If on a winter’s night a traveler

IfonawintersnightatravelerIf on a winter’s night a traveler was published in 1979 in Italian by Italo Calvino.  Many consider this to be his major work.  It is the first item I have read by Calvino, though I think I have owned two other novels by him for over a decade.  I felt like reading something heady and in tradeback and not over 300 pages.  So this novel fit the bill. I bought my copy used in Charleston, SC for $3.

This is a brilliant piece of metafiction structured like an ouroboros and a matryoshka doll.  In many ways, the author presents the classic One Thousand and One Nights – Arabian Nights as a similar work.  I do see the comparison as valid, but I honestly prefer the matryoshka doll and the ouroboros as more accurate.  Not that it matters – sometimes with metafiction, there is no one, true conclusion.  I do not read a lot of metafiction because I feel that authors who set out to purposely write metafiction force the matter.  They bludgeon the reader with the fact that they are writing metafiction and desperately attempt to get the literary critics to call it metafiction.  And furthermore, I actually think the word “metafiction” is itself overused and ill-applied in many cases.

Calvino had me at the first chapter, though.  I mean, it was so witty and engaging and interesting, I knew I would finish the novel, no matter what. Generally, the whole work is about books, reading, and writing.  Wikipedia provides a decent general summation of the novel:  “The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter. The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.”   I suppose this summary is true, but it does not really give the full depth or essence to this work.  And it gets confusing trying to talk about or explain this work to someone who has not read it or is not familiar with it.

The first chapter is marvelous because it describes the Reader in a bookstore.  I love books and bookstores and well, this was a fun chapter. I thoroughly love the “list” of categories of books that the Reader encounters while moving through the bookstore. I actually returned to these pages and re-read them twice because I was so tickled by this list.  Even if you do not intend to read this novel, if you love books and buying books – you should read this first chapter.

Now, I was not too keen on the concept of the book. I am no fan of metafiction and I am not really wild about non-linear storytelling which uses chapters as breaking points between points of view, narratives, etc.  But I figured, what the heck, let’s read this thing. I mention this to point out that I sympathize with those readers who do not like the author addressing them directly.  The second chapter is actually the “novel” that I really do want to read. I really do – and it is so fitting that that is the novel that starts off the entire ouroboros of this work.  I totally understand the main character’s desire to find this novel. I want to read it, too.

I marked a number of pages/quotations down in this work.  The first was on page 93 where Reader meets Other Reader and she encourages him to go to the publisher to sort the matter out. She won’t go and explains it this way:

There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. . . . Of course, readers are also growing more numerous, but it would seem that those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books and nothing else.  I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by change, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for a few minutes.

There are lots of things in this quote to pull out and babble about. Briefly, I love the concept of the boundary. I totally agree with the assessment of there being an increase in making books to make more books. And I am interested in the concept of the pure reader – reading as its own telos.

Further on in the novel is a marvelous chapter. As happened several times in my reading of this book, I would start a chapter and feel it was not very good and then Calvino would do something brilliant and I would be wow-ed by what he did with what seemed to be a mundane and distracted chapter. One such chapter is “Chapter 8” wherein we hang out with Silas Flannery.  I could not help but adore the distinctions being made between tormented writer and productive writer.

The greatest desire of the tormented writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading.  He starts writing a novel as he thinks the productive writer would write it.  Meanwhile the greatest desire of the productive writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading; he starts writing a novel as he thinks the tormented writer would write it.

This is a fantastic concept and distinction Calvino is playing with here. I feel like I encounter this a lot – with would-be writers and people trying to get published, et al.   To some readers, this chapter will seem repetitive and tedious – but astute readers will “get it” and love it, I think.  Also, this chapter really exemplifies what reading this book is like.  It can be hard work.  Calvino drags you up a metaphorical mountain of concepts and ideas and narrative, and it is really tiring at points and it seems to be boring and uninteresting and then the whole thing explodes atmospherically.  At least, this is what I experienced reading this novel.  That sounds a bit strange, I am sure.  I guess, in more stoic terms:  Calvino explores the concepts of reading and writing in a relentless and almost over-complexifying way. And he does not cease until the reader is actually ruminating on the same concepts as well.  Brilliant tactician? Or maybe obnoxious intellectual. I think the former.

Therefore on page 181, is Calvino writing of himself through Silas Flannery’s thoughts?

Why not admit that my dissatisfaction reveals an excessive ambition, perhaps a megalomaniac delirium? For the writer who wants to annul himself in order to give voice to what is outside him, two paths open:  either write a book that could be the unique book, that exhausts the whole in its pages; or write all books, to pursue the whole through its partial images.  The unique book, which contains the whole, could only be the sacred text, the total word revealed.  But I do not believe totality can be contained in language; my problem is what remains outside, the unwritten, the unwritable. The only way left me is that of writing all books, writing the books of all possible authors.

Finally, in the last chapter, the Reader is at the library where at least five other “readers” are sharing their thoughts on reading.  The one that I liked is the first.  Maybe because I most identify with them – though not universally at all times with all books, of course.  It just resonated with me:

“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful for me.  If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue ot the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it.  The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages.  But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”

Mainly, I feel like this reader does only when I am reading a good book. A great book. An excellent book. In my case, Oblomov and The Violent Bear it Away. And a few other novels affect me in this manner. And I consider them massive and important and excellent. And I only need to read a few pages to know that I will be sent off on musings and contemplations. And maybe, most days, this Calvino book, too.

As a final aside, I did not like the chapter “On the Carpet of leaves illuminated by the Moon” or “Around an Empty Grave.”  These two chapters are slightly less vital and really somewhat unappealing.  However, the rest of the book is quite worthy of reading.

5 stars


  1. You might enjoy his most intriguing book in my opinion — Invisible Cities. A discussion between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan is the frame story (very loose on “story”). Marco Polo tells Khan about all the cities he’s seen. And the cities are short AMAZING allegories about philosophical themes. Gorgeous to boot.

    1. Thanks for the rec. I jumped directly into one of the other books by Calvino that I own “The Nonexistent Knight & The Cloven Viscount.” I shall begin the hunt for “Invisible Cities.” You said “amazing allegories” and “philosophical themes,” so you are a good salesman.

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