If on a winter’s night a traveler

August 26, 2009

winters night Plot summary (with spoilers): This is an ambitious novel that seeks to experiment with a lot of different literary devices. On one hand, If on a winter’s night a traveler is an ode to reading, as one of the main characters, indeed, is called Reader. Author Italo Calvino describes the pure pleasure one receives from sitting down with a new book, that jolt of anticipation one gets when delving into a story for the first time. On the other hand, this novel also serves as a lampoon of the publishing industry, as evidenced by the 10 partial stories that break off just as they’re getting interesting — all due to binding and printing errors.

The basic structure of If on a winter’s night a traveler is truly unique. In the author’s own words, from one of the chapters, here is what he basically set out to do:

I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of the beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning…. He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged….

I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader… I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary….

And that’s precisely what the reader (small “r”) gets: 10 partial stories all in different styles, alternating with the continuing story of the Reader and Other Reader (Ludmilla).

Liked:

  • Once I figured out what was going on in this novel, I was able to enjoy it a bit more. It took a while to get into it, though.
  • I liked that all the titles of the partial stories can be pieced together to make a single introductory paragraph of a novel that sounds as though it could be interesting: “If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave — What story down there awaits its end? — he asks, anxious to hear the story.”

Disliked:

  • This novel came off as rather gimmicky, to be honest. I mean, I know Italo Calvino is a highly respected literary figure and many scholars have praised this title to the skies, but “gimmicky” is the word that leaps to my mind. Could this book have been published by someone without Calvino’s pedigree? I doubt it. And if so, would it have received the same accolades? Again, I doubt it.
  • The novelty of the conceit — writing 10 partial stories that end at the most interesting point — wore off rather quickly, making the book dull and repetitive. Moreover, the Reader/Ludmilla story made absolutely zero sense to me, probably because I had trouble keeping track of whatever the hell they were up to the whole time.

Rating:
I know some people will claim I have the attention span of a 5-year-old or something, and blame my intellectual shortcomings for not being able to see the genius in If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, but whatever. I thought this was one of the most tedious and pretentious books I’ve ever read. Granted, I’m no scholar; I’m just an average reader who likes to be entertained by the books I read. In that respect, Calvino came up short here. I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

5 Responses to “If on a winter’s night a traveler”

  1. fervent reader – i fervently disagree with your rating! i just finished this book last night and truly loved it. Granted, it’s not the most captivating book ever – i’ll give you that. but its sincerity of tone, its comedic confusion, its satire raise wonderful questions about the nature of art and the artist. I really enjoyed the segment when Silas O’Conner is confronted by the group of alien watchers who say they’re expecting the aliens to speak through the author, and he rejects the idea that he is merely a medium through which the story can be told.

    i appreciate the organization of your article. i’ll definitely be stopping by more often.

  2. Thanks for your input, Elliot. I know this book is beloved by many, but it simply wasn’t for me.

  3. Julie — thank you so much for writing this. I am leading book club next week for this book (my selection!) and I . Do. Not. Get. It. Oh my goodness, it is a tedious read. I agree, this book would have never been published without Calvino’s name. Thank you, thank you!

  4. Kelli — yeah, it’s always hard to say I dislike a “classic” because it makes me feel like I have some intellectual deficiency that prevents me from seeing the “genius” in a particular work 😉 . So your comment is definitely appreciated, as it shows that I’m not alone here!

  5. I completely agree. I was tempted to leave it unfinished, but I kept going. Thanks for the review.

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