winterfeature

On Our Bookshelves:
If on a winter’s night a traveler

NOVEL: If on a winter’s night a traveler

AUTHOR: Italo Calvino

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1979

REVIEW:

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES:

A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan

Bunker Hill, Nathan Philbrick

Burmese Days, George Orwell

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Envious Casca, Georgette Heyer

Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Gowanus Waters, Steven Hirsch

Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin

I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

Longbourn, Jo Baker

Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut

My Life in France, Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson

Out of the Blackout, Robert Bernard

Plotted: A Literary Atlas, Andrew DeGraff

Possession, A.S. Byatt

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and Other Modern Verse, Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rose Madder, Stephen King

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Ed., Lewis Carroll & Martin Gardner (with original illustrations by John Tenniel)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

The Dancer of Izu, Kawabata Yasunari

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The Martian, Andy Weir

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah

The Mother & Child Project, Hope Through Healing Hands (ed.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, Saki

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

What If?, Randall Munroe

Up At the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham

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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 laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image Courtesy of Everett Historical