Book Review – If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

if on a winter's night a traveler

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino is not just one novel, but several. Told in the second-person, the frame narrative tells the story of an unnamed Reader who buys a new book, If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, only to find that there was a binding issue printing the book and after the first 32 pages the same chapter is repeated throughout, leaving him unable to continue reading after a moment of suspense in the story. Trying to find a complete version of this initial novel he is mistakenly given a completely different novel by another author, which he resigns to read anyway. This too stops short at a moment of suspense, leading him further down a madcap pursuit of novels that he simply wants to finish reading.

Initially I mistook this novel’s second-person perspective as breaking the fourth wall, a disorienting effect the first chapter had that I’m sure was intentional. The blurred line between the protagonist and the actual reader is maintained throughout too. Despite this, the Reader (the only moniker given to the protagonist) became a surprisingly distinct character in my mind. This was most well defined by his romantic pursuit of Ludmilla, another reader who also purchased a botched copy of the same book. The Reader sees the bizarre circumstance as a great way to break the ice with her and their pursuit of getting the whole story as a reason to keep in touch. Their shared love of literature is not shallow however, and while the Reader’s legitimate interest in finishing these stories seems based on a pure love for reading, Ludmilla has a lot of refined feelings about books, authors, and a reader’s relationship with them, though at her core she simply loves reading as well.

It’s subjects like these that the frame narrative actually dwells upon the most, as the Reader’s journey takes him from bookstores, to university departments, all the way to libraries of banned books in foreign countries. Each location introduces a new angle to novel production, creation, replication, and/or interpretation, expounding upon them in fascinating ways. The plot, such as it is, really serves as a vehicle for the book to explore these ideas. One of my favourites came from Ludmilla herself, who refuses to meet authors because of how it can taint her relationship with their book as a reader. We form an impression of who the author is, however consciously, when reading their books and confronting the real thing can corrupt that. It’s something I hadn’t considered before but immediately recognized in myself. Another theme frequently brought up is the more pondering notion of where stories exist during or before being concretely written down.

It’s a more figurative notion to be sure, but one the novel is deeply intent on exploring. Like I said in the opening, this is not one novel, but several. The chapters alternate between the frame narrative and whatever the Reader is newly reading, and each is its own unique story, with perhaps some vague connecting themes or content to those that came before it, but otherwise completely standalone. Just as the Reader, we are made to become invested in new characters, settings, and plot lines, only to be left at a moment of suspense with no hope of satisfaction. I understand this is something that will likely polarize people, but the effect is really fascinating and ties into that idea of where stories “exist.” In each case I believe in the characters, the world, and their plights yet there is no continuation for these constructs of the written word. All the same, I feel more like something has been obscured from me, rather than the simple truth that there isn’t any more. I know there isn’t anything more, but I believe there is.

For all its philosophical waxing on literature and the people who create books, the novel has fun with its premise too. The Reader’s hapless journey is written with an obviously humorous bent, not taking the unlikely and even ridiculous events that unfold too seriously. This contrasts well with the excerpts of novels he/we read too, which are typically of a much more serious nature. While I continue to wrack my brain about this book, as the academic in me feels like there’s much to unpack, I find it amusing that the book doesn’t seem to think highly of that attitude either. Lotaria, Ludmilla’s sister, is much deeper into literary analysis, and her examinations of books came across like dissecting a frog: you may learn a lot, but the frog dies. Taking a leaf from that, one should perhaps not try to explicate too much from this book and simply experience it for what it is.

Closing Thoughts

If on a winter’s night a traveler is a brilliant novel in a lot of ways and all those who appreciate literature and reading should give it a look. However, I would be remiss to leave out a small part of my experience with it. Namely, I found the book kind of exhausting. It’s only 260 pages long, yet it took me longer than it ought to have because I had trouble feeling motivated to pick it up sometimes. Knowing that every other chapter was going to ostensibly be a new novel with a new writing style (a great achievement for a single author to have done, to be sure), I couldn’t help finding the reading process taxing, despite my positive feelings about it. I’m ultimately very pleased with having read the book, but your mileage may vary with this structure and I can hardly blame anyone. It’s excellent, but very eccentric.

My Rating: 4 out of 5

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