Giorgio Pressburger Arrests the Reader

In The Law of White Spaces by , one of the chapters starts with a second person address to the reader. It reads, “Don’t be shocked, dear brother, by the case I’m about to lay before you; don’t be ashamed or disgusted or scandalized, I beg you, by what you are about to learn.” The use of the second person immediately drew me in and made me feel like a part of the story.

Reader as Witness

In this chapter in White Spaces, the reader plays the character of a witness or judge rather than being an active participant in the story. The narrator refers to research the reader has done and the belief system that has created. He then goes on to juxtapose this belief system saying, “my own experience…stands in absolute contradiction to your conception of existence.” Pressburger uses this supposed contradiction as a way to justify fully explaining the narrator’s ideas and how he came by them. Because I, as the reader, am told that the beliefs assigned to me are wrong, Pressburger is bringing me into the story as I try to weigh the evidence.

Pressburger uses an interesting segue between the second person introduction of the story and the first person telling of the action of the story. He writes, “Of course I want to take a little time before telling you about me, but I also want to try and make you understand how much I was influenced by your research.” This statement is the equivalent of the hug and roll where the narrator compliments “my” ideas which endears me to him but then releases me to watch him elucidate how he has expanded on them and found his own way.

The narrator then does not refer to the reader again except in two passing references to the reader’s research and once to ask if I remembered Mrs. Polak and a conspiratorial reference, “We know, dear brother, what really lies behind feeling shy, feeling ashamed, blushing, do we not?” Each of these references keeps the reader in the position of engaged observer and reinforced the supposed relationship. The reader and narrator are supposed to share at least thirty-five years of memories.

Addressing the Reader

It is strange at the end of this chapter when the narrator again addresses the reader. He says, “You can meet me in the market where you’ll find me sweeping up the dirt, moving boxes and wooden cases around.” This made me wonder where the reader was to have encountered the narrator in the first place.

Pressburger has assumed that his reader is willing to give up their own point of view to get this second person narration to work. He also has to create a persona that is compelling enough for the reader to want to assume. When he addresses the reader as “you,” he has a specific character in mind and he is asking the reader to take on the role of that character. In my novel I haven’t yet figured out exactly who the “you” is. By setting up a fuller character for the reader to inhabit, I can assign the reader a more complex role that he or she can then choose to inhabit or not.

If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of The Law of White Spaces from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.

How I (Almost) Fell in Love with Hemingway

I’ve always hated Hemingway—as controversial as that sounds to my generation of writers. I thought his women were insipid—I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it—and he so often wrote of hunting and fishing where I usually read about war and oppression. Most of all, Hemingway is my father’s favorite author.

A Father’s Influence

I was read to as a child by both of my parents and then I learned to read by reading aloud to myself, but it is my father’s voice I hear when I read. Over the years as I’ve impugned Hemingway, my father often responded by quoting Papa’s short, declarative sentences. I hear my father give weight to the proper word. I feel the emotion behind his voice as he imbues the masculine writing with all the feelings boys are taught not to openly express. Perhaps that’s what is really meant by clean prose—a holding back of what is just beneath the surface. I love my father’s voice, but even he could not make me hear the beauty in Catherine’s fear of the rain.

As I learned to become a writer, I was surrounded by Papa—starting with the Nick Adams stories and their brilliant setting. Someone wrote an imitation of “The Hills Like White Elephants” and I pretended to get it. My father continued to quote Hemingway. I read and fell for authors like Calvino who themselves loved Hemingway. I loved them for their clean prose—the very thing they were imitating from Hemingway—and I started to see I would have to face Papa someday, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. I worried my father would have to die before I could do that.

Midnight in Paris

When I watched Midnight in Paris, I fell in love with Woody Allen’s Hemingway and with his manner of speech. I wanted to listen all night to his trailing tangents. My father argued that he was merely a caricature, but there was a glimmer of self-awareness in the actor or the portrayal that made me love what I had considered to be cheese.

A Farewell to Arms

I’ve been feeling Papa draw closer as I exhausted my supply of Calvino and Pavese. My husband and I planned a trip to Croatia and Slovenia—places that from the American travel blogs you would think had never existed before Hemingway—even if his presence there was greatly exaggerated. So I picked up A Farewell to Arms and I danced around it for weeks. But then I read McMurtry’s treatment of ’s letters in Harper’s and I saw the human. I wanted to be near Papa.

How can I describe those opening paragraphs without using the words “there were.” The cadence was there—my father’s and Woody Allen’s and Hemingway’s. The reportage of scenery in simple language. I felt its weight. I brought meaning to his simple, clean sentences. I came to love that style and by page three I was crying at their beauty. I was afraid to turn each page because I didn’t want to lose my awe. I wanted to call my father and read to him, but I also wanted Papa all to myself.

And then came Catherine. And the rain. I know from his letters that Hemingway truly loved the real-life Catherine and maybe he respected her more than I am giving him credit for. I dreaded every mention of the rain. The simple sentences that had carried so much import became cloying with their symbolism. The war sections were still beautiful and strong, and I know from friends that I’m not the only one who loves the war and hates the romance, but I am left deeply divided. He was capable of so much and then it feels like he simply phoned it in.

I know now that I have a lot to learn from Hemingway. I also know that he is not a god. I am not ready to read the complete works and who knows what I will find when I do. I respect my father’s love for Papa. I wish I could devote myself as fully.

If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of A Farewell to Arms from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.

Italo Calvino’s Dreamlike Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by is unlike any book I’ve read before. It seems to exist in another plane entirely with its dreamlike short sections that each end with some philosophical statement. Each section left me wanting to ruminate on what I’ve just read rather than turning to the next. All of the cities are named for women and it made me wonder if Marco Polo (or rather Calvino through Polo) was talking about cities at all. Calvino peppers modern references like airplanes and Ferris wheels throughout the stories as if to say time is immaterial.

Building My Own Cities

Calvino’s descriptions of these cities are ethereal enough that I’m asked to construct my own images of the cities if I want them. Calvino has Polo describe one aspect of each city that is characteristic of it, and many of these are not concrete elements but rather a spirit of the city. Even when Polo specifically lists objects, as in this description of Zora, “[T]he copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower…” he uses few adjectives and my mind is free to make most of the picture, although I found myself grasping for these specifics to have something to begin building with. Of course if the physical description were essential to the experience he wanted to convey, Calvino would have written them in. This left me looking for what he was trying to convey.

With sentences like, “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: a foreignness of what you no longer are or possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places,” Calvino asks the reader to bring both meaning and interpretation into the story. What is it that you no longer are? What do you no longer possess? How is a space unpossessed or for that matter possessed? Long after I finished reading Calvino’s words, my mind worked over them.

Finding My Bearings Among the Grand Ideas

The difficulty for me lies in that much of the book is made up of these wide open ideas that I was trying to knit together and I found it hard to get my bearings. After the first ten cities I felt I was beginning to understand the world Calvino was creating. After the next ten I was looking for metaphors. After the full 165 pages I felt the meaning was so large I would never be able to grasp it and I was disheartened. This book was something I would have liked to have read one city at a time during a year or more just to absorb it—to fully explore all the possibilities of the cities and to construct the character and characteristics of each in my mind before moving onto the next. The cities were like the stones in Polo’s arch, but I wasn’t able to see the arch that the individual stones formed. The lasting impression of the book in my mind is instead the first line of Coleridge’s poem.

It is as though Calvino is using the words on the page to teach me to unlock those same words, for example Calvino writes, “But what enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words.” I often wondered how much of the story was written on the page and how much of it I was meant to bring to it as a reader. At the end of “Tamara,” Calvino writes, “However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs…you leave Tamara without having discovered it.” I finished the book as I left Tamara—not having discovered it.

Twice I have suggested that for me Calvino was speaking through Polo in this book. Perhaps it was the modern elements, perhaps it was the lack of emphasis on character development, but Polo did not present as a fully realized character as much as Kublai did. I enjoyed the way the conversations between Kublai and Polo framed the descriptions of the cities, although I kept looking for them to relate more closely to each other. Often I read hungrily to the next portion of dialogue.

This is one of those books that I think will percolate through my brain for quite some time. Invisible Cities reminded me that a reader will construct their own world out of whatever they are given and there is no need to be didactic about it unless I am purposefully so. While I as a reader (perhaps like Kublai) was expecting a more straightforward travelogue, because Calvino’s descriptions were compelling, I was willing to follow him as he described the essences of these cities (and therefore the essences of life) rather than their architecture.

If this review made you want to read the book, support indie booksellers (and reviewers—I get a commission) by picking up a copy of Invisible Citiesfrom Powell’s Books.