If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

Italo Calvino

First Sentence:    You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone who reads this opening sentence alone is going to know whether or not they’ll enjoy this book. Yes, it is forever referring to itself, and yes, the main protagonist is ‘you’. If that sounds like a nightmare, stop reading. If however, it reels you in like it did me, you’re in for an unforgettable reading experience. Not unforgettable in the sense that you’ll remember everything that goes on in this book, there are far too many subplots and diversions for that. But unforgettable in the sense that you know the impression it leaves will stay with you forever, and colour all your subsequent reading. And therein lies the problem. Well not exactly a problem, but I just get the feeling that this is a book to be read once, and once only (no bad thing in a world with an endless supply). It seems to me that the initial sense of WOW!, would be lost on a second or third reading. However, the main appeal of this book, the main reason you keep on reading in the first place is that sense you get after the first sentence; that sense of ‘ooh this is different, I wonder where he’ll go from here’. Something tells me that without that sense of  ‘ooh’, a lot of the impact would be lost. What I’m trying to say is this: read this book, it’s a hell of a journey and if you’re willing to go along with it, you won’t be disappointed. I just don’t think it is one of those books that would hold up very well when all the exterior structures and the post-modern metafiction tomfoolery is taken away. Great fun though. If you like that sort of thing…

* * * *

Last Sentence:    And you say, “Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.”

Last Sentence explained:    In this book ‘you’ buy a copy of Italo Calvino’s new novel but there is a printing error in your copy, forcing you to stop reading just as it is getting good. You take it back to the bookshop and get a replacement but this seems to be a completely different story altogether. You try to track down the original book you were reading but you end up with a third, again completely different, story. And on. And on. And on. Joining you on this quest is Ludmilla, a girl you meet in the bookshop when you return your book. You arrange to keep in touch, so you can discuss Italo Calvino’s new novel, but you both have received incorrect replacement editions etc etc. It all gets very complicated. As the author himself says:

In fact, looking in perspective at everything I am leaving out of the main narration, I see something like a forest that extends in all directions and is so thick that it doesn’t allow light to pass: a material, in other words,  much richer than what I have chosen to put in the foreground this time, so it is not impossible that the person who follows my story may feel himself a bit cheated, seeing as the stream is dispersed into so many trickles, and that of the essential events only the last echoes and reverberations arrive at him; but it is not impossible that this is the very effect I aimed at when I started narrating, or let’s say it’s a trick of the narrative art that I am trying to employ[…]

See what I mean? There’s a lot of that. In between all the stories told, is the story of you and Ludmilla and your shared reading experience. The importance of reading in this relationship is summed up quite nicely in this passage:

You have with you the book you were reading in the café, which you are eager to continue, so that you can then hand it on to her, to communicate again with her through the channel dug by others’ words, which, as they are uttered by an alien voice, by the voice of that silent nobody made of ink and typographical spacing, can become yours and hers, a language, a code between the two of you, a means to exchange signals and recognize each other.

Clearly reading itself is an important theme throughout the book:

Reading is solitude.

You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t say a great deal. So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be.

And right at the end you go to a library where several different types of readers are discussing reading. There is a reader who feels the constant need to reread. A reader who only wants to read a few pages from each book and even a reader who says “it is the incipit of the book, the first sentences” which are important (a concept Book Atlas wholeheartedly approves of). It is in this library you realise that even all the titles of the books you have been reading, when put together, form the beginning of their own story: “If on a winter’s night a traveller, 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 there awaits its end?”

I have digressed and I haven’t even explained the ending at all. Basically, you marry Ludmilla and “A great double bed receives your parallel readings.” In bed she says to turn off the light, you must be tired of reading, to which you reply…(Last Sentence). Phew!

Two more quotes for no reason:

“I sensed at once that in the perfect order of the universe a breach had opened, an irreparable rent.”

“Reader, it is time for your tempest-tossed vessel to come to port.”

(and no, I’ve no idea why ‘traveller’ has two Ls on the cover and only one inside the book)