Title: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Goodreads)
Author: Italo Calvino
Translator: William Weaver
Published: Everyman's Library, 1979
My Copy: Library Book
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an experimental classic that follows two protagonists, the Reader and the Other Reader. The Reader buys a fashionable new book that opens with those famous lines “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.” Thirty pages or so into the book he realises his copy is corrupt and consists of the same thing over and over again. Returning to the book store he discovers that what he thought was Calvino was a book by a Polish writer Bazakbal. Given the choice between the two he goes for the Polish book, as does the Other Reader, but his book turns out to be yet another novel by a different writer, as does the next, and the next.
Trying to write a synopsis for this book is tricky, there is no way I can do the novel justice in a paragraph. This Italian surrealist novel (1979) was translated in 1981 to critical acclaim. The novel is best known for its structure. The odd number chapters are written in second person, but you have to ask yourself is it possible to have a novel in second person. As you read along eventually the narrator “you” does something that will take the reader out of the equation and turning them into a character called You. For instance, in this novel You is male, this will rule out about 50% of the readers in one hit. This doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of this novel but is something I was deeply aware of throughout this book. There were times where I felt like the novel was in first and third person as well, so you end up with characters called You, I and He/She.
This whole book is subjective, I’m sure some people get different things out of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler than I did but that is just what makes for a great novel. I want to talk a little about post-structuralism as I believe this novel is a great example of this literary theory. Firstly you need to understand structuralism, which is a theory that states that in order to understand a piece of literature you need to understand its relationship with the bigger picture, the overarching system or structure. You need to look into its influences, the genre, narrative and any other elements that might be relevant. The problem with this is you going further and further back eventually you might lose sight of the original text. Basically this is a set of specific rules that govern literature. Post-structuralism is basically taking those rules (they often study and analyse the rules) then setting out to critique the premises. It isn’t really throwing out the rules, more demonstrating how the rules don’t always apply.
Italo Calvino doesn’t stop at narrative modes and post-structuralism, the novel explores many more literary themes; the most obvious is the use of metafiction; a book within a book. You won’t find Outside the Town of Malbork by Tazio Bazakbal on Goodreads, I’ve checked. Then you have intertextuality, pastiche, post-modernism and so on. If you are interested in exploring literary theories this novel might be a good way to experience a whole range of different concepts in one hit. I don’t know much about literary theory so I hope my understanding on these concepts have come across as accurate and I haven’t missed it completely. I would love to attend a series of lectures where this book is deconstructed and looked at in real detail; I think that would be incredibly interesting.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a dense or hard-to-read book and I’m aware that talking about literary theory might turn people off this novel but please reconsider. This book is not only devilishly clever but it is beautifully executed. I took my time with this novel because I wanted to re-read sections, write done quotes and just talk about the book to anyone that would listen. If I didn’t borrow this from the library I would have highlighted the entire books (seriously, every line is just that great). I have brought my own copy now (yes, I broke my book buying ban) and I hope to be able to re-read this again. I’m not sure if reading this with others will help but the whole experience of reading this novel is worth sharing.
I’ve heard Italo Calvino is heavily influenced by Vladimir Nabokov which makes a lot of sense to me, the writing style does feel similar, even the humour and wit. A literary labyrinth that is so masterfully executed that the novel needs to be read again and again. I won’t go into any more details as there are a few things you just need to experience. I’m jealous of anyone that gets to read this novel for the first time as that is an experience I will never have again.
I have to wonder why the Vintage classics cover of the word “Traveller” written correctly but throughout the book it is written in the American (wrong) spelling. I have to wonder if there is anything in that. I wonder if there is a reading companion to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler that you can read alongside this book (similar to Infinite Jest) to discover the brilliance of this novel. I really enjoy Post-Modern literature but there is so much that I’m probably missing.
All book lovers should experience If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, there is nothing like that feeling of pure joy when you read a beautifully clever novel. You never want it to end, that ecstasy is like a drug and you immediately want to read it again only to find that feeling is just not the same. This is a masterpiece, I know I didn’t talk much about the plot but this was so I don’t give anything away. Go read it.