Customer Reviews: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
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on April 30, 2002
Often when I'm reading an extraordinarily well-written book, I marvel at how difficult and even agonizing the writing process must be; here's a book that makes me realize that this is a phase most readers go through and a challenge that confronts most writers. A charmer from the very first paragraph, "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" makes readers feel good about reading and writers feel good about writing.
Never have I read a book that communicates with and understands its reader so well. Writers like Nabokov and Pynchon like to have fun with their readers by posing literary puzzles, but here Calvino empathizes with the avid reader's feelings of frustration from interruptions, expectations, academic blathering, and personal efforts to reflect on literature.
The protagonist of this novel is none other than you yourself, the reader. The novel is about the protagonist's (i.e., your) attempt to finish reading the novel that you have started. However, problems keep cropping up, obstructing you from your goal: misprintings, mixups, interruptions, paramilitary operations, incarceration. Joining you in your quest is Ludmilla, a woman you met in the bookstore and whom you would like to date. Ludmilla has a sister, Lotaria, a feminist who thinks literature should be used to further her polemic agenda and represents the kind of "ideological cheerleading" for which critic Harold Bloom has so much disdain. Ludmilla, on the other hand, represents the perfect passive reader who reads for purely escapist purposes.
The novel's structure is entirely original and somewhat difficult to describe. It consists of two sets of alternating chapters; one set narrates your search for the missing remainder of the novel, and the other set consists of fragments of other novels you mistakenly pick up in your search. Each of these "other" novels is a brilliant piece of writing in its own right, each by a different fictitious author and with a distinctive plot and style. Just as you're becoming engrossed in whatever novel you're reading at a certain time, another interruption occurs, forcing you to resume your worldwide odyssey.

This may sound like a frustrating reading experience, but it's actually a lot of fun, as Calvino demonstrates that starting a new "novel" saves an old plot thread from wearing out. And just when things seem to start spinning out of control for the hapless protagonist (i.e., you, remember?), Calvino brings it all together in a narrative masterstroke that summarizes what all fiction is really about, which hasn't changed much since ancient times: it is simply about telling a story that hasn't happened in real life.
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on March 29, 2002
You are getting ready to read an review of Italo Calvino's book "If on a winter's night a traveller". Is your mouse nearby? Are you sitting in a comfortable chair? You're not slouching over the keyboard, are you? Sit up! Now, rub your eyes, close any windows containing video games, and read on.
Besides Tom Robbins' "Half Asleep in Frog's Pajamas", this is the only book you've ever read written (mostly) in second person narration. 'You' are the protagonist of the story, and are directly addressed by the author/narrator. 'You' are the Reader. This is a technique that Calvino uses very well, especially when he manages to predict (or accurately tell) the circumstances around how 'you' bought the book, how 'you're' reading it, and 'your' thoughts and feelings concerning it.
You notice that this book has no story, per se. Instead, it is about Stories. The structure of the book is more important than the narrative thrust. A Reader (you) begins reading Italo Calvino's new book, "If on a winter's night a traveller". But the book is misprinted, and ends halfway through. So you head down to the bookshop, anxious to get your money back. There you encounter The Other Reader, a young woman also foiled in her attempt to read Calvino's new book. You both buy a new copy from the shopkeeper, only when you get it home, you realize it is not Calvino's new book at all, but something called "Outside the town of Malbork". Things continue this way, back and forth from thwarted novel to encounters with The Other Reader (who, by this time, you've developed quite a crush on). Along the way, you will meet many other shady literary characters, like The Non Reader, The Writer, and the Plagiarist. Do not be afraid of these men. They are merely devices to get you thinking about the nature of reading, the nature of writing, the nature of authorship, and a number of other significant post-modern issues.
This all sounds quite fascinating to you, but you still have trepidations. You have a copy of the book with you right now. To help quench your fears you open it up, seemingly at random, to page 197, and read the following exchange:
"'On the contrary, I am forced to stop reading just when [the stories] become more gripping. I can't wait to resume, but when I think I am reopening the book I began, I find a completely different book before me...'
'Which instead is terribly boring,' I suggest.
'No, even more gripping. But I can't manage to finish this one, either. And so on.'"
You think this is pretty good so far. But wonder, is Calvino right on either count? Would such a novel be "terribly boring", or "even more gripping"? Would you get frustrated beyond repair if the story kept stopping, every time it got good? You realize that you must decide for yourself before you begin reading the book in earnest.
Continuing your perusal on the same page, you read the following passage:
"I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can't go beyond the beginning... He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged..."
You stop, because you can see where this is going. This is Calvino telling you the genesis of this book. This kind of self-reflexivity sometimes gives you a headache, for a story within a story within a story (etc.) can sometimes be very confusing. You stop reading for a while to get your bearings.
You take a break by going to the fridge for a glass of juice.
Later, you flip the book open again, this time to page 218, and you notice this:
"Then what use is your role as protagonist to you? If you continue lending yourself to this game, it means that you, too, are an accomplice of the general mystification."
"Calvino is challenging me?" you think to yourself. "He doesn't think I am capable of following him through this labyrinthine world. He doesn't think I have the brainpower. But I do!" You are getting a good head of steam now. "I can read his book, no problem! I am a Good Reader."
You turn to page one, intent on starting and then finishing this book. And when you do, you'll realize that it was a rewarding, if oftentimes difficult and confusing, experience. It will have questioned your preconceived notions of what it means to read, write, to tell stories, and to listen to them. And it will do it in a (mostly) fascinating and suspenseful way, to make the ideas go down that much easier.
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on August 23, 2000
Read Chapter 1. Finished Chapter 1. Began Chapter 2. Scratched my head. Finished chapter 2. Began chapter 3. Began laughing at the game Calvino was playing with me. And wondering what he was going to do to me next.
I would never have guessed all the different roads I would go down as I read this book.
You'll fall in love. You'll pull your hair out. You'll throw the book across the room. And then you'll go pick it up again.
Any attempts to describe this book any better than this will either not be well-understood or will ruin the effect of discovering it for yourself.
If you are prepared to put aside your standard concepts of literary narrative and explore a new experiment, this book is definitely for you.
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on April 29, 2000
You have to read this fascinating treatise on reading and writing. I've seen others complain about the weak ending and the lack of structure, but for chrissakes, it's not a Dragonlance novel- it's avant-garde prose. But that doesn't mean it's not accessible. Unlike Andre Breton's shoelace knots of words that you have to dwell on endlessly to untie, Italo Calvino is so easy to read that the prose slips past you a little too quickly. But that doesn't mean it's not worth reading in the first place- Originally I checked this out at my college library and when I finished it, I bought a copy for myself and another copy for a friend. It's extremely hard to describe the book appropriately, but I'm hoping my enthusiasm for it will get my message across- Calvino's insights are worth the price of the book alone, and this fragmented narrative marked by stretches of crystalline, dreamlike beauty make what would normally be a dry work of literature philosophy into a vivid sensual book that I'll probably continue to re-read for the rest of my life.
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on August 16, 2002
We recently read this book for a literary theory class, and it fascinated me so much that I found myself rereading it after having just finished. For anyone interested in theory, in language itself, in the origin of thoughts and ideas and how our perceptions shape the world, YOU MUST OWN THIS BOOK.
While other reviews I've read have ranked this as equivalent to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, it is most likely because the effort wasn't prolonged enough to grasp Calvino's point, which is this: That we are taught what to expect and what to ask of our authors, and anything we read is falsified in an attempt to appeal to our tastes. The book consists of 10 novels, each begun, and never allowed closure, with a connecting story that ties in the search for the original authorship of these books, and the frustration at never being able to arrive at who the author is and discover the true meaning. Each attempt to begin anew ends with narrator yanking you from the story; by doing this Calvino steps out of the authorial role--he denies the book categorization by changing what is happening each time we expect something to specific to occur. He does this specifically because he does not want us to be in the mode of simply surveying information that we already have figured the path of. The book has no genre--it becomes its own, and our understanding of what we read, why we read and how we read is forever impacted. By denying himself access to shaping the novel, he requires the reader's complete attention in determining the ultimate outcome of the book.
I bought a used copy and ripped it to pieces rereading and underlining and now have to buy a new copy. If you have an open mind, this will definitely be a book you will not regret.
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on December 4, 2000
This book should quite possibly be titled (and yes, i know changing the title would disrupt one of the prime conciets of the book) 'I, Italo Calvino, will now demonstrate my vast intellectual superiority, while attacking many of the staid conventions of "fiction", and actually making you smile and/or laugh, as well.'
OK, that really shouldn't be considered for the title, but I think you get my point. This intricate novel alternately screws with the very notion of narration, plot, the idea of fiction, the act of reading/being a reader, and well. . . . pretty much everything you've become bored of.
That fact is, if you're here your probably somewhat interested, and if you're even somewhat interested you should go on and pick up this book. Granted, if you have a problem with parallel narration (it is all linear narration), or are frustarted easily by lack of plot resolution, you might step catiously. Also, if you're tolerance for witty authors who know they are witty is low, you definately want to steer clear- Calvino is flexing his synapses here, and having an absolutely good time.
As far as the plot (or story or whatever) goes, it's almost ancilliary, yet absolutely necessary, insofar as the point of the book is reading it, but the 'getting' goes on on such a blatant level, that it's almost like finding a meditative state in the vibrations of a chainsaw while someone's trying to cut your head off with it. or something like that.
Anyway, this book, like . . . rocks.
Especially recommended for curing post-academia, post-new critical theory, ficiton phobia- After graduation I only read non-fiction up until this book restored my faith in the written word.
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on November 23, 2012
The first book I received was horribly misprinted - chapters intermingled with chapters from other novels, all incomplete. Repeated inquiries to the publisher sent me on nothing but a wild goose chase lasting the duration of my engagement. Not worth the time.
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on April 1, 1998
i was browsing through the bookstore & looking for something new & interesting to read. i'd read Calvino's first book, The Path To the Nest of Spiders, in college, & enjoyed it, so when I got to the C's in the fiction section i pulled off a copy of this book. As soon as i'd read the first section, describing the reader's experience in the bookstore, i knew i had to read this book. when the reader in the book is leaving the bookstore, looking forlornly at the stacks of other books, and calvino writes "or rather, it was the books that looked forlornly at you, the way the dogs at the pound look at their friend whose owner has come to bring him home." (not sure if that's the exact quote, but you get the idea...) this book is a permanent fixture on my bedroom bookshelf; i've read it 3 times already and expect many more hours of enjoyment from it! if you love to read, you will relish this story. it's the most creatively formed novel i've ever read, yet still very accessible.
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on March 7, 2007
Most of the glowing reviews of this novel employ words like "experimental" and "conceptual", which might lead one to believe that "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" is a pretentious tome that one must slog through for the sake of art, an intellectual height to be scaled by the elitist literati. In reality, the accomplishment of Italo Calvino's masterfully constructed book is the fact that it reads like a thriller while operating on several levels of meaning. Toward the end of the novel, Calvino, writing as the fictional author Silas Flannery, makes this statement: "writing always means hiding something in such a way that it is discovered". Indeed, the novel's maddening appeal lies chiefly in the irresistable pull of its labyrinthal construction, its dizzying maze of false starts, dead ends and trap doors.

The conceit of the novel is, as other reviewers have stated, a series of opening chapters from unfinished novels. "The Reader", addressed by Calvino in the second person, begins reading, in the first chapter, what he believes to be the new novel by Italo Calvino, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler". However, the novel breaks off abruptly after the first chapter, and the next section deals with the Reader's attempt to discover the cause of this unexpected interruption. Returning to the store where he purchased the volume, the Reader meets the main female character in the novel (the Other Reader). The rest of the work is comprised of alternating sections; every other chapter is the beginning of an unfinished novel, alternating with chapters following the Reader and the Other Reader in their attempt to get to bottom of the increasingly intricate mystery of unfinished novels, ghost writers and various apocrypha.

At first, the unorthodox structure of the work is effectively annoying; one experiences "The Reader"'s frustration firsthand as Calvino breaks off story after story with his chain of disembodied first chapters. But this is actually a testament to the power of Calvino's writing, in that with each "first chapter" Calvino entrances us anew, lifting us right out of the existing novel and persuasively transporting us, in a matter of paragraphs, into completely disparate locales and circumstances. There are, however, noticeable parallels between the various "first chapters"; the first person narrator in each chapter is essentially the same character: an unnamed solipsist with an overactive libido, who seems to be always shadow-boxing with some mysterious other, usually his male romantic rival.

Though the form of the novel is unconventional, Calvino's artful prowess carries the reader effortlessly along, and the narrative is bouyed by a winning mix of lowbrow and gallows humor (at one point the author chides The Reader, "You're the absolute protagonist of this book, very well; but do you believe that gives you the right to have carnal relations with all the female characters?"). Anyone willing to give themself over to this innovative "experiment" will quickly find themself happily lost in Calvino's engrossing and ingenious maze.
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on April 13, 2009
Though a sluggish read, there were some nice lines, funny scenarios and excellent thoughts in "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler." The rich and rewarding parts were far too few for me to maintain consistent interest. I'm a fast reader, and it took me more than one week to plow through this 250 page novel. It was easy to put down and hard to pick up. The translation is fantastic -- very well done, an easy read in modern American English. Kudos to William Weaver for his translation.

The first part of the book was quite funny, and for about 50+ pages, I earnestly turned each page following the unlikely string of odd episodes which led to the meeting of two Readers. These two frustrated book Readers, central figures in the story (perhaps soon to marry as a result of bookseller debacles), were charming, funny and insightful. But, alas, the "story" progressed steadily downhill from there for me, though with some exceptions. The episode in Paris was wonderful. In the end, though, there really was no story, but rather a hodge-podge olio of about 10 beginning pages of other novels, all with exhaustive and exhausting background detail. Some were, and some were not, loosely knit together in Calvino's attempt to create a unified tale. Personally, I believe he failed in unification.

The overall meaning did not escape me, mind you. This book is a book about writing and reading, similar to the American phenomenon of the Broadway Musical that all too often is about writing, performing in, and seeing Broadway Musicals. In the end, especially with those musicals about the "business of Broadway," there just isn't anything there, other than the performances. Here, the performance is in writing. Mr. Calvino seems to be self-consciously in love with his own writing ability and his own words, often taking a paragraph to say with so many other words what he originally said (understandably) at the beginning of the passage. I am not (and he mistakenly believes that I, as Reader, am or will be) as in love with his writing as he is. It's as if he is a sight-impaired story teller who animatedly tells a too-long story (great in the beginning), but in his reverie later forgets that his audience has long since departed. Calvino writes on, and on, and on. I departed.

I realized anew that no one escapes his or her past -- so eloquently described by Calvino. The past, all of it, is always there, accumulating its weight upon one's shoulders. That's as it should be and always will be. He re-taught this important life lesson. Page 106, "...all I did was to accumulate past after past behind me, multiplying the pasts, and if one life was too dense and ramified and embroiled for me to bear it always with me, imagine so many lives, each with its own past and the pasts of the other lives that continue to become entangled one with the others.." "...the past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me, and it never loses its rings, no matter how hard I try to empty my guts in every WC...." Page 255 (I skipped quickly through 85 pages to get here), "Every new book I read comes to be a part of that overall and unitary book that is the sum of my readings." Nice, very nice indeed. I am the sum of my readings.

This passage sums up my feeling best. Page 140 (during the Silas Flannery episodes), "You concentrate on your reading, trying to shift your concern for her to the book, as if hoping to see her come toward you from the pages. But you're no longer able to read, the novel has stalled on the page before your eyes, as if only Ludmilla's arrival could set the chain of events in motion again." Exactly right, this is a perfect self-indictment by Calvino of his book. I am he, the Reader, waiting for Ludmilla, the Story, but essentially left waiting, a sad jilted lover. She, the Story, does appear from time to time, often odd and bizarre, brusque and demanding, but unlike the Reader in the Story, I will not ask her to marry me in the end.

This book is a brilliant conception, brilliantly written, brilliantly intellectual, thoughtful and philosophical --- but way too Bourgeoisie for my tastes. It's a paean in some vague way to the post-modern leisure class of the late 1900's, whose lives can be spent toying with ideas and words.
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