here goes with the questions!

1. What is your favourite historical setting for a book?


The most obvious setting that springs to mind for me is Russia – a country I have a great fondness for in the form of its culture, literature and art. Reading books set in either Tsarist or Soviet or modern Russia is one of my favourite things, and you can guarantee that I won’t go for long without reading a Russian! I still don’t quite know where the fascination comes from – maybe I have distant relations there…. J

2. What writer/s would you like to travel back in time to meet?

Virginia Woolf

Well, how long is a piece of string? Some of my favourites will be obvious to readers of the Ramblings, and spending time with Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Mikhail Bulgakov, Mervyn Peake, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Colette and Georges Perec, to name but a few, would be such a wonderful experience. I’m the kind of reader who, when they really like an author’s books, feels they have a kind of personal relationship with that author so actually meeting them in real life would be kind of wonderful!

3.What book/s would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?


That’s a hard one, but I would probably pick out Georges Perec’s “Life: A User’s Manual”. I read this fairly recently and it engendered a huge obsession with Perec’s work. It’s a book I wish I’d discovered earlier in my life so I would definitely like to send it back to myself!

4.What book/s would you travel forward in time and give to your older self?

I don’t think there are *any* books I would rather have read now than when I was younger; and I certainly revisit the ones which had the most impact on me at the time. That’s the joy of reading – you can go back to your favourites…

5.What is your favourite futuristic setting from a book?


Another tricky one… I’m very fond of M. John Harrison’s “Viriconium”; I read his novels and stories of the place back in the day and I’m intending a re-visit when I have the right reading moment. The sprawling, undefined and ever-changing city is endlessly fascinating and vividly created, and I can’t recommend these books strongly enough. Ballard’s futuristic settings are of course wonderful and I do need to get back to reading his short stories again.

6.What is your favourite book that is set in a different time period (can be historical or futuristic)?


I’m not going to be able to pick just one – impossible to pick favourites! – but I would like to mention Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books. As I’ve said before, I read these back in the late 1970s and was transfixed. The setting is nebulous, but obviously somewhere else and sometime else, the writing is glorious, the characters fantastic and larger than life, and it’s a series of books like no other. In fact, I suspect that a re-read might be due some time soon….

7.Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book just to see what happens?

Very rarely… I’d rather read the book through and watch what happens, because even if you read the end of a book, you don’t necessarily find out the complete solution. Fortunately, I’m a fairly fast reader so even if the book is very suspenseful and I’m desperate to get to the end, I can usually hold out until the last pages!

8.If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

break of day

Ooooh, so many temptations! I’d be very keen to visit the Cote D’Azur before it became what it is today – Colette’s “Break of Day’, possibly my favourite of her books, features the south of France before it became the commercialised millionaires’ playground it is today, and I would absolutely love to see that. Popping into post-revolutionary Russia to visit Mayakovsky and Bulgakov is tempting – as is visiting every single author I’ve ever liked, actually! I’ve always fancied early 20th century Britain, and in fact living through the 20th century from the very start must have been a fascinating experience. Choices, choices!

9.Favourite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods?

half a life

Again, I don’t like to pick favourites; but I read Connie Willis’ “To say nothing of the Dog” pre-blog and liked it very much. Another work I like that straddles time periods is the short story “May I Please Speak to Nina” by Kirill Bulychev which I reviewed here and absolutely loved.

10. What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?


Well, the Gormenghast books and The Lord of the Rings are obvious choices – both are series I’ve read many times over the years and both have had a big effect on me. And I would like to encounter Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter night a traveler” for the first time again – it was one of those life-changing reads and I still love it to bits.

Phew! An interesting tag, which really made me think about some of the books I’ve read! As for other bloggers who might like to take the tag up, I’ll mention a few below who could well be interested – though as I said, no pressure and I don’t like to drop people into things they don’t want to do. But thanks to englishlitgeek for mentioning this tag to me – it’s been fun! 🙂

Annabel’s House of Books

Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home

Beyond Eden Rock


JacquiWine’s Journal

Mediaeval Steampunk and Political Satire


I’m playing catch-up a little with reviews, as I got somewhat behind over the Christmas period. And despite reading quite a lot, it’s been long books (like Dickens!). Nevertheless, I aim to get up to date as soon as possible and so here goes with an intriguing recent read!

Actually, it’s odd that I should follow my review of “Flatland” (ooh, weeks ago!) with the next book I read also being a sci-fi title of sorts – despite the fact I don’t read an awful lot of that genre. However, I think “The Cyberiad” is not so straightforward that it can be dropped into a single category, as will be revealed.


First, a few words about author Stanislaw Lem. Born in Lwow, Poland in 1921, he of course spent much of his life living and working under the Soviet (Stalinist) regime, and he managed to publish many books – sci fi, of course, philosophy and satire (in fact, I’d be inclined to argue that this volume covers all three genres!). His most famous work is “Solaris”, which was filmed notably by Tarkovsky and remade by Hollywood, but “The Cyberiad” is also a well-known title. According to articles I’ve read online, he’s suffered from having bad translators at many points in his life, and because of his punning and poetry and scientific terms he’s reckoned to be hard to render in other languages.

However, the consensus of opinion is that with this particular edition, translated by Michael Kandel, Lem found a linguist worthy of the task and it comes highly recommended. I had to marvel here at the translator’s art – this book is a case of author and linguist creating a wonderful work of art together. “The Cyberiad” is a series of short pieces, telling the tales of the adventures of the two constructors, Trurl and Klapaucius, who seem to be capable of inventing and putting together just about anything. They seem to be motivated by a mixture of pride, scientific curiosity and a love of acclaim and rewards, and so they’re constantly setting off on sallies to see what they can build and what they can be recompensed with! The adventures range from dealing with the foolish king of a planet who oppresses his people with parlour games; a PhD pirate who holds people up in space and demands knowledge instead of gold; and a very sinister machine that can create anything that starts with the letter “N”, an escapade that ends up being particularly dangerous. Trurl is the more panicky, flight and arrogant of the two and often gets into scrapes from which Klapaucius has to rescue him. And the world they inhabit is a strange mix of futuristic and historical – so much so, that you might find yourself thinking that Lem invented Steampunk, if it wasn’t for the fact that the historical bits are more mediaeval than Victorian! Nevertheless, it’s an engaging mix and stops the scientific stuff from being too overwhelming.

The book is a wonderful read, full of strange and obscure terminology; not being a scientist I can’t tell what’s real or not, although with many of the names I’m sure they’ve slipped into parodic territory! But despite the humour and the silliness, the author throws up dazzling ideas which keep you thinking for days and weeks after finishing it. Of course, it goes without saying that there is another level here; the book was written under Soviet rule and in much the same way as the Strugatsky brothers used sci-fi as a way to sneak in social commentary, Lem is doing the same here. It’s quite obvious to the modern western reader where the parody is, and it often beggars belief that the censors didn’t pick it up!

In one pivotal passage, Lem reveals the philosophy that informs all of the stories:

Individuals it’s impossible to make happy, and civilisations – civilisations are not to be tampered with, for each must go its own way, progressing naturally from one level of development to the next and having only itself to thank for all the good and evil that accrues thereby. For us, at the Highest Possible Level, there is nothing left to do in this Universe, and to create another Universe, in my opinion, would be in extremely poor taste.

The collective is seen to be imperfect and not the solution for everything, and yet in one of the stories, when the cheeky inventors create interlocking armies for two opposing rulers which should technically be unbeatable as they create a huge unit, it is the unified armies that realise they hold control within their power and overthrow the tyrants – obviously an allegory for what the Soviet-controlled societies could achieve if they worked together.

You mustn’t think, said Trurl, that your way of thinking is altogether new to me. Indeed, it’s well known that whatever comes in sufficiently large quantities commands the general admiration. For example, a little stale gas circulating sluggishly at the bottom of an old barrel excites wonder in no one; but if you have enough of it to make a Galactic Nebula, everyone is instantly struck with awe. Though really, it’s the same stale and absolutely average gas – only there’s an awful lot of it… I do not share your faith in the glory of great numbers when there is nothing more to them than what may be counted.

Of course, the monolithic Soviet system was perpetuated very much by bureaucracy, and in one story, a hostile machine is defeated by that very entity:

Basically, my dears, the whole thing was quite simple: the moment it accepted the first dispatch and signed for it, it was done for. I employed a special machine, the machine with a big B; for, as the Cosmos is the Cosmos, no-one’s licked it yet.


It would be easy to read the tales here as simply an entertaining mixture of scientific bumbling and political commentary. However, it’s always worth bearing in mind the harsh regime under which the stories were written; Lem sold millions of books and has been hailed as the most famous Polish writer, but during his lifetime his stories were dismissed as mass market, lowbrow works which probably helped him to slip under the radar of the censors. There is much here about the human condition, about the way people will behave when survival is at stake and about how human beings are not fit for the perfect world – if we had everything what would we aspire to?

There was no need, of course, for him to tell me that plenitude, when too plenitudinous, was worse than destitution, for – obviously- what could one do, if there was nothing one could do?

In its imaginative sweep and breadth of vision, “The Cyberiad” reminds me of nothing less than Calvino’s wonderful Cosmicomic fables, and both works share a philosophical wish to make human beings think about the way they live and the cosmos they live in. Reading “The Cyberiad was an exhilarating experience and I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work.

These are a few of my favourite things… beginning with C!


Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book has come up with most wonderful meme, whereby we have to come up with some favourites, based on a particular letter – and that can be harder than you think! I have been allocated C, and after a lot of head scratching have come up with the following. Although these are favourites beginning with that particular letter, I’m not sure if I could ever pick one favourite *anything* – but for today, these will do!

Favourite book:


I’m going to pick “Cosmicomics” by one of my favourite authors, Italo Calvino. This is a bit fat collection of short pieces which I reviewed here, and they’re absolutely wonderful: short pieces musing on the universe, telling strange little stories and twisting our perceptions of what’s real and what isn’t. Originally published in a couple of translated volumes in this country, they were finally collected in The Complete Cosmicomics and you could do no better than start reading Calvino with this book!

Favourite author:

italo calvino 001
I suppose it’s fairly inevitable therefore that my favourite author with a C will be (Italo) Calvino! His book “If on a winter’s night a traveller” is a volume I would have to have with me on a desert island. It changed the way I read and the way I looked at books, and I developed a huge author-crush on Calvino (which I still have, if I’m honest). On Mount TBR is a lovely big volume of his letters, still in its shrink-wrapping – and I really hope to sink into it over the summer holidays!

Favourite song:

I’m going to pick a song that begins with C – (A) Child’s Christmas in Wales, by a musician whose name begins with a C – John Cale. Cale is a long-term obsession (I’ve seen him live at least 6 times) and his work is always challenging, exhilarating and different from anyone else. This song, though it shares the title of a Dylan Thomas book, doesn’t really have much to do with the latter although they have the common Welsh heritage they’re celebrating. Cale is a favourite musician and this song is one of his best.

Favourite film:

I’m not a huge film buff, if I’m honest, and I do tend to prefer older movies. Cabaret is definitely a long-term fave, not the least because of the presence of the wonderful Liza Minnelli. And seeing it again as a more grown-up person, I appreciate the sadness behind it as the civilised world disintegrates.

Favourite object:


A hard one. Chocolate? (I’m not supposed to eat it). Cups? (I love tea). Cheese? (Likewise). I think I’ll cheat a little and go for Chair (reading!) – because I don’t have a dedicated reading chair and I would very much like one!

This was a fun and thought-provoking meme – thanks Simon!

2013 – A Year of Reading, and plans for 2014


And actually, this was my first full calendar year of blogging – I can’t quite believe I’ve been doing this for 18 months now! I did wonder when I started if I would have the impetus to keep going, but I *have* enjoyed very much rambling away here, and sharing my thoughts on books and book-related thingies. Roll on 2014!

In the meantime, a few thoughts on the highlights of 2013. It has been on a personal basis a bit up and down, with various family illnesses and crises, so in many ways books have been what they always have for me, something of a coping mechanism. And I have read some wonderful volumes this year, and interacted with some really lovely people – fellow bloggers, readers, publishers – which has made the blogging journey even more special.

I’ve also learned things about myself as a reader, which is odd after all these years! The main thing I’ve discovered is that I’m absolutely rubbish at challenges! In 2012 I caught up late with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s readalong of Elizabeth Taylor’s works, and managed to keep pace. However, this year I only committed myself to one Barbara Pym and one volume of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” a month and even that small challenge has proved impossible: I abandoned the Pyms halfway through the year, and am struggling with the last two volumes of Powell this month! I am definitely a wayward reader, influenced by whims and moods and what’s happening around me bookwise, so the only formal challenge I’m setting myself next year is the LibraryThing Great War Reading Event. This weighs in with a very reasonably one book per two months, and even with a choice of books, so I ought to be able to cope with that! Apart from this, I am really going to try to read as many books as I possible can which are already on my shelves – if for no other reason than to try to clear a few out and stop the house falling down under the weight of books!

So – highlights of 2013? In no particular order:

The Russians – I’ve spent time in the pages of a *lot* of Russians this year, having a particular binge on Dostoevsky. I finally read “The Brother Karamazov” which knocked me out – and I’d like to return to more of his books in the new year, as I do have a shelf full…. I also at last experienced the wonder that is “Anna Karenina”, a long and absorbing read which was just great to sink into. And then there’s Bulgakov – 2014 needs to see a revisit to “The Master and Margarita”!

Beverley Nichols – a recent discovery, and such a wonderful writer. His wit, his passion, his wearing of his emotions on his sleeve, his wonderful writing – in 2013 he became one of my favourites and I have the joy of several volumes waiting on my shelves for next year.

The Hopkins Manuscript – a lovely Persephone volume which I read fairly recently and which was unexpectedly compulsive. My unforeseen hit of the year!

Small presses and independent publishers – some of the best books I’ve come across are from publishers like Hesperus, Persephone and Alma Classics; and I’ve discovered new presses like Michael Walmer and Valancourt. Long live the independents!

Italo Calvino – I continued my reading of one of my favourite writers with a new collection of his essays – and I’m hoping that the volume of his letters will find its way to me soon…

Lost books – there’s nothing I like more than rediscovering an obscure volume and there were two stand-outs for me this year – Andrew Garve’s “Murder in Moscow” and the very wonderful Fred Basnett’s “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey”. I came across the Basnett book by chance in a charity shop and it ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year!

Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence – I set myself the challenge at the start of the year to read the 12 books in this series, one a month. I haven’t quite kept to the schedule (though I do hope to finish by the end of December), and I’ve struggled at times – but this has been a really rewarding reading experience, and I’m so glad to have spent time with Nick Jenkins and the fantastic (in all senses of the word) set of characters that Powell peopled his books with!

The LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics Group – one of the most important things of my reading year has been my involvement in this group, surely the nicest and friendliest place on the ‘Net! The Virago group are responsible for introducing me to so many blogs, bloggers, books and authors; we share secret santa, companionship, views on books, recommendations and support each other in the highs and lows of life. I do feel blessed to have been part of the group this year and look forward to another year of reading Viragos (and other books!) alongside them.

So – Plans for 2014?

As I said above, I’ve realised I function best as a reader if I don’t restrict or tie myself down. So there are a small number of books I plan for the Great War Reading Event and here they are:

Not too many when spread out over 12 months and with a commitment to only one every 2 months even I should be able to manage to keep up!

I’ve also decided that in 2014 I’d like to read the Raj Quartet and so I’ve allowed myself the indulgence of picking up the first two volumes in a couple of local charity shops – not bad for £1.75 and £1 each! But I won’t give myself deadlines, I’ve decided – I shall just read them when the mood takes me.

There are also a couple of review books I need to get on to:

Apart from this, I need to take some serious action about Mount TBR. I actually have so many books that I haven’t read that I don’t even have a separate TBR shelf (or two) – if I tried this the books would end up in chaos, so everything is shelved roughly by category/author. The danger in this is not only that I can’t find things, but also that I forget what I’ve read and what I haven’t read, and also forget what I had intended to read next. Therefore, I’d like 2014 to see a process of reading what I already own, then deciding if I want to keep it or not, and perhaps gradually slimming down the shelves a little. If I had an infinite amount of space I wouldn’t worry about it – but I haven’t, so I need to reduce the collection a bit.

I think this is a workable plan and gives me a *lot* of freedom in my reading – after all, whatever whim takes me, I’ll probably have *something* to fit it in my library! So that’s my plan – what’s yours?

Quick Quotes: Italo Calvino



By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“What harbor can receive you more securely than a great library?”
― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Italo Calvino on Ivy Compton-Burnett



By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“I’m a great admirer of Pinter and Ivy Compton-Burnett…the connection between them is cold cruelty. Just think of all those familial relationships which are like so many nests of snakes. And then there is the dryness which they both share. Like Pinter Ivy Compton-Burnett writes in the form of dialogue. She is almost pure theatre.”

(from the London Magazine 1985; interview by Ian Thomson)

Recent Reads: A Tranquil Star by Primo Levi

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I first came across Primo Levi’s work many years ago when I picked up a copy of his book “The Periodic Table” – simply because it had a recommendation from Italo Calvino on the cover! It transpired that Calvino had been Levi’s editor while the former worked for the Italian publishing house of Einaudi. Like most people who read it at the time, I was knocked out by “The Periodic Table” and since then have read most of Levi’s books – gruelling though many of them are.

“A Tranquil Star” is a collection of some of Levi’s short stories and it is subtitled “Unpublished Stories” which is an odd statement, since most of these stories were in fact published decades ago. What in fact this volume is, is a selection of stories from a variety of Italian sources which have not been translated into English before. Although I would agree with the statement quoted from The Herald on the back of the books which says “We are blessed with this collection”, I do feel it lacks a little homogeneity.

The first section of the book has earlier stories, one of which dates back to 1949, and these are initially a little more straightforward. However, the last story in this section, “In the Park”, was first published in 1971 and shows how much Levi had moved from realism to a more fantastical style – possibly under the influence of Calvino?

The second part of the book has a variety of stories, several futuristic, some which could be called science fiction and some which are just unclassifiable! All are beautifully written and very thought-provoking, particularly the title story which shows how huge celestial events can affect the daily lives of us here on planet Earth.

My main quibble is, why select just a few stories to be translated? The foreword implies that Levi’s complete works are in preparation and I can’t help thinking that a collected short stories would be a much better option. Levi’s work is superb and varied, and to read just a few stories in isolation, apparently as some kind of introduction for American readers, doesn’t do him justice.

In the end, the stories I probably enjoyed most were “In The Park” (funny and rather clever), “The Magic Paint” (very inventive and with quite a shocking end) and “One Night” (downright weird and a big scary). I await Levi’s collected works with bated breath!

Recent Reads: Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino


I’ve already written here about the late, great Italian writer, Italo Calvino, whose work I read extensively in the 1980s. I’ve wanted for some time to re-read his books and this was kick-started recently by Ali’s July Re-reads challenge. Having loved “If on a winter’s night a traveller” and “Mr. Palomar”, I decided it was time to revisit some of Calvino’s earlier works, the “Cosmicomics”.

When I read Calvino initially, the Cosmicomics stories were available in English in two volumes, “Cosmicomics” and “Time and the Hunter”. I still have both of these (somewhat battered and even slightly water-damaged, alas), but in recent years a new volume has become available, “The Complete Cosmicomics”. This gathers together all the stories published in other collections so they are all housed in one lovely volume. It seems that these little tales were something of a life’s work for Calvino, as he kept writing them throughout his career and, as mentioned in the foreword to the Complete edition, was even planning more prior to his early death in 1985.

Calvino took inspiration from a literary group he was involved in, Oulipo, who felt that literature should reflect modern scientific thought and progress. Therefore, each of the earliest short piece starts with a short paragraph outlining a scientific principle, which Calvino then goes on to translate into a wonderfully fantastic story. The narrator of most of the tales is the unpronounceable Qwfwq, a palindromic “cosmic know-it-all” who seems to have been everywhere, taken every form and is obviously an eternal.

As the stories progress, some of the later tales become more abstract, illustrating quite complex scientific theories in short story form. Towards the end Qwfwq returns, although his manner seems to have become a little more serious, as if the playfulness of the early work, a product maybe of the optimism of the sixties, is being replaced by more modern, ecological concerns.

By Fotograf: Johan Brun, Dagbladet (Oslo Museum/Digitalt Museum) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I found myself reading these tales with a sense of wonder – they’re so beautifully written and so imaginative. The Cosmicomics are impossible to classify – they’re not exactly science fiction, not exactly fantasy, certainly not realism – they fall somewhere between every category but they’re fascinating, funny, sad and populated with some wonderful and memorable (and unpronounceable!) characters. The images they conjour up stay with you – collecting milk from the moon, living below the surface of the world, growing your own snail shell and inventing time, a word without colour. Calvino’s characters fly through space from galaxy to galaxy, witness the birth and death of stars, the beginning and end of time – some of his inventiveness leaves you breathless.

The middle tales from “Time and the Hunter”, although not so obviously dazzling, are somehow a little deeper and very thought provoking. They are perhaps a little “harder” as they’re dealing with theoretical and mathematical concepts, but they’re still very gripping and extremely clever. Many of the later, newly translated tales which feature Qwfwq are just as stunning as the earlier ones and show that there was no dimming of his talents as he aged. If anything, the increasing seriousness of the tales reflects world changes.There is a definite shift it attitude: from the optimism of the early stories, written in the first flush of the space race and the new scientific age; to the sense of disillusionment in the later tales, when all the dreams of the future had somehow remained unfulfilled.

Although I thought I’d forgotten a lot of Calvino’s work, much more of it lurked in my brain than I thought. When I read these stories before, I was expecting another “If on a winter’s night…” but now I’ve learned never to expect anything obvious from this wonderful author. His work was highly individual and singularly brilliant, and I think I appreciate a lot more on re-reading. It is fascinating to wonder what Calvino’s Cosmicomics would have made of modern society and I can only mourn his early loss and wish we still have Qwfwq to spin us tales of wonder and imagination about the scientific world around us. I can’t rate Calvino and his work highly enough – a five-star book and a five-star author!

Further reading:



July Re-reads #3: Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino


Having enjoyed so much my re-read of If on a winter’s night a traveller, I felt drawn to read another Calvino and decided that I’d like to spend some time with Mr. Palomar. This slim volume was published in translation in 1985, around the time of Calvino’s untimely death, and I probably haven’t read it since so I was interested to see what my reactions would be.

Wikipedia has this to say about the book:

Mr. Palomar is a 1983 novel by the Italian writer Italo Calvino. Its original Italian title is Palomar. In an interview with Gregory Lucente, Calvino stated that he began writing Mr. Palomar in 1975, making it a predecessor to earlier published works such as If on a winter’s night a traveler. Mr. Palomar was published in an English translation by William Weaver in 1985. In 27 short chapters, arranged in a 3 × 3 × 3 pattern, the title character makes philosophical observations about the world around him. Calvino shows us a man on a quest to quantify complex phenomena in a search for fundamental truths on the nature of being.

The novel was original published with the title of just Palomar (the Mr. being added to the translation) and the name of the slightly bumbling protagonist is significant. Palomar is a Spanish word meaning dovecote or loft, and is also the name of a famous observatory in San Diego, known for its astronomical research. The book consists of a series of short pieces in which Mr. Palomar observes the world around him, the heavens above him, the creatures he co-exists with and considers the meaning of all. Palomar is the ultimate observer, trying to grasp a moment of life and nature and pin it down – but finding out that they are both rather messy and intangible and can’t be controlled so easily by scientific theories.

If this sounds a little po-faced, it isn’t. The pieces are beautifully written and very funny in places – Palomar becomes so tangled in his various contemplations that he ends up looking very silly sometimes. His short-sightedness is probably significant as it adds comic moments and also is something of a metaphor for Palomar’s outlook – while looking for the minutiae of life he often misses the bigger picture. It’s hard not to identify Palomar with his author, as there are superficial similarities – Palomar has a wife and child, an apartment in Rome overlooking the city, and an unspecific job which he can do sitting at home (so could therefore be a writer). But Calvino was a very private man so we can only speculate how much of himself he put into this work.

But the pieces are very thought-provoking, very poetic and profound and enjoyable reading. I can recall being very, very moved by the end due to the context in which I first read this book, and I was moved again on revisiting it. Calvino is a wonderful writer, a joy to read, and I’d highly recommend his works to anyone who loves reading!

July Re-reads: #2 – If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino


Of all the July re-reads, If on a winter’s night a traveller is the one I have been most looking forward to and yet dreading most at the same time. I first read this book on its initial publication in paperback in 1981 and was knocked out by it. It set me off on a major Calvino obsession but I haven’t actually read it since. Because I thought so highly of it, I approached a re-read with trepidation – would the long passage of time altered my perspectives and would I end up wondering what I’d seen in it?

Wikipedia described the book thus:

The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveller. Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter. The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read. The book begins with a chapter on the art and nature of reading, and is subsequently divided into twenty-two passages. The odd-numbered passages and the final passage are narrated in the second person. That is, they concern events purportedly happening to the novel’s reader. (Some contain further discussions about whether the man narrated as “you” is the same as the “you” who is actually reading.) These chapters concern the reader’s adventures in reading Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Eventually the reader meets a woman, who is also addressed in her own chapter, separately, and also in the second person.


This rather bald description gives no real hint of the greatness of this work. You know from the word go that this is not going to be your normal kind of read. The initial chapter gives a sense of unreality from the start, describing the whole process you are about to go through in settling down to read the new Calvino. Any booklover will recognise with joy the section about negotiating the book shop to try and by the volume you actually want. The first tale, in a railway station, describes the smoke from the train obliterating part of the first paragraph of the story (except it isn’t because you are reading it) and the rest of this tale continues to blur the lines between the real reader, the narrator/reader and the whole normal narrative structure of fiction. This tale is broken off after the initial section and this sends the Reader off on his quest to read a completed work – an act that becomes increasingly difficult and complex as the book progresses.

The tale of the Reader and the Other Reader in search of the Unfinished Books is entertaining enough on its own. But when you add to this a sequence of stories/beginnings of books which stand in their own right and could have been completed works, you realise the endless fertility of Calvino’s mind.  It is a mark of the greatness of Calvino’s storytelling that each of the short (incomplete though satisfying) tales could have been successfully written as a short story/novella/novel. The variety of different narrative style he employs for these is dazzling. It’s also worth remember Calvino’s track record and experience in producing short stories and he’s adept at conveying a lot in a few pages. Although the unfinished novels break off with no resolution they are surprisingly satisfying although we, as the External Reader, would no doubt like to find out how they end as well.


Soon the chapters concerning the Readers and their quest become as strange as the Tales themselves. As the reader/narrator is drawn ever further into the labyrinth of the search for the various stories, events from the authorial side of things seep into real life until it becomes unclear which are the stories and which are the tales of the Reader(s) – or are both fiction? One of the delights of this book is simply not knowing where you will be taken next: but knowing you are in the hands of a master storyteller so wherever it is, it’s going to be good!!

Because the stories are told from a series of shifting perspectives there is a heightened sense of unreality, but never confusion due to the skill of the author. The resolution is brilliantly conceived and executed and had me grinning with delight. I remembered much of the book but had forgotten enough to create an almost new reading experience. It also has the most wonderful last page – no cheating by skipping to the end please!

I left so many page markers in place when I was reading, brilliant sections to quote within a review – and then I realised that it was pointless, because this book is so marvellous it demands to be read in total. There is no point taking pieces out of context, however wonderful they are, because you really have to read all of this book to appreciate it.

So I needn’t have worried – re-reading this book was a magical experience. Calvino takes us on a merry dance into the centre of the very nature of reading itself and questions all our assumptions about our relationship with books, authors, stories in a prolonged meditation on the meaning of books and reading – and possibly on life itself. He deconstructs the whole nature of fiction and tells a damn good tale while doing so. This is a deeply satisfying and thought provoking work, and also very funny. To discuss and dissect the meaning and nature of reading and books, whilst at the same time telling a wonderful series of (fragments of) tales is the mark of genius in my mind. This is possibly the best book I have ever read and I realise now why I love Calvino and his work so much.

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