• The 1st U.S. Edition of If on A Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (1979 / 1981)

    If on a winter’s night a traveler (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore)

  • Author:  Italo Calvino  (1923-1985)
  • Rank:  #90
  • Published:  1979  (tr. 1981)
  • Publisher:  Secker & Warburg (Italy)  /  Harcourt Brace & Company (U.S.)
  • Pages:  259  (HB paperback)
  • First Lines:  “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.”
  • Last Line:  “And you say, ‘Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.’ “
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  none
  • Read:  Spring, 2001

The Novel: Writing a story within a story is a more dangerous artistic endeavor than making a film within a film.  Films within films are rarely very long, but we often get large glimpses of fiction within fiction.  So you have to make it compelling enough that it doesn’t throw off the reader, yet not so much more compelling than the actual novel that the reader would rather stay within the interior fiction.  When it works (The World According to Garp, The Blind Assassin), it can take the work to another level.  But what Italo Calvino does with this idea is unlike any other writer, perhaps because Calvino wasn’t like other writers.  Here, he not only takes a conceit that is difficult to do and runs away with it at sprinter’s speed, but he also manages to spend the main part of the novel writing in second person, the most irritating tense known to man, and succeeds in creating a literary classic.

So what is this novel?  Well, it’s like Calvino says himself early on: “It’s the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing what it is.”  The book consists of alternating chapters.  In the main thrust of the novel, an unnamed reader is trying to read the new Calvino novel, but discovers that a printer’s error has messed up his copy (“What you thought was a stylistic subtlety on the author’s part is simply a printers’ mistake.”) and returning the book, finds that his new copy is a completely different book.  This continues and eventually turns into a mystery over why this is going on.  The reader and Ludmilla, who has also become wrapped up in this follow a trail of conspiracies in publishing and government trying to figure out what is going on, just trying to be able to read their books.

So that’s the plot.  But the story isn’t really what the book is about.  It’s about writing itself, the way a novel treats its readers and even the way a novel can treat its author (a previous owner of my copy, which I purchased used over a decade ago wrote in pen on page 8 “what we’ve read so far is foreplay, reading is like sex”).  And so it is.  But in the alternating chapters are the books that the reader keeps trying to read (only to discover that there is no more).  “I took this dialogue as a warning to be on guard,” Calvino writes part way through.  “The world is falling apart and tries to lure me into its disintegration.”  And things can get stranger a few pages later: “I sensed at once that in the perfect order of the universe a breach had opened, an irreparable rent.”

But those are quotes from one of the stories within the story, what the reader keeps reading and being drawn into, only to discover that the rest of the book is misprinted, or the pages are blank, and the publisher has gone out of business.  For Calvino is trying to get at the very heart of writing here: “That academic envelope serves only to protect everything the story says and does not say, an inner afflatus always on the verge of being dispersed at contact with the air, the echo of a vanished knowledge revealed in the penumbra and its tacit allusions.”

I could keep quoting these passages all day, but I won’t.  Books like don’t come along that often, books that interact with the reader in a meaningful way.  Years ago, the first time I applied to Borders, they used to give a book quiz.  One question which I got wrong was who the author of If on a winter’s night a traveller was.  I wrote Pirandello, because I was thinking of Six Characters in Search of an Author.  Also by an Italian.  Also interacting with its audience.  Two writers who somehow seemed meant for each other.  Perhaps it could only happen in Italy.  Anyway, as Calvino writes near the end of the book: “Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?”  For this one really doesn’t.  Just look at the first and last line, how much they interact with each other.  There is no beginning or end, only the act of reading.  So read this one.