NOVEL: If on a winter’s night a traveler
AUTHOR: Italo Calvino
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1979
This book, rather helpfully, begins by giving you explicit instructions on how to read it:
“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…”
As it turns out, this is very good advice, because this is not a book to be read casually, or to be picked up and put down while commuting; it rewards concentration.
It’s not for everyone; some readers are completely put off by narrative experimentation and postmodern tricks. Others might find the second person narrative just plain irritating. (I note with only the most minor annoyance that the Reader to whom the book is addressed is assumed to be male. The Other Reader is a woman.)
In any case, the plot is both simple and complicated at once: it’s the story of the Reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. He (or we) begin, promisingly enough, in a railway station; a man with a suitcase, working for a mysterious and powerful organization, has missed his contact, and is trying not to panic. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective here), the pages of the book, after this first chapter, only repeat indefinitely, due to an error at the printers, and the Reader has to go back to the bookstore for a new copy (and meet Ludmilla, the aforementioned Other Reader). The new copy doesn’t prove satisfactory, however, because it turns out to be another story entirely, unrelated to the first, and now we are in a kitchen with a young man who is about to leave home for the first time, to go off to another estate to help with a rye harvest, with mixed feelings about leaving and jealousy toward the young man coming to stay with his family in his stead. But again, after the first chapter, the book can’t be read…this time it is bound with blank pages, interrupting the story and making it impossible to follow the narrative. A call to Ludmilla and a trip to the local university is the next stop, and there a professor of languages begins to translate…yet another mistaken novel. This one has some character names in common with the second volume, but is about a gullible man in a town with a prison, an astronomical observatory, and an intriguing young woman who seems to be leading him into trouble.
The larger story here, that is, the search of the Readers for the rest of the various novels that they end up beginning, continues as new books get picked up and remain unfinished. Much as a situation comedy’s storylines get loopier in its later seasons, the mechanisms for the problems with the books get odder and more inventive. One ends up being made into an art project. The quest is thwarted by incarceration, and a paramilitary operation. The Reader learns of international conspiracies, problems at publishing houses, deliberate sabotage by a translator…and the effect of the entire wild goose chase, rather surprisingly, is more enjoyable than frustrating in the end.
Because while the story is playful, the ideas are serious. We’re asked to examine the relationship between fiction and our lives, and consider why and how we read, and what it all ultimately means.
The back of my paperback copy quotes John Updike’s review of the novel in the New Yorker: “Manages to charm and entertain the reader in the teeth of a scheme designed to frustrate all readerly expectations.”
David Mitchell was inspired by reading this one as a young man, inspired enough by the many interrupted narratives to write his own Cloud Atlas (although Mitchell managed to finish all of his stories), and I think it quite possible that Umberto Eco and Paul Auster may found some inspiration here as well. Mitchell told the Guardian in 2004, though, that “however breathtakingly inventive a book is, it is only breathtakingly inventive once.” And I’m afraid I have to agree with him that it doesn’t feel nearly as fresh on a re-read. Still. Especially if it is new to you, and if you have time and patience and attention to spare, give this one a go.
Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. But do put on a soundtrack…Sting’s album, If On a Winter’s Night, was named after this book and makes, in my opinion, a fine accompaniment.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 Whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES:
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
Lead-In Image Courtesy of Everett Historical