Italo Calvino: If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller

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.

If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino Cover

Warning – contains spoilers. But for this book the journey is more important than the destination.

Why I read it

I’ve just finished a creative writing subject at uni – a stand-alone affair, to try and break the crust of my brain. For my final assignment I wrote a metafictional story in the second person. Yes, I was that student. My story disappeared right up its own arse in a full kleinbottling contortion. The lecturer’s eyes probably rolled so far back into his head that he had to have his contact lenses removed, but whatevs.

Parts of my story paid a transparent homage to If on a winter’s night a travel(l)er, which at one time in my life I thought was the objectively greatest book of all time (with disastrous results when I suggested my mum choose it for her book club’s next novel). It’s cited in pretty much every creative writing guide that has a section on either metafiction or second person narrative mode. If I had to sell all my books this might be the one I’d keep.

Anyway, after I’d submitted my assignment I realised it’d actually been so long since I’d read this, my ostensibly favourite book in the world, that I’d forgotten how it ends. So I set aside time after the little fella went to bed and read it over a few days.

Interestingly, I think the reason I came across it in the first place might have been because it was on a recommended reading list the first time I attempted to study creative writing at uni, about twenty goddam years ago now.

What it’s about

This is a book about the joy of reading, and the relationship between readers and authors.

The plot: You, the Reader, are about to start If on a winter’s night a traveler. The first chapter is good (it’s about a mysterious figure in a train station who has missed a clandestine dropoff and fears for his safety), but there is a flaw in the book’s printing and the rest is missing. Back you go to the shop, where you meet Ludmilla, the Other Reader, who has the same problem. You both learn from the shop assistant that the publisher’s error is bigger than you thought: the first chapter you read wasn’t even the Calvino novel, but a Polish novel called Outside the town of Malbork that was mistakenly bound into the wrong cover.

Taking home a replacement copy of that novel, you start reading again, eager to pick up where you left off. However, you quickly realise that this novel has nothing to do at all with the one you started before! No matter, you are drawn in to its first chapter, before a different problem means you can’t continue. You and Ludmilla are off on a new chase to find the continuation, again…

This goes on for ten separate books, all by different ‘authors’ of different nationalities, all interrupted in different ways after the first chapter (confiscated by police, stolen, lost by the publisher, only partly translated, only partly finished, torn in sections and distributed between study groups, etc).

Between each book chapter is a numbered interstitial section describing your, the Reader’s, adventures in trying to continue your book. This is an adventure that takes you around the world, hot on the heels of a mischievous anarchist translator (always written about in the third person), the Other Reader (who sometimes takes the second person title away from you), and a prolific writer (who, for one section, is the first person ‘I’ as he writes in his journal).

Bits that are as good as I remembered

That opening sub-chapter and its fourth wall breaking was exhilarating to me when I first read it, and I remember that feeling on re-reading. Most of the ‘book chapters’ are self-referential to different degrees, too. The first one starts: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” Others are more subtle, like a chapter of a translated novel commenting on the nature of reading in translation. Calvino is no one-trick pony. He has every metaflavour of every metapony and they are all in this zoo together.

The diaries of author Silas Flannery are another highlight. He interacts with all the other main characters in the novel (including ‘you’), and his gradual musings on writing lead him to plan the very novel you are now reading.

Bits that aren’t as good as I remembered

One: the frustration that sets in around section 5 or 6 as anarchist translator Marana’s plot gets more and more complex. Or perhaps that is actually a feature and not a bug.

Two: The sexism of every female character being explicitly there as a plot device to keep the (male) ‘you’ interested in keeping reading. Also how often they get sexually assaulted – yes, by ‘you’ the Reader, and ‘I’ the author too. And you marry her at the end (!)

Three: The constant question of whether the sometimes very verbose, heavy philosophical language might be a translator’s problem rather than an author’s one.

Bonus content

Calvino was a member of the experimental writing group Oulipo and has used interesting constraints for other books of his, such as the chapter structure of Mr Palomar, revealed at the end of the book, that moves the subject matter from the concrete to the abstract in tightly nested groups of three.

So it’s no surprise that some casual internet searching revealed some things for me about If on a winter’s night that I didn’t know before, like this crazy bifurcating schematic he made of his chapter themes, or this series of little square diagrams that summarise the plot, or the hint of Calvino’s (at the end of the last link) that each chapter was written according to certain Oulipan constraints, as yet unrevealed. (Are they preserved by the translator, I wonder?)

There’s also this interesting blog post that makes a case for how Calvino takes us on a tour of critical theory – that “each segment presents a different mode of reading a text and theory behind the relationship between writer and reader”, from Aristotle through hermeneutics, New Criticism, structuralism and deconstructionalism to postmodernism.

Speaking of deconstruction, here is a beautiful design project that thoroughly takes apart If on a winter’s night into component atoms of dubious meaningfulness. And here are two other designer works that turn the physical book into sculptural objects emphasising the book-within-a-book form.

My own notes, to try and clarify the structure and repeating elements
This book was partly read on the balcony

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