‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ by Italo Calvino

If-on-a-winters-night-a-traveler-2

Fiction – hardcover; Everyman’s Library; 304 pages; 1993. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler was Italian author Italo Calvino’s much lauded 16th novel. A rather clever, knowing book, it pokes fun at reading, writing and publishing. From its opening passage, I suspected it was going to be a rather enjoyable read:

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. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

But sadly, I found this book so clever as to be pretentious, and so contrived as to be patronising. Most of all I just found reading it an incredibly frustrating experience.

The nub of the novel, which was first published in 1979, is this: a reader tries to read Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler but discovers that the book is faulty. He takes it back to the shop for a replacement, only to discover the replacement book is also faulty. And therein lies the pattern: in alternate chapters we follow the reader’s adventures as he tries to  track down a perfect copy of the book. This is interspersed with the actual text of the books he acquires, none of which turn out to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

Confused yet? I found it excruciatingly perplexing in places, particularly as the reader’s side of the story is told in the second person, so the “you” feels like it is being addressed to you personally, even though it becomes increasingly clear that that is not the case. It gets worse when characters associated with the reader, including the enigmatic Ludmilla who also bought a defective copy of the book, cross-over so that they also appear in the text the reader is reading, blurring the lines between the reader’s life and the fiction he reads.

Essentially, this is the type of novel that just gets your brain in a complete muddle. And while I’m not averse to this kind of post-modernist technique, where the author also appears as a character (think Paul Auster or J.M. Coetzee), and where different literary styles and genres are “sampled” in the one novel (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), I found If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler rather exasperating.

It doesn’t help that the alternate chapters of the book, which are presented as opening chapters of what is supposed to be Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (but never are), is that they all end abruptly at a climatic moment, so you are left dangling and never find out what happens next. This happens 10 times. (At one point Calvino compares sex to reading, so perhaps these abrupt endings are his idea of a joke about failing to climax.)

Each of these 10 chapters are written in a different style or genre, so Calvino gets to show off his ability to write a satire, a romance, a thriller and so on. But unfortunately each chapter does not feel sufficiently different to the one that precedes it, so the “trick” failed to truly work.

The saving grace, for me anyway, is the illuminating insights and ideas Calvino presents about the intertwined and ever-changing relationships that authors and readers have with books. He makes it clear that every author is looking for the perfect reader, and every reader is looking for the perfect book. He makes other statements about different readers wanting different things from books, and that every time we read a book we bring with it our own prejudices based on our life experience. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that our enjoyment of reading a book can be influenced by something as inconsequential as to where we are sitting (or lying) when we read it and what is going on in our personal lives at the time.

While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas, his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me. The elegant prose and the courageous experimentation (with its nod to James Joyce), couldn’t make up for its lack of narrative drive, detailed descriptions and rich characterisation. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is one of those books that takes you right out of your comfort zone; it’s intelligent, a little bit witty, a little bit cynical but ultimately it’s too emotionally shallow to offer any real insight into the human condition.

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28 thoughts on “‘If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler’ by Italo Calvino

  1. Have you read Saramago’s Blindness? Not the same kind of ‘preciousness’ as If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler, but written SO annoyingly, eschewing quotes and with several characters all talking within the same paragraph – it was like Henry James (who IS worth the effort) crossed with the Martin Amis of Time’s Arrow. I haven’t actually read IOaWNaT (we were supposed to do it in Contemporary Lit but it was out of print at the time), but certainly agree that our psychic and physical environment DO influence our enjoyment and appreciation of what we’re reading. I may give it a try – although I know I’ve attempted other Calvinos and haven’t got far with them.

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  2. I am really glad you didn’t like this book because it makes me feel less terrible for also not finding it brilliant! 😀 I tried to read it several times and while I enjoyed that opening segment, I found it increasingly alienating as each section of the book was revealed only to stop midway through. It was really frustrating to me… A book full of beginnings is not really my idea of a fun/great read.

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  3. I enjoyed your review of this book. I tried twice to read it and could not make heads or tails of it. I found it more annoying than clever. I’m glad to know that someone else was not impressed by it. Everyone I know gushes over this book and I still don’t see why. Thanks for an honest and revealing review.

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  4. I came to this book with high expectations earlier this year and also found it wanting. It is clever, but to what end? I came away disappointed too.

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  5. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to book group yesterday as I really wanted to discuss this novel. I too found this a really difficult read and probably would have taken much, much longer to finish it if I wasn’t under a deadline! It was just too clever, wasn’t it?

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  6. Brilliantly said Kim. I know I didn’t finish it so I cant really say much but a book hasnt annoyed me like this in quite some time I have to say… as I told you I threw the book across the room I got so cross, I have never done that with a book before, though I might have wanted to.

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  7. Admit it, Kim, LOL, that supercilious guy smirking on the front cover put you off LOL!
    An excellent review, and it makes me want to pick up my copy of this that I started last year, just to see if I have the same experience! (Glutton for punishment, that’s me).

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  8. Oh dear…perhaps because I read this without any expectations after stumbling upon it by chance a few years ago, I really enjoyed this.
    I don’t think having to work at understanding a narrative is always a bad thing. I think the yearning Calvino created to read the rest of his stories is a delibrate part of his comment on reading and writing, and the way he tied it all together worked for me. I found If on a Winter’s Night a charming, funny, occassionally frustrating but ultimately rewarding read. Obviously I’m not in the majority of commenters here, but I hope anyone who hasn’t read it won’t write it off before trying it themselves.

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  9. Add me to the list of disappointed readers of this book. The 10 chapters of book openings are clever, but I don’t think that is really that much of an accomplishment. My frustration was with the other chapters — I don’t mind entering a world of bizarre confusion (your examples are quite appropriate) but I would like at least some thread developed to reward the experience. I couldn’t find any.

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  10. I saw this at the library yesterday and nearly picked it up. But, after reading your review I am very glad I didn’t. You just saved me a week of struggling with a book! 🙂

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  11. I tried to read Blindness a few years ago but abandoned it about 40 pages in because I couldn’t stand the lack of punctuation! I expect I’ll re-try it at some point, because so many people tell me it’s a wonderful read, but I guess I just need to be a bit more relaxed about missing full stops, commas and quotation marks!

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  12. Alienating is a good way of describing this book, Steph. And I think somewhere in it, Calvino states that a book full of beginnings isn’t a fun read, so he knew *exactly* what he was doing and how much it was going to annoy the reader!

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  13. There were a couple of people in our book group who had read this book before. Interestingly, they enjoyed it first time round, but less so the second time. I’m afraid that reading it once was more than enough for me! 😉

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  14. I had high expectations, too, Trevor, and was particularly enamoured of the first chapter because it really appealed to the reader in me. But the more I progressed, the more I kept thinking WTF, and by the mid-way point I was just sick of the whole thing.

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  15. It was an interesting discussion, Sakura, if only because we all hated it, had a good bitch about it and then went for beers! Shortest book group meeting ever!
    And I agree — I would never have finished this without a deadline.

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  16. Hehehe… Fortunately I always take dustjackets off when I read hardcovers, so I didn’t have to worry about him smirking at me.
    Ten bucks you hate this one! 😉

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  17. Sarah, I love books that make me think and make me have to join the dots etc (one of the reasons why I love Jennifer Johnston so much — she doesn’t explain a thing), but I just found this one too clever, for the sake of being clever. And cos I’m an old cynic it just didn’t wash. A couple of people in our group read it when they were much younger and said they enjoyed it upon first reading, so I wonder if it’s just one of those books you need to be a certain age to be impressed by??
    Oh, and I agree, I hope my review hasn’t put people off giving the book a try for themselves. I think negative reviews are good for discussion, but I often read books that haven’t been received favourably if only to see if I agree. I’m still blaming Dave Hepworth from Word magazine for writing such a dire review of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code for making me go out and read the book for myself. 😉

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  18. At one point in this book Calvino actually says that it’s very easy to write beginnings of books, but much more difficult to give them a middle and a satisfying conclusion! What a cheeky monkey he was. (I’m being polite.)

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  19. Oh dear! Here was me thinking there was something wrong with me as a reader for not “getting” it.
    I liked its ambition and how it railed against the conventional beginning, middle and end of a novel but ten false beginnings does not an enjoyable book make.

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  20. Ok, NOT tempting! It sounds like the kind of thing Milan Kundera does much better, and not so self-indulgently. I do like a bit of postmodernism, but not this much… it’s all about finding the line between experimental and enjoyable, isn’t it?

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  21. I enjoyed invisble cites ,have this penned in for Jan as pas=rt of my Italian week ,think Calvino is a bit like perec were the cleverness can over take the book slightly ,all the best stu

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  22. Personally, I don’t find If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler pretentious, since I believe that Calvino’s intention was to intentionally expose the nature of readings and writings in their varying forms. However, you explain your argument very effectively. While I respectfully disagree with your take, I very much enjoy seeing this alternate view.
    I know this is a pretty late reply on an older post, but I just stumbled upon this site. I look forward to being a regular reader, and I plan on making my way through the available reviews. The depth of this site is very impressive. I tip my cap.

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  23. Thanks, Jamie. I do think this is one of those books you either love or hate. And you know which camp I fall into! Hehehe.
    Oh, and welcome to Reading Matters. Glad you’ve enjoyed what you’ve found so far. Stay away from the really early reviews. They’re not very good. This site has been very much a work in progress over the past 8 or so years!

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