Home > Italo Calvino, Re-readable > #2. If on a winter’s night a traveler

#2. If on a winter’s night a traveler

Without preamble, I will announce that I simply adored this book. It was an “experience.” I paused while I was reading it to scribble this in my notebook:

“This is a book that engages, enrages, frustrates. Many times I have found myself flinging the book from me when really I should like to continue reading it–I have simply reached the limit of my mental engagement at the time. There is a need for me to stop, to breathe, to shake the effects of the book from my head before beginning to read it again, several hours later. Or the next day…”

Have I gushed enough? Perhaps it is necessary to treat you to a sample of his writing. This is an extract from Calvino’s first page:

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.

This unorthodox book subjects the reader’s mind to various possible mutations of the ‘standard’ novel. In the first place, the reader (you) is the novel’s protagonist. You go to a store to purchase If on a winter’s night a traveler, and begin to read it as soon as you are able. As you read, you find yourself being pulled deeper and deeper into the story, until finally, just at the point when things are starting to get interesting, you meet your first obstacle. Your copy of the book is flawed. After page 32, it reverts to page 17, and repeats itself stupidly until the end. You are annoyed. You return to the bookstore to have the book exchanged. The store-owner apologises profusely for the mistake–it is the book company’s fault; moreover, in putting out spoiled copies of the book, they have swapped the stories of two different authors! The book you were reading is really Outside the town of Malbork by Tazio Bazakbal. The store-owner gives you the new book, which he claims is in mint condition, and in the process you meet the Other Reader, a beautiful woman facing the same predicament. You exchange phone numbers ostensibly to contact each other in case this second book is faulty as well, and go your own ways. You find later that the second book is indeed flawed, stopping at the point at which your enthusiasm for the story has peaked. You contact the Other Reader, and begin to chase after the story. The chase for this new story leads you to a third book, and then to a fourth, a fifth, and so on. The Other Reader chases along with you. Eventually the two of you fall in love with each other–another story in itself.

In total, there are ten novels contained in this book, written in ten different styles, each very rich, and each story growing ever more enticing, so that your frustration when one story is not completed is very real [I did close the book on occasion, and walk away from it to take a break], but your enjoyment of each story is still ‘real-er.’ Calvino is brilliant. Interspersed between all these stories are philosophies on life, and reading, and writing. If you’re an aspiring writer, this book will very definitely widen your mind, perhaps, even inspire you. As I said in the beginning, If on a winter’s night a traveler is not simply a book, it is very much an experience.

Five stars, of course.

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Categories: Italo Calvino, Re-readable
  1. August 24, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Wait, so the book never really ends and you have to keep buying another copy?

    Eh. I was about to ask that stupid question, then I went back and saw “the protagonist (you)” πŸ™‚

    You had me at philosophies on life, reading and writing. I’m adding this to my list.

  2. September 4, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I’m all trembly now.I want this book!! Poor poor pay cheque.

    • September 4, 2010 at 1:16 pm

      Lol! But it would be so worth it. Buy it! Buy it!

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