‘If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino – Advanced Calvino

 

‘If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino (1979) – 253 pages        Translated from the Italian by William Weaver

 

The best description of ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’ is provided by Italo Calvino himself within the novel itself:

I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning….He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged….

I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader….I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary….”

So here we have the first chapters of ten separate novels, each with its own separate characters and situations. This is the challenge that Italo Calvino has set for himself, switching the narrative ten times while somehow maintaining the readers’ interest

This is the kind of ridiculous challenge the members of the avant-garde literary group OULIPO, which included Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among others, would set for themselves.

Each chapter starts out with a section where You the Reader is the main character who is just trying to find a good novel to read but keeps getting interrupted after the first chapter for some technical or ridiculous reason and must start again still another novel on the first chapter. Along the way You the Reader meet the female Other Reader Ludmilla to whom you are strongly attracted.

Then each chapter winds up with the first chapter of one of the ten different novels that You the Reader begins.

It took me a long while to warm up to ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’. Why would I want to read the first chapters of ten different novels, each with its own separate characters and plots? I longed for the simple playfulness of Calvino’s early work like his Our Ancestors trilogy (‘The Cloven Viscount’, ‘The Baron in the Trees’, and ‘The Nonexistent Knight’) or of the stories in his whimsical ‘Cosmicomics’ series. My first impression was that “If on a Winter’s Night…” was way too cluttered and convoluted for its own good.

The plot, as well as the humor, of “If on a Winter’s Night…” is more convoluted, more difficult to follow, than in his earlier novels.

It is complicated tying all these first chapters of ten novels together, and Calvino makes it as far-fetched as possible. That is part of the fun, but this work lacks the simple playfulness of many of his earlier novels.

In each of the ten first chapters of novels, the reader must cut through a thicket of obscure references to get to Calvino being his usual playful self. It is hard work to read this novel, harder than it ought to be.

By all means read Italo Calvino because he is one of the best, but start with something else other than “If on a Winter’s Night…”.

‘If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler’ is not for beginners to Italo Calvino. People new to Calvino should start with the ones I mentioned above and fall in love with his playful writing right away as they are most likely to do.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

7 responses to this post.

  1. Since I’ve never read anything by Calvino (he’s been on my list for several years now) I appreciate the suggestions about where to start!

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    • Hi Janakay.
      Yes,I found ‘‘’The Cloven Viscount’, ‘The Baron in the Trees’, ‘The Nonexistent Knight’, and Cosmicomics very easy to like, ‘If on a Winter’s Night’ not so much.

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  2. My London book group read this many years ago and it was collectively hated by us all. We are composed of adventurous readers, male and female, from diverse backgrounds, and this was the book that truly united us. Lol. (The only other book with the same effect was Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip 🤷🏻‍♀️)

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    • Hi Kim,
      I haven’t read ‘Monkey Grip’ but I definitely did like Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’.

      ‘If on a Winter’s Night…’ reminded me of ‘Life: A Users’ Manual’ by Georges Perec. Both Calvino and Perec were members of OULIPO and both came up with these restrictions they placed on themselves in writing a novel. This was to spur their creativity, but it also made for some complicated reading.
      I guess I feel that the thing I always liked about Calvino was that you didn’t have to work too hard to enjoy his writing, and that was missing from ‘If on a Winter’s Night’.

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  3. Oh, but this one is, so far, the only Calvino I’ve read and I love it!

    If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

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    • Hi Lisa,
      After reading your review, I can partly see your point that “If on a Winter’s Night…’ is playfully confusing rather than stressfully confusing.
      However you also mention ideal conditions for reading, and I only find ideal conditions for reading quite rarely, and it is during those non-ideal times that the confusion did become stressful.

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      • Yes, and I see from other comments that your response is not uncommon, confirming that I do have odd taste in books!
        I remember very clearly that I was in a café when I started reading it, I’d just bought it in the bookshop and was having coffee afterwards. And I was baffled, I thought the publisher had accidentally printed some bits twice because the same thing was happening again. I started it again three or four times on the train coming home, and then at home I just gave in to what seemed like its messiness, and enjoyed it.
        You are dead right about needing ideal conditions for reading. There are books that I can read in bed as I drift off to sleep, and there are books that demand peace and quiet and a clear head with time to reflect in between reading sessions. That time was harder to find when I was working; it’s easier to find during Lockdown but I am less in the mood for challenging books at the moment…

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