If on a winter’s night a traveler

You are about to begin reading a review of Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Close all those apps and alerts that might distract you. Best to turn off your e-mail entirely; there is always another message. Tell your friends on Twitter and Facebook that you’re going offline for a while.

Find the most comfortable position; seated on your sofa with your laptop on your lap or at your desk with the computer in front of you. In the park, on the beach, or on the train.

Well, what are you waiting for?

Italo Calvino begins his novel by addressing the reader directly, reminding the Reader (who later becomes more clearly a him) of the effort it took to obtain the book he’s about to read. He had to make it past shelves of Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages, Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success, and the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves, and find this, the book he’d come to the store in search of—Calvino’s new book. Calvino enjoins the Reader to see to it that he’s comfortable, is in a well-lighted space, and has everything he needs at hand. Now, with the preliminaries out of the way, the Reader is just about ready to begin:

You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t vary a great deal. So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be. Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.

Okay, not the subtlest metaphor there, but it certainly captures the ecstasy of reading, which is what this book is all about.

The novel appears to get underway with a story of a man who missed an important connection in a railway station. Just when it’s getting interesting, it stops. You, the Reader, realize that there’s been a printer’s error, and the same pages have been printed again. Off to the bookstore you go, looking for the remaining chapters. Instead, you end up with a different first chapter, also broken off when it’s getting interesting. The rest of the book is a series of opening chapters, each different from the last, alternating with descriptions of the increasingly complex efforts the Reader must go through to get a complete story—and the story of all these stories.

If this book sounds like a confusing mess, let me assure you that it isn’t. The chapters about the Reader are almost all charming or funny or wise—or all three. The Reader encounters another reader, Ludmilla, who reads for sheer pleasure, despite the scorn of her more analytical sister. There are academics getting into disputes over obscure languages and translations. False translations under the name of a popular author make their way into the text. A publishing employee finds it impossible to think of the books he sees being born and dying each day as the true books. Oppressive governments try to ban questionable literature. Everywhere there is some sort of barrier to pure reading. Lots of people are interested in books, but how many are interested in reading? I nodded and laughed in recognition more times than I could count—my book is a mess of underlines and dog-eared pages!

Here’s a passage I particularly liked, when Ludmilla explains why she won’t go to the publisher to find the endings to all these books:

There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want. This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers. Of course, readers are also growing more numerous, but it would seem that those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books and nothing else. I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for a few minutes.

This reminded me of the many conversations among bloggers about our relationships with the publishing industry and whether those relationships lead us to lose our pleasure in reading. I don’t necessarily think the line is as clear as Ludmilla claims, but it’s a feeling I can relate to, just as I could laugh at the satirical depictions of those who analyze literature without bothering to enjoy it without necessarily thinking the analysis and enjoyment are mutually exclusive.

The chapters about the Reader were almost pure pleasure. Toward the middle, when Calvino abandons the focus on the Reader and offers instead an author’s diary and some bits focused on Ludmilla, I thought the narrative was getting unnecessarily murky and lost a lot of his charm. It was, perhaps, turning into too much of a proper story, with actual characters who have inner lives and motivations. Overall, though, the book seems more like a parable, with each character representing a type and thus not needing all that dimensionality I’d normally demand. Here, it’s a distraction, and I wanted none of it.

As for the 10 opening chapters that alternate with the tale of the Reader, they did show signs of depth and full-blooded characters that we just didn’t have time to get to know. Each chapter is different from the others, and several felt like the beginnings of very good novels that I’d want to finish. A couple of times, I just about forgot that this was just an opening chapter and was taken aback by the sudden ending. A few of the books probably wouldn’t have made it past the opening audition—one in particular would face an uphill battle to convince me that it wasn’t a particularly unsettling piece of erotica. However, with most of the chapters coming in at 15 pages or fewer, I didn’t have time to get annoyed by the less pleasing chapters but just enough time to want a little more.

Jenny read this back in 2008, and her review contains some more particularly good quotes, so do go take a look. The book is extremely quotable, and I could have shared dozens more! This was also one of the books from the list Jenny gave me to read this year. If you haven’t read it yet (and I know many of you have), perhaps you’ll add it to yours?

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18 Responses to If on a winter’s night a traveler

  1. Jenny says:

    It’s soooooort of on my list. I’m aware of its existence but haven’t been sure if it’s the book for me. I am interested in metafiction and experimental fiction but have lots of problems, lots and lots and LOTS of problems, with books in translation. Hence my ambivalence. But if you and Proper Jenny both loved it, that’s a pretty strong recommendation.

    • Teresa says:

      I really wonder what you’d think of it, Jenny. It’s filled with beginnings that don’t have an ending!

      And I know you have issues with translations, but you’ve liked some of them, right? Didn’t you like The Exception?

  2. Jenny says:

    I’m so pleased you liked this as much as I did! I’ve read three other things by Calvino now, and all of them are completely different from each other and all of them are sheer genius. I’ll pretty much follow him anywhere now.

  3. Sara says:

    This is one that hasn’t really been on my radar much. I’d heard of it but only vaguely – until now. Your commentary is excellent and compelling and will have me seeking this one out before you know it. Thanks! As for the opening metaphor, besides the obvious “consummation” element, I get a sense of a dog who sniffs, paws, and circles his bed before settling down into it for a nice, comfortable spell. You can’t just jump into these things!

  4. Stefanie says:

    Isn’t this a wonderfully fun book? Calvino was not only a good writer but obviously a huge bookworm too.

  5. Simon T says:

    I bought this a while ago, but for some reason had thought it was a more recent novel. I’m excited about it filling a gap on A Century of Books! I do love writers to be experimental sometimes (although sometimes I hate it too) – I will definitely give Calvino a go, and decide!

    By the by – and I’ll search in a minute to find out – have you read any Milan Kundera? Based on this review, I think you might enjoy Immortality.

    • Teresa says:

      Glad to help you fill a gap, and I’ll be really interested to learn what you think. I can imagine you really liking parts of it, but I wonder about the whole.

      And I haven’t read any Kundera at all, but I’ll look into Immortality. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Matthew says:

    This novel has remained one of the most peculiar I’ve ever read. I’m especially thrilled by the Reader chapters. It actually took me a while to realize that the chapters are beginnings of different books and thus there are no endings! Time for a re-read! :)

    • Teresa says:

      It’s probably one of the most peculiar books anyone has read.

      I’d read somewhere ahead of time that it was all first chapters, so I knew all along, but I can see how, especially early in the book, it might seem like eventually some endings will turn up.

  7. boardinginmyforties says:

    Sounds like a completely unique read.

  8. rebeccareid says:

    I’ve been afraid of this book but sounds like a journey I should at least attempt. You’ve just about convinced me.

    • Teresa says:

      Even if the book as a whole doesn’t work for you. I think you’d get a kick out of the first chapter–most bookish people would. It would be worth the library checkout just for that.

  9. Marchese says:

    Just got here because of this book. I learned of this book today because one of my patients has an essay on it due tomorrow but hasn’t been able to finish the book. She understandably can’t stand this book.
    So I found a copy of it online and read through the first few pages. My favorite thing about it thus far is that I have never read another book like it and it made my head spin a bit. Additionally I have written something that reminds me of this book in which I begin with two people in bed who are having a conversation. Part way through the conversation one of the characters casually mentions that they are in a book and the other person kind of freaks out etc etc etc.

    Anyhow, I like the book and i like this site. Thanks for letting me ramble.

  10. Pingback: Book Review - IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELLER by Italo Calvino - Booklover Book Reviews

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