Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler

You are about to begin reading The Mookse and the Gripes review of Italo Calvino’s not-so-new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, 1979; tr. from the Italian by William Weaver, 1981). . . .  Okay, I won’t indulge myself any longer with this silly little introduction — I can’t beat Italo Calvino.

This is how the book begins:

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.  Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room.

The first chapter goes on to tell you how to sit comfortably, how to tell your family to be quiet for a few hours, how you determined to purchase this particular book when there are all of the other stacks of books to choose from, etc.  It definitely speaks to people like me who troll bookstores, people whose three- and one-year-old sons ask to go to the bookstore for a night out.  So I’d read this first chapter several times, but to be honest, as fun as it is, as much as I could relate to it, I wasn’t sure I’d like to read the whole book.  It looked, well, a bit like cleverness just to be clever.  Plus, I don’t like books told in the second person unless the “you” the narrator is speaking to isn’t actually me.

But I’d heard too much praise for the book to trust my predisposition.  And it has been published, after all, by Everyman.

I don’t like books told in second-person if they are actually trying to talk to me.  I certainly don’t mind if the narrator is talking to some other “you.”  In fact, it’s always fun for me to try to figure out just who the “you” is.  I was very happy, then, to discover that in this book “you” didn’t actually mean me, despite the fact that I found myself in similar circumstances to “you.”  Rather, this “you” is a character in the novel, a reader that the author is talking to, a reader who becomes increasingly frustrated.  And I was equally pleased to discover that the character “you” shifted from the male reader in the story to the female reader he lusted after.

Lust — or at least a desire for sexual consummation — is a major motif in this book.  It shows up even in the first chapter, when we are just discussing the act of beginning to read a book.  Sensually translated by William Weaver, we get a feeling that Calvino is being clever, very clever — but the cleverness begins to have some real substance to it:

Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.

Both types of consummation ellude the reader, that “you.”  After the first chapter getting situated, the reader finally begins reading If on a winter’s night a traveller.  Along with the reader we read the first twenty or so pages of a book when suddenly the text ends.  The book is faulty.  Frustrated, because it ended just as it was getting interesting, the reader goes to the bookstore to demand another copy.  There he meets Ludmilla (the female reader who will eventually be addressed as “you” by the narrator).  She has also been a victim of the faulty book, so “you” think to yourself that this common problem could be a great opportunity, something that can help the two of you to become closer.

The faulty If on a winter’s night a traveler that you and Ludmilla returned to the bookstore is just the beginning.  It is replaced with another faulty book, which book also comes to no conclusion.  This happens several times: “you” simply cannot get a book he can read through to the end.  One of my favorite unconsummated readings takes place at a university.  Ludmilla’s sister Lotharia has a copy of the book “you” and she are both searching for.  Lotharia and a group of students are going to read it that evening.  It turns out, of course, to not be the book you two are looking for.  Nevertheless, it is interesting, and you find the desire to keep reading, until —

At this point they throw open the discussion.  Events, characters, settings, impressions are thrust aside, to make room for the general concepts. 

“The polymorphic-perverse sexuality . . .”

“The laws of a market economy . . .”

“The homologies of the signifying structures . . .”

“Deviation and institutions . . .”

“Castration . . .”

Only you have remained suspended there, you and Ludmilla, while nobody else thinks of continuing the reading.

The reading gets interrupted by intellectualizing.  Which is just as well since the book has been torn to pieces and distributed among other student groups — but Lotharia is certain her group got the best section.  Maybe, but you don’t like that again your build-up has been suspended, perhaps forever.

Calvino allows us to read all of these incipits (beginnings of stories) with the reader “you.”  And they are, for the most part, excellent starts to stories that I, for one, would have liked to have finished.  Still, I also looked forward to their end so I could see just how Calvino was going to develop this notion of getting to the end of the book and consummation.  The sexuality, which at first looked like an interested parallel in which to explore the idea of reading, comes back to the foreground and becomes a primary subject. 

Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear.  It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost.

All of this, then, becomes a way to explore human sexuality, or, more generally, human interaction, human relationships.  Here is a part when the “you” shifts from the male to Ludmilla:

Ludmilla, now you are being read.  Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds.  Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and your trills.  It is not only the body that is, in you, the object of reading: the body matters insofar as it is part of a complex of elaborate elements, not all visible and not all present, but manifested in visible and present events: the clouding of your eyes, your laughing, the words you speak, your way of gathering and spreading your hair, your initiatives and your reticences, and all the signs that are on the frontier between you and usage and habits and memory and prehistory and fashion, all codes, all the poor alphabets by which one human being believes at certain moments that he is reading another human being.

So I finally finished Italo Calvino’s not-so-new novel If on a winter’s night a traveler.  In the end, how was it?

A sixth reader, who was standing, examining the shelves with his nose in the air, approaches the table.  “The moment that counts most for me is the one that precedes reading.  At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that perhaps does not exist.  At times it is the incipit of the book, the first sentences. . . . In other words: if you need little to set the imagination going, I require even less: the promise of reading is enough.”

Perhaps like this sixth reader I created an image of this book in my mind, an image of a book that does not exist.  Perhaps I was anticipating too much and anticlimax was a foregone conclusion, but in the end, I have to say, I still found it more clever than deep.  I feel it is my loss, though, because even writing this review much of the book is just beginning to open itself up to me.  Perhaps I rushed things, finishing the book too soon, before I had established a real relationship.  Or, more hopeful, perhaps finishing it was the beginning of a real relationship.

12 thoughts on “Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler

  1. lena says:

    The first excerpt you featured really turned me off because I also don’t like being identified as just a “reader.” But as I kept reading your review, I became really intrigued by the concept of “you” evolving. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered that before in fiction.

  2. Deucekindred says:

    Usually Italo Calvino changes his style with each book but I would say that if on a winters night…. is one of his strongest books.

    I also suggest Marcovaldo – which is a satirical take on Italy’s social classes of the time and it’s quite funny in places.

    Invisible Cities is another great one of his, I would call it a treatise on lingiustics in novel form (if that makes any sense)

  3. Nadia says:

    Wow. What an intriguing book. I like this idea of “you” and the way he is fluidly transformed into a female “you” and transitions once again. Its a clever concept and this whole notion of consummation and these faulty books is interesting because of the way Calvino has linked sensuality with reading. I have to say that I have heard great things about this book and it was all the rage to read when I was working on my Masters a few years back, but I never picked it up then. However, perhaps its time I did. I really enjoyed your review and found myself thinking that when I do pick up this book I will take my time with it. It sounds like one of those books that the more you think about it after finishing it the more you can get from it (like a Murakami book).

  4. Trevor says:

    Lena and Nadio, I’m not sure, but I think I’ve mislead you. An individual male “you” doesn’t actually evolve to become female. I’m afraid I might not have been too clear in my review (it was hard to write about this “you”!).

    The “you” in the story is an individual, unnamed male character in Calvino’s novel, a reader who is frequently frustrated because the books he’s picking up are incomplete. (And this can get more confusing since the first book that male reader picks up and cannot finish is Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler; but that Calvino novel is just a part of this Calvino novel). That male reader never does become female. Rather, the author stops talking to him and begins addressing Ludmilla, another character in the novel, a female reader who is also frustrated in her attempts to get a complete copy of the books. Ludmilla is also the object of the unnamed male reader’s lust. They are two separate characters, and, though the male character would like to become one with Ludmilla, it is only in the Biblical sense. Ludmilla is the “you” for only a short time in the book, I’m afraid. Soon the author shifts his attention back to the male reader.

    This also gives me a chance to state a bit better (it’s now been a while since I read the book and wrote this review) my feelings about this book. I did enjoy it. Calvino’s ability to write in various styles is amazing. Each of the stories contained herein are very different. Honestly, I wanted to finish them more than I wanted to finish the book I was holding. And surely that was intentional on Calvino’s part. I enjoyed the playfulness throughout, but I guess I didn’t capture anything much more than a highly intelligent, highly literary game.

    Which is kind of how I feel about his Cosmicomics. I love some of those short stories, but for the most part I felt that the series as a whole was more of a game than anything else. An author posing a strange — no, sometimes bizarre — hypothetical and then writing a story around it. It is fun — this book was a lot of fun, makes some great connections, and is a wonder of style. If I’m in the mood, I can have fun with it too.

  5. It did take me three tries to finish this book and when I finally did last year it landed flat enough that I didn’t review it. My failed efforts didn’t really come from disliking the book — more that I got bored with the premise, thought that could be overcome by putting it aside for a while and then never got around to picking it up again.

    While I found Calvino’s story fragments interesting in the first half of the book, the point of them seemed to get lost with the constant repitition — I couldn’t help but think he had trapped himself with a device that outlived its usefulness. The fragments were interesting at first but after five or six they seemed to prove that it is pretty easy to start a book, a lot harder to develop and complete it (an observation that then, of course, causes this “reader” to wonder about the volume he was reading).

    I’d say Calvino’s examination of the reading experience was what I found most interesting about the book and that finally sustained me to the end. I know it has a very good reputation with a number of readers whose opinions I respect — I found it more of an interesting exercise than a successful book.

  6. Trevor says:

    It seems we see this one about the same way, Kevin. And, honestly, I’m kind of glad to have a second opinion on this because I felt, particularly through the second half, that I should be liking the book more. While I was always interested in the exercise, my favorite books do more than that.

  7. My impression Trevor is that you wanted to like it more than you actually did, you mention you’d “heard too much praise for the book to trust my predisposition”, would it be fair to say it didn’t ultimately live up to that praise even though you would have rather it had?

    Sometimes we want to like books so much it’s hard to accept that actually, we don’t that much. This sounds clever, but perhaps a tad cold. An intellectual exercise, and an interesting one, but not ultimately a rewarding novel.

    Or is that unfair on it?

  8. Trevor says:

    I certainly wanted to like it more than I did, Max. I tried to reign in my expectations, but, alas, the book still didn’t work for me the way I would have liked. As you say, an interesting intellectual exercise, but not ultimately a rewarding novel. Not unfair at all to say that, Max.

  9. Isabel says:

    Too bad that the technique wasn’t enough to keep you engaged.

    I am happy to see Everyman’s being published.I have an EVERYMAN edition of War and Peace from the 1930s. No pictures, short intro, and then it dives into the novel.

  10. Thanks Trevor. It is funny sometimes, how much we can want to like something. I’m struggling a bit with The Road at the moment, it’s not engaged me as I’d hoped (and as it clearly has for so many others). I recall you wrote a great review of it, which I may take another look at to see if that helps.

    The issue may simply be that I don’t have children, making it less immediate to me. I find myself thinking sometimes more about the world than the situation, but it’s the situation and the emotions at its heart that’s the point, the setting is only there as much as it needs to be to enable the father/son focus.

    Not that The Road is intellectual without emotional content. On that issue though, there are works like Dictionary of the Khazars which play games with structure that risk being too much about their own technique, and so ultimately not speaking to the reader (I should get to Dictionary later this year, it’s one that might interest you actually). You did a review recently of a book that comes in box form, with randomised chapter order, which plainly risks technique swamping meaning – but which successfully pulled off the trick of managing to be inventive without being just that.

    Actually, I meant to buy that and I thought I’d taken note of the title, but I’ve lost it. I’ll have to recheck your reviews for which one it was.

  11. Trevor says:

    I’m not sure about Dictionary of the Khazars, Max. Maybe I’ll wait until you post your review. I looked into it before and couldn’t tell whether it was just cleverness or substantial — my impression was the former, so I haven’t gotten it since.

    I must say that I’m surprised at your reaction to The Road. However, I understand that a large part of my response to that book was the portrayal of the father/son relationship — some of the lines and images, though simple, are spot on. Not long after we had our first son I was in a Constitutional Law class and we were discussing the right to procreate and how it fits into the 14th Amendment. The professor asked how many of us had children and only two of us raised our hands. He asked me to explain the relationship I had with my child, and I couldn’t. There’s something about the dependence and the responsibility — but I couldn’t put it into words. I think, in some way, McCarthy puts it into words here (I first read The Road just a few weeks after that class, actually. Not that I think people without children are incapable of capturing that or that people with children are automatically capable, but it was definitely a major connection I had with this book.

    I see you already found my review of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates. I think you’ll like it, Max. Incidentally, it is a type of memoir too, so it turns out I started my memoir project a few months ago!

  12. I had the same thoughts on Dictionary, when I first heard about it, and it may well be clever rather than substantial. I bought it in the end, but it’s absolutely possible our initial reactions are the correct ones.

    We’ll see I guess. I’ll have to work out how to read it as well. I’m looking forward to it, but with a degree of hesitation.

    On The Road, I’m not sure why it’s not gelled for me yet, perhaps it was just the wrong time to read it. That said, I have some faith in McCarthy and there’s no question but that he’s a beautiful writer. I’ll be disappointed if I don’t connect with it though, sometimes chemistry is missing even with the best books (I hated Crime and Punishment when I tried to read it, must try again some time), but I would rather feel I was missing out.

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