If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino (Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore, 1979)
translated from the Italian by William Weaver (1981)
Everyman's Library (1993)
254 pp

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. . . . 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.

As I said, 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 traveler. 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.

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