"The novel I would most like to read at this moment," Ludmilla explains, "should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves..."
Throughout Italo Calvino's seminal novel, characters frequently describe the novel they 'would most like to read at this moment', piling up a series of properties that Calvino then dissects in a dazzling display of meta-fiction.
The novel opens with the main character, "you", buying the new Italo Calvino novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Having settled into optimal reading conditions you begin the first chapter, which is chapter two of this book, which tells of a man arriving in an isolated railway station on a mission to collect a suitcase. Unfortunately the story ends abruptly with the discovery that the book contains nothing but the first chapter, printed over and over again.
Returning to the bookshop "you" meet another reader, Ludmilla, who has the same problem. Exchanging numbers, "you" head home with a new copy of the book. Unfortunately this book is a different story entirely and, worse, it too breaks off after only the first chapter.
And so it continues, with every other chapter being the beginning of a new story which, for one reason or another, is also broken off at some crucial moment.
It's a quite breathtaking meditation on the novel. Calvino examines what it means to be a reader, a writer, an editor, a translator and a censor. His analysis is witty, intelligent and profound. I can't imagine a non-fiction book about the novel form that could beat this for insight.
Sadly, as a novel it's a little flawed. The second person narrative distanced me from the story, rather than drawing me in (although it's entirely possible that's what Calvino intended). The fragmented stories are frequently cliched (again, perhaps intentionally) and the knowledge that each story will break off at the crucial moment makes it hard to care.
Nevertheless it's a extraordinary read and an unbeatable examination of storytelling.