If on a winter’s night a traveller – and more …

The cover of a book

Titles? Titles make a difference; often, they can help make sense of a work of art or they can simply evoke a fascinating or enticing image – a prelude to an unknown ‘something’; they can be delightfully memorable: amongst the titles I have particularly liked are ‘Those who leave and those who stay’, ‘Darkness at noon’, ‘The waste land’, ‘Famous blue raincoat’, and ‘After the gold-rush’.

By chance I have to hand a copy of Italo Calvino’s ‘novel’ or text which has one of the best titles I could ever imagine: It is: ‘If, on a winter’s night, a traveller.’ It’s a great title because I can actually imagine ‘a winter’s night’ and ‘a traveller’. And the title leaves me in a mood of anticipation: What is going to happen?

But then, as I began to read his text I realised that his introduction to the book applies to me! Directly to me! As Calvino prepares a reader for the experience of reading his new novel he tells us about a person (who is now a version of me, myself) and their (my) anticipation of his text:

As if speaking for me, he writes:

It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything from anything.

There are plenty younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the general conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs.

What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.

Yes – this is more or less how I look at things; just as Italo Calvino’s subject (me), despite his habitual but albeit limited pessimism or stoicism, still has the pleasure of expectation vis-a-vis a new book, so I, too, have a certain pleasure of expectation at the prospect of opening a book and getting stuck in.

At the moment I am reading two astonishingly good books. The first is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. The second is Elena Ferrante’s ‘The story of a new name’ – which is the second volume in her ‘Naples quartet’.

Dostoyevsky’s work tells us the story of the three Brothers Karamazov, namely, Dmitry, Ivan and Aleksey; his characterisations of the brothers – as well as the many other persons who feature in the book – are virtually unsurpassed. In addition he furnishes us with an image of an old and strangely enduring Russian culture as well as a lesson in applied theology. Iris Murdoch observed of this genre of literature that ‘we don’t write like this anymore’ – and she is correct: The Brothers Karamazov requires patient engagement and a willingness to grapple with the often complex debates that are threaded throughout the text. Some pages have not one paragraph and this makes for demanding reading. And, on top of this, people don’t seem to conduct themselves like his characters anymore. They are often portrayed in the grip of intense emotion – the like of which are not so commonplace in our modern world.

At the same time I find it a relief and a pure form of enlightenment to read Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary portrayal of Neapolitan culture and relationships – as it is experienced by children and young adults. In her ‘The story of a new name‘ she also manages to underline why it is that ‘we’, wherever we are, benefit from an education that cultivates the mind and shapes perception accordingly.

So, I too, continue to share Calvino’s reader’s optimism – and positive expectation – when it comes to reading a new novel or an old and critically-acclaimed one.

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