Sit back and take a look. Consider the text. You may think that you
are reading the marketing department’s copy for the back cover,
but in fact you are on the opening 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….” Find a comfy chair. Pour yourself a drink.
Here is an infinite regress, a literary equivalent of the two facing
mirrors. Two hundred pages into the book,
you will have gone through many drinks, but
are still waiting to get into the substance of
Calvino's story. At this point, one of the
characters describes his idea for a novel,
and it sums up Calvino’s ploy: "I have had
the idea of writing a novel composed only
of beginnings of novels. The protagonist
could be a Reader who is continually
interrupted. The Reader buys the new
novel A by Author Z. But it is a defective
copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning….
He returns to the bookshop to have the
And so on and so forth. Calvino has devised a puzzler for us, a
celebration of lectio interruptus unmatched in the annals of post-
modernism. He presents a fractured narrative in which we follow
a reader as he starts ten separate novels—in each instance, our
protagonist is unable to get past the opening pages of the book,
due to various obstacles and misadventures. Chapters of the
various incomplete books alternate with an account of the reader
trying to track down what Paul Harvey would call "the rest of the
And yes, Calvino tosses in intrigue and romance. But not your
everyday garden variety. The guys in this book have the strangest
fetish of all—they want to watch women while they are…(pause
for dramatic buildup)…reading! Revolutionaries and counter-
revolutionaries are scheming, but only to overthrow the texts.
The government and police authorities get involved too, but in this
crazy world they are little more than especially influential arbiters of
Meanwhile, the character talk…that is, when they are not reading.
But the dialogue is several steps beyond (or perhaps below) what
passes for insight at your local creative writing workshop. Calvino's
characters typically make comments such as these:
"The novel I would most like to read at this moment should have
as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon
stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you…."
"The novels that attract me most are those that create an illusion
of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure,
cruel, and perverse as possible."
"I like books where all the mysteries and the anguish pass through
a precise and cold mind, without shadows, like the mind of a
"You dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading,
Along the way, Calvino borrows almost every tried-and-true trick
from the post-modern playbook. We have our texts within texts, as
important to this style of writing as the murder weapon in a whodunit.
We have the crazy cut-and-paste juxtaposition of different prose
styles, all presented with that implied wink of the authorial eye, so
we know where to direct our applause. We have characters who—
as in so many post-modern stories—always seem to be writers
themselves, or else editors or academics or readers (there are
multiple examples of each in Calvino's novel). We wander around
in a psychological haze, closed in by a worldview that celebrates
words over deeds, sentences over actions, textuality over reality.
As I describe it, this book perhaps sounds overly conceptualized
and too self-congratulatory. Yet what ultimately distinguishes If
on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the sheer determination with
which Calvino pushes his ridiculous conceit, and the virtuosity with
which he withholds closure even while constantly celebrating its
importance to his venture. The ten opening chapters included here
cover a wide range of modes of expression, settings and attitudes,
and each one is a little gem, a self-enclosed universe where the
meta-textual games have been put aside and a rich fictive world
comes to the fore. Calvino, in this regard, reminds me of those
great British actors who pride themselves on being able to play
any role, and take on the most disparate parts in order to prove it.
But those folks eventually get knighted for their troubles. The readers
of this book are merely left benighted. Calvino gets the last laugh,
although you might just be convinced to laugh along, even if the joke
is on you.
I might go further, and claim that you won’t be able to put down
these stories until you reach the end. But that would be unfortunate,
since this is a book that only includes beginnings. A recurring loop
back to the start. But don’t let that put you off. Sit down. Take a
look. Consider the text….
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published on April 29, 2013
a website devoted to radical,
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|If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
|To purchase, click on image