One definition of metafiction is "Fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction or its conventions." That could pretty much describe Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book.
A reader opens Italo Calvino's latest novel, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller," only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. But as the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he keeps running into even more books and more difficulties -- as well as the beautiful Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book.
With Ludmilla assisting him (and, he hopes, going to date him), the reader then explores obscure dead languages, publishers' shops, bizarre translators and various other obstacles. All he wants is to read an intriguing book. But he keeps stumbling into tales of murder and sorrow, annoying professors, and the occasional radical feminist -- and a strange literary conspiracy. Will he ever finish the book?
In its own way, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" is a mystery story, a satire, a romance, and a treasure hunt. Any book whose first chapter explains how you're supposed to read it has got to be a winner -- "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler." Relax. Concentrate." And so on, with Calvino gently joking and chiding the reader before actually beginning his strange little tale.
As cute as that first chapter is, it also sets the tone for this strange, funny metafictional tale, which not only inserts Calvino but the reader. That's right -- this book is written in the second person, with the reader as the main character. "You did this" and "you did that," and so on. Only a few authors are brave enough to insert the reader... especially in a novel about a novel that contains other novels. It seems like a subtle undermining of reality itself.
It's a bit disorienting when Calvino inserts chapters from the various books that "you" unearth -- including ghosts, hidden identities, Mexican duels, Japanese erotica, and others written in the required styles. Including some cultures that he made up. Upon further reading, those isolated chapters reveal themselves to be almost as intriguing as the literary hunt. Especially since each one cuts off at the most suspenseful moment -- what happens next? Nobody knows!
It all sounds hideously confusing, but Calvino's deft touch and sense of humor keep it from getting too weird. There are moments of wink-nudge comedy, as well as the occasional poke at the publishing industry. But Calvino also provides chilling moments, mildly sexy ones, and a tone of mystery hangs over the whole novel.
At times it feels like Calvino is in charge of "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler"... and at other times, it feels like "you" are the one at the wheel. Just don't put this in the stack of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First. Pure literary genius.
on January 27, 2011
Incredible.I was deeply enthralled by this book.
I was reluctant to start because the cover of my copy appears to be so dark and dreary. However, one of the posts on a group mentioned the humor. The book finally percolated up to the top of my TBR pile and I began. Laughed out loud during Chapter 1 when Calvino writes about how "you", The Reader, feel when you come into a book store. All those books! The burden! Exactly the way I always feel in a large bookstore, library, or working on the Shelfari catalog. All those books!
Then the "story" begins at the train station. The way you are addressed by "I" made me immediately think of Pirandello. I was completely drawn in. From that point, I was looking for that suitcase. Were you?
Each chapter (not the stories) resonated deeply with me. Each would bring certain "Aha!" moments making me think of situations about reading that I have encountered. The stories, themselves, were always good too. I found that to be incredible that I, as much as The Reader, became more and more despairing as, inevitably, the story would abruptly end. (I laughed out loud at the first abrupt ending, though.) Throughout the read, I was constantly challenged with the language - a dictionary had to be next to hand because I found so many words new to me.
I mentioned Pirandello but "Carpet of Leaves" made me think of Anais Nin. The style of each story was both unique and, yet, had a common feel with all the others. I was truly impressed by that fact. I plan to go back and write some notes about each chapter. Some of the thoughts on censorship both amused me and made be reach for that nearby dictionary. Some of the academic scenes also made me laugh. Been there, done that with jealousies in academe.
At the end, when The Reader is shown that all the title read as a sentence together was very cool. I kinda wish I had not seen that in discussion before reading the book but, at the same time, I am trained to read a TOC first and to interpret the structure of a book before beginning the reading of it. I like to think that I would have come to that myself. The Reader, though, should also have noticed this when he wrote the list to begin with.
Doubtless due to my own gender but the small epilogue meant little to me. The thread tying the whole thing together was Reader's search for the woman but, really, seemed after a while as if any woman would do, didn't it? Could the whole thing be boiled down to cherchez la femme?
I read almost constantly and have almost all my life. Finding something absolutely unique such as _If On a Winter's Night a Traveler_ is a moment to be marked in a personal diary and on a calendar. This was a completely new reading experience for me. A very pleasant and enjoyable one! (Pynchon is unique, IMO, as well but enjoyable? Not in my world.)
That being said, a unique experience by definition can not be replicated. Therefore, I am afraid to even open the other two Calvino tites that came in a boxed set with Traveler. Would I be expecting that same result? Is it possible to experience yet another unique novel from the same author? Isn't disappointment a foregone conclusion? Would that disappointment taint my first dearly held joy of Traveler?
For Pete's sake... now I'm starting to sound like The Reader!
on March 4, 2016
I couldn't make it through this book. I kept waiting for the stories to continue later on, but they never did, so I got frustrated and quit after trying to keep five storylines straight. Maybe if I had gone in knowing that they would not continue, I could have appreciated each "chapter" for its own unique qualities.
on December 23, 2011
I consider true literature to be something that has the unique characteristic that it will try to explore ideas that are new - imagined or otherwise but new - and attempt to portray them with words. If it succeeds in conveying some meaning to the reader, then the work itself succeeds. But at it's limit, in one extreme case, the reader, however gifted she/he maybe, might find it difficult to express the same ideas, of whose understanding she/he believes to have completely mastered, in words much different from that used in the book itself, or in the other extreme, find a flurry of words crowding over each other to do the same. After reading the book, I am left with ideas of both these types. Calvino's imagination and gift with words surpass anything that I could imagine about imagination and usage of words themselves.
It's a radical way of writing a novel, and I never expected to be addressed myself when reading it. As other readers have mentioned here, the book starts off by declaring that it is incomplete. From there, the reader of the book (that is yourself), takes a dizzying journey, starting with perambulations within the city, in search of the rest of the story, through journeys across countries, finally ending where he (you?) started. On the way, he runs into other books (which you read, but all breaking off at some climax), other readers, conspiracies, ghost-writers ...
Everyone who reads gets involved in the plot-lines developed in a novel, and some might imagine themselves to be one of the characters in the novel. Here, the protagonist is the reader - yourself - and the plot-line is an exploration of reading itself, hence it is even more compelling an involvement. The journey of the protagonist and of the characters that he reads reflect in an almost perfect way the personal journey that you embark upon in reading a novel (this novel) - the emotions, the adrenaline, the moments of irritation with distractions, the re-reads to find the exact meaning ...
Each of the stories in the book is written in language that transports you to that parallel universe where the story is happening. Through them, you realize that it is possible for the crux of a story to be the introduction and the setting for the ending; the ending itself might trivialize this alternative reality into which you were so pleasingly and totally transported, and hence the story itself might do without one.
This is my favourite book up until now, and possibly until I read Calvino's other works.
on July 22, 2012
This was a strange and difficult book to read. It may be a literary wonder but it reminded me of a book in high school that you were required to read. Every line ... every paragraph ... every page became painful. I was so happy to finish. I read the book because it is in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die ... I definitely could have lived my life never reading this book and been okay with that!
on March 16, 2005
Has the book you're holding really been written by the author mentioned on the cover? We readers rarely ask ourselves this question but in Mr Calvino's novel, even this simple assumption is questioned. The story is quite confusing indeed because nothing is as it appears.
But apart from the plot, Mr Calvino reflects on interesting topics which in my view save the book. For instance the reader's dilemma of choosing the appropriate novel among the thousand existing publications, the required ingredients to create suspense in a plot, the fact that books are easily defined entities which can be enjoyed without risks compared to the elusive quality of real-life existence, the pleasure of using a paper knife as the reader cuts his way through a novel or the problem posed by someone reading a text which may impose an undesirable pace on the listener. The author also casts a critical glance at universities as literary institutions which have forgotten that literature can be enjoyed in a natural, innocent and primitive way without having to be lacerated by intellectual analysis.
on May 4, 2008
Actually, 3.5 stars. I am a hard critic. But any reader will like Italo Calvino's intellectual feat. What a gift he has for words! I regret I didn't have pad and pen on hand to jot down opportunities to expand my vocabulary. Don't make the same mistake.
Italo Calvino's ability to use language can be a mind-blowing experience for any reader. This is the first work of his that I read. The idea---interspersing 10 stories with a tale of the reader of these stories---is very unique. But as the book goes on, I find less creativity. The intimacy with Calvino I found after the first story is something I was deeply looking for much later into the book. Instead the reader's story there is barely different from the stories he reads. I admit that I may be the obstacle. I DO recommend the work, and guarantee that you will be touched by a creative mind who brings you to all possible corners of the experience of reading, and has much to teach us. I look forward to his "Italian Folktales".
on April 25, 2011
(For more of my book reviews and musings on life in the South, visit SouthernAsBiscuits.blogspot.com. )
I haven't read a post-modern novel in a while. A long while. So what is a post-modern novel? Let's compare it to art. Take a painting, for example. Before the post-modern era, you'd expect to see a subject in the painting, whether an object, person or scene. There would be color, form and light. Now, then come along Picasso and then HELLO! Jackson Pollack (the guy who splashed paint around on a canvas and makes you think every time you see one, "Hey, I can do that!") No real subject, no form, no light. What is it? It turns everything you expect about art on its head.
"Expect" - that's the key word here. Now, in a novel, you expect certain things, like, a setting, a main character or two, and a plot with a beginning, middle, hopefully a climax before the end. In a post-modern novel, you don't get what you expect.
Italo Calvino crafts such a conceptual novel in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which has been declared his "triumphant response to the question of whether the art of fiction could survive the vast changes taking place in the communications technology of our world." In some respects the novel is a comedy, overall it's an experimental text. He talks directly to the reader as the book begins, referring to what I'd call the main character as "The Reader" and discusses his/our expectations and the experience of reading. After much rambling, if you manage to hang on, a sort of a story begins. But just as you become curious and interested in the story, the chapter ends and the next chapter is the beginning of a completely different story, title, and author, in time period, place, characters - everything.
The protagonists, "The Reader" and "The Other Reader" become very frustrated (as do I) and "The Reader" takes the book back to the book store to find out that there was a publishing error and he gets a new copy, but this one starts of with a completely different story, and so on and so forth.
Basically, each chapter is the beginning of a completely different story held together by "The Reader" and his attempts to track down the end of one or more of these novels. Once I realized this, (after the fourth chapter or so), I was less frustrated, because my expectations had now changed.
I expected not to get an ending, so I did not allow myself to invest in the characters or story as much, much like someone whose heart has been broken a few too many times. So I continued, less frustrated, but overall a little annoyed. Calvino is the ultimate tease in this novel, luring the reader, getting us all worked up with stories of spies, sex, menace and mystery and then leaves us hanging. As a reader who generally escapes into a story, invests, commits, suspends belief of reality (man, sounds like I fall in love every time I read), this technique of his is offensive and insensitive.
"Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?"
-- Italo Calvino
And so, I acknowledge that this is not your average novel and approach it from an intellectual, literary angle, following Calvino's study of the relationship of the reader with the written word, of how we read and why. I do appreciate his immense talent in writing 10 completely different enticing stories, each one making me yearn for more, but never getting it.
It's almost as if Calvino thought the beginning of 10 separate novels and couldn't finish any of them, but thought of a way to put them together. This novel may be a work of prowess, a hallmark of the avante-guarde novel, but I find it altogether unsatisfying, without release or closure, an unrequited relationship.
on April 17, 2016
Old book but worth a second read. Loved it in graduate school when we were caught up in post-modernism. Liked reading it again of my own free will.
on October 6, 2015
A great place to start with Calvino, hopefully you continue to his other works, well worth the time.