You are about to read a review of Italo Calvino’s classic, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Perhaps you are a first time visitor to this blog, or you’ve been a loyal follower for quite some time. Are you sitting comfortably? Maybe you are at home on your laptop while peacefully drinking coffee. Perhaps you’re using this time as a distraction from getting any actual work done. Then again, you might be genuinely interested in hearing what this reviewer actually has to say. Sit and relax for a moment. Let the words take you to another place. Please forgive this writer’s little indulgence as I was trying to mimic (quite unsuccessfully) Calvino’s distinctive style. I found this book to be quite an engaging read as the author manages to remove himself from the conversation by centering the narrative on you the reader.
I struggled for several days to begin this review. That’s not actually bad; on the contrary, it’s quite the opposite. Over the years, I’ve read books that I would instantly categorize as excellent. Others are more forgettable and end up being passed down to the used bookstore where hopefully someone will give them a second chance. Then there are those reading experiences that go completely above and beyond anything you’ve ever read before. After processing if on a winter’s night a traveler, I’ve come to realize that Italo Calvino is quite ingenious to have written the ultimate book about what it means to be a reader.
Told in the second person, this book tells the story of “You” also known as the “the Reader” and his fruitless attempts to read the latest novel by Italo Calvino called if on a winter’s night a traveler. While at the bookstore, the Reader meets a beautiful woman named Ludmilla but also referred to as “the Other Reader.” After taking the book home and beginning to read it, he is dismayed that the book is incomplete due to a printing error. Desperate to obtain the rest of the book and find out what happens next, The Reader is sent on a journey that is the ultimate comedy of errors. What he thinks is the correct copy turns out to be another book by a completely different author and it is incomplete as well. Now the Reader has two books he needs wants to finish! This struggle continues throughout with ten different books all of different literary genres.
“One reads alone, even in another’s presence.”
Each chapter of the book alternates between what is happening to the Reader with the ten various beginnings of different novels. The reading experience gets interrupted just as events were about to get interesting. Calvino points out all our idiosyncrasies as readers, such as the exhilaration when discovering a new book’s words for the first time or that painful withdrawal that comes from having your reading interrupted just when things were getting good. There’s the fact that we analyze our literary works to painstaking details almost to the sacrifice of reading just for the sheer pleasure of the act. Calvino refers to this in terms of “natural reading, innocent, primitive.”
I stopped to think about Calvino’s point for a while. As book lovers, a lot of the fun comes from being able to have these open dialogues going back and forth between particular points as we analyze each aspect of a work of fiction. I’ve attended classes. written papers, even had conversations with others tearing apart a piece of literature to examine every single cell of its composition. Our natural tendencies sometimes lean towards a closer introspection of a work. Even if I never reviewed another book again, I wouldn’t stop reading. The act itself still holds pleasure and sometimes you just have to be in the moment with a work (or a person) and just enjoy the experience.
“Today each of you is the object of the other’s reading, one reads in the other the unwritten story.”
It was definitely not lost on me that Calvino was comparing the acts of reading with lovemaking. Leave it to Calvino to make reading both an intellectual and an erotic activity. Throughout the book, there is a romance forming between Reader and Other Reader. The relationship between the two is eventually consummated in what can only be described as hot if you are a book lover. I particularly liked how Calvino described the experience as two people becoming one yet still being solitary in thought.
Despite his creative and witty style of storytelling, I did have some problems with Calvino. Although each of the ten stories belongs to a different genre, the voice of the author often sounded the same. Now on reflection I think this could either be a matter of translation or the fact that I was reading the story as if I was the main character in the book. One of Calvino’s points is that no two readers look at the same book exactly the same way. However, for me some of the stories didn’t work for me while others I actually wished did exist.
If on a winter’s night a traveler will either be a book that you come to love as a superb work of postmodernist fiction or as one that just tried way too hard. This my first experience reading a book by Italo Calvino, and I’m more than a little curious to see what else he has created. It was strange at first with the second-person narration, but it definitely got me engaged with the story. No author since Murakami has brought this much intrigue into my life. I think Ludmilla’s definition of her favorite book fits perfectly to how I see this book, with “its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves….”
If nothing else, I would encourage you to simply read the opening nine pages just for getting a really great reflection of all the little details we experience as readers. Maybe you will like that and continue to read further. The one thing I know is that your journey will be different but none the less rewarding.
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!