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If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Paperback – October 20, 1982
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Italo Calvino imagines a novel capable of endless mutations in this intricately crafted story about writing and readers.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense. Together they form a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct, through which two readers, a male and a female, pursue both the story lines that intrigue them and one another.
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Thus begins Chapter 1, Part 1 of Italo Calvino’s "if on a winter's night a traveler", and if you believe for one second that the traveler finally placed in a train station – note the cover illustration - in Part 2 is ever going to get anywhere, you are very much mistaken. He’ll never even get past Chapter 1, Part 2. He is, in fact, never seen again.
*C1P1: Chapter 1, Part 1. Each of the first 10 chapters are divided into 2 parts, the first with the reader as narrator and the second purporting to be the first chapter of yet another novel
Nor are any of the other protagonists in Parts 2 of Chapters 2 through 10. Calvino’s protagonist is actually the reader from C1P1* who spends the rest of the novel searching for the rest of the story – or stories, as it turns out, because there are ten first chapters of ten different novels – so the novel itself is never about a traveler, or about Malbork, the steep slope, fear of wind or vertigo, the gathering shadow, a network of lines that embrace and or intersect, the carpet of leaves, an empty grave, or even, finally, “what story down there awaits its end?” Although, as it turns out, the first lines of each of the ten chapters finally make up a story outline of its own, a story outline that might even, if followed through, complete a novel called, If on a winter’s night a traveler …”
Confusing? I’d say so. I’m not a huge fan of the nouveau-novel (I just made up that term) – novels that seem to be so self-referring that they are more chore than pleasure to read.
And yet I was so taken with C1P1 – Calvino takes us on a journey through a bookstore to find his new novel and then curls us up, like a fussy cat, searching for the perfect place and atmosphere in which to read it – that I read the whole thing. Because it seems to be a novel about reading, about the relationship of a reader to the thing read, and even to the writer of the thing read. Each new beginning leaves us wanting more, and the search for more never satisfies – it only initiates another search for something that doesn’t exist – which in turn initiates … Oh, well. You get the gist.
What is it about enigmatic Italian writers anyway? I read Umberto Eco, too, even the Latin, French, or German parts which I convince myself I can comprehend if I read them out loud – like shouting in my own ear in a foreign tongue thinking I can make myself understood through sheer volume. And I like it.
Somewhere in the house is another Calvino novel, Invisible Cities . I haven’t even opened it yet. I do hope it isn’t full of blank pages, because I’m not sure I could even begin to suss out the invisible joke there. There’s enigmatic and then there’s enigmatic, ya know?
Happy the author and his readers, who has established such a reputation that the publisher would agree to market such a curiosity.And make no mistake about it a great deal of the value and entertainment of this work is that it allow us to follow Calvino's thinking about his art and others while displaying his talent.
This less an aesthetic experience and more of an intellectual experience. If you are looking for a pleasurable and easy experience, this is not for you. It demands the reader's undivided attention and assumes a acquaintance, at least, with the literary greats.
Magical realism is most closely associated with “Third World Literature” and/or Latin American works. Calvino in my opinion ranks with the Latin greats: Marquez, Saramago, and Rulfo, to name just a few. In Magical Realism there are frequently ghosts, spirits, and characters that are dead. Rulfo is credited with the first foray into MG and all the characters in that work are dead. MG has more symbolism than a lot of other genres and can therefore be convoluted and incomplete in that the author doesn’t hand readers solutions raised in their works.
Reader Response is a classification for Literary Critical Theory. In this theory the author’s intention, history, and ideals have not consequence in the story that is written. What happens is the reader brings all their experiences, history, and prejudices to any book they read therefore the reader, in a manner of speaking, becomes the author.
In “If on a winter’s night” Calvino puts forth ten “short” stories. Without spoiling anything since it is written in the narrative description, none of the stories are completed. I believe it is a combination of magical realism and reader response. Calvino even tells us in his work that readers write the story; hence, Calvino gives us ten stories to “write” and complete since he knows readers will write what they want as they read the story.
Calvino is masterful at drawing in readers and then cutting them off—in true magical realism fashion. I love this book BUT I do feel it’s important to know the ground rules. I admit I kept ‘falling’ into the individual stories even though I knew the author probably wouldn’t give me the whole story.
Readers who like to read complete stories with a beginning, middle, and ending will probably not like this work but if you’re adventuresome you’ll love this work. I’m excited I’ve found a new author.