Book Beginnings: Italian Casual Surrealism

Today, I’m finishing up the editing of Part One of my fiction project, figuring out where the hell I’m going with Part Two, and preparing an article for Reddit’s r/fantasy subreddit. I’m also ignoring the cat, who is currently telling me that I need to put the laptop down and cuddle with her. I really need to focus on the former tasks, but she just went from giving me cute, warm, and fuzzy looks, to turning off “Ms NiceKitty” and indignantly glaring at me because I’m at the other side of the writing room and clearly, I need to be next to her. The hardships a writer deals with, I tell you…

Today’s Book Beginnings post, hosted over at Rose City Reader,  isn’t about a book I’m currently reading (those would be War and Peace, and The Dragonbone Chair, both recommended, both subject to review soon). Rather, it’s about a life-changing book that I’m browsing again for a regular feature about underrated or underread writers. Here’s the first line, in Italian….

Stai per cominciare a leggere il nuovo romanzo Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore di Italo Calvino. Rilassati. Raccogliti, Allontana da te ogni altro pensiero. Lascia che il mondo che ti circonda sfumi nell’indistinto.

…and here is the first paragraph, in the English Translation by William Weaver:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

The book is If on a winter’s night a traveler. Here, Italo Calvino shows himself to be a talented writer and skilled craftsman at the pinnacle of his career. He’d become famous in the 1950s and 1960s with books like The Baron in the Trees (about a noble son who decides to stop putting up with his family and carves a new home for him at the top of a tree) and Invisible Cities (a masterful short book that imagines different worlds and realities throughout time… if you’ve read Einstein’s Dreams, you’ve read that book’s grandson) but this book is, simply, a love letter to readers. The book itself is about your quest to read the book you’re holding, navigating misprints, quirky bookstores, and all manner of inconvenience. Just buying the book requires a near-military operation where you, the reader, have to make it past

…the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you… 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… but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Just slipping into it is like the feeling you get when you’ve wandered a foreign country for months; the people you meet are nice, and you’ve had great experiences you wouldn’t have had otherwise, but when you suddenly run into someone from your home town, speaking your language, your brain explodes in a frenzy of happiness, laughing, and pure undiluted joy. I liked this book so much that, before I’d finished Chapter 2, I bought Adrienne’s Italian in 32 Lessons so I could, one day, read it in its original language, and I’ve since read it the way he wrote it, along with several other books and stories by him. I was also led to other Italian fantasists like Stefano Benni, Umberto Eco, and even an independent writer of modern sword, sorcery, and adventure fiction with a heart, Davide Mana.

All because of an affectionate note, written in another language, by someone who spoke my language like no other writer ever had.

To Do Today:  I have 8000 words of manuscript to go over and edit because DAMNIT, I told myself I would be done with Part One by this week, and Friday Evening counts as ‘this week.’ I also have to start on Part Two… writing by the seat of my pants might work for getting a project started, but at this point, over a hundred pages in, I need to have a map of where I’m going.  Otherwise, I’ll be sitting at the keyboard, driving around the story in circles, ignoring my frustrated Muse as she keeps telling me “Rerouting… Rerouting…” and getting absolutely nowhere, slowly. I might even get a chance to indulge in my other arcane art, where I get to turn obscure incantations, unusual symbols, and arcane formulae into moving dots and lines and collisions on a screen. Merlin, eat your heart out.

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