853: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

by Gerard

853.914: Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. Translated by William Weaver. 260 pp. ISBN 0-15-643961-1.

Dewey Construction:

  • 800: Literature
  • 850: Italian literature
  • 853: Italian fiction
  • +914: 1945-1999

Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is probably not like any book you’ve read before. For starters, it’s in the second person. You, the Reader, are the agent of action. Second, every other chapter is the first chapter of some other book. Third, at the beginning of the book, you are told you are reading this book, and right at the end, you are told that you are nearly finished reading this book. It’s all very disconcerting and exciting at the same time.

The good thing about reviewing a book like this is that I can tell you everything that happens and it still won’t spoil it (I’ll try not to, though). You, the Reader, are a character in the novel, finding this very book, but something is wrong. The book has been incorrectly published so you have to go find the corrected version, but each attempt to find the original results in yet another incomplete book.

The outer action of the novel centers around the Reader and the Other Reader, Ludmilla, who are both upset at not finding the correct version of If on a Winter’s Night. They then try to find out where the story goes, and each time, end up encountering the beginning of a totally different novel. Some of the characters’ names repeat, but all the circumstances have changed. And each time each new novel is interrupted, it is at a deliberately suspenseful point. Over time, it becomes less about the book(s) they want to read and more about the Reader’s narrative, into which he wants to permanently include the Other Reader.

Some may call Calvino’s device a gimmick and even a bit lazy, but I thought it was rather refreshing. There’s a lot of metatextual criticism here, making this book is great for those who like The Arabian Nights or Borges’s short fiction or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The act of creating infinitely intertwining narratives that both propel one plotline and stunt another requires a deft hand. There are but two deficiencies with this work: the dialogue is always a bit stilted and the very nature of second-person storytelling precludes you from getting inside the head of the other characters to know their motivations. But, I suppose, that is the price we pay for being individuals. It is a difficult read, but ultimately worthwhile if you’re looking to shake things up a bit.