If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979) – Italo CALVINO

Over at the World Literature Forum, a book group has started up, and this month’s pick (the first one), is this novel. Unfortunately, this novel and I have some history – I first tried to read it about five years ago at school, when we studied postmodernism. I didn’t get past the first chapter though. After several more attempts the same year, it lay on my shelf, abandoned, until now. And I’ve finally finished it. It’s only taken five years, but it’s worth all the pain.

You pick up Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and get yourself ready to read this author’s excellent work. As you read, however, you realise that something isn’t right. The first chapter is not of the novel you thought at all. Returning to the bookshop, you realise the wrong pages are in your copy. However, once you read another incorrect novel, you begin to realise that something far bigger is going on here.

The term ‘postmodern’ is bandied around a lot today to describe anything that is even a little bit out of the accepted terms of realism. But here we have a bona fide piece of postmodern literature, commenting on reading and writing as acts of reader and writer, as well as being self-reflexively aware of the stories that are contained within this specific novel. Calvino’s focus is on the act of reading, and how each person approaches it, and how people can come together by reading similar novels, or by investigating the world of the novel as a group. The main character (arguably the person reading the novel at the time) meets the Other Reader, whose world is far more complicated than it appears at first glance, and together they travel across the globe trying to sort out the literary mystery of Ermes Marana, travelling through a whole swathe of literary styles as we go.

There are a lot of sly digs at literary critics in universities and the work they do in relation to telling the public how to read certain novels, and the petty fights they get into about translated and world literature. These caricatures of professors are just one example of something that pervades this novel – humour. With all the literary pyrotechnics going off the background, there was a big chance that this novel could have come off as a giant pretentious waste of time. But it’s not. This is actually a quite funny novel, which is probably for the best, because the premise is so ridiculous and bonkers, that had Calvino tried to treat it as a weighty, serious tome, it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he is happy to revel in the insanity of his characters and situations, and allow us to remember the reasons we read – for the joy of being able to escape the world, to find out about the world around us, or any one of the many other reasons.

I should make mention of the pieces of text that we read as the story moves along. Some of them are absolutely brilliant short vignettes in their own right, and are playful nods to many literary movements and styles of the twentieth century. Special mentions must go to the first extract, with it’s murky train station and briefcase exchange, as well as the South American one, which I loved for no reason in particular. Of course, these extracts are not just sidesteps from the main narrative – they tie back in, and continue many of the themes that the two main characters are exploring in the real world. Well, in the not fake world. Well, somewhere, anyway. That’s another concern of Calvino’s, by the way, and one that certainly fits in with the postmodern mindset – what is real, what is fake, and can anything be original anymore? Does it even matter? One fictional Irish author had seen someone writing in his style and thought that the end result was better than anything he had ever done.

There’s a lot – and I mean a truckload – of stuff going on in this novel, so I should probably stop now. But this is an excellent, excellent novel. It has so much to say about literature and reading that anyone who calls themself an intelligent reader should read this. Now. I’m sure I’ve missed at least half of what Calvino was trying to tell me, but this is definitely a book that deserves a careful reread.

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11 thoughts on “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979) – Italo CALVINO

  1. […] Italo Calvino: If On A Winter's Night A Traveler Mwahaha, finally finished. My thoughts are here. I can't believe I neglected this book for so long! Seriously, this is a work of absolute genius, […]

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I’m very tempted Matt. I think I’ve got a handle on modernism now, but post modernism is a mystery. So I for one will be very grateful if you would continue to blog your journey with this book, and in the meantime will be trying to dig up a copy so that I can follow along.

    • matttodd says:

      I am the other way around, I think. I’m pretty down with postmodernism, but I only understand modernism through the poetry. Which may not be that different from the novel, but I’ve only really touched one or two Woolf’s, and I think that’s about it…

      And yes, read this as your introduction to postmodernism. It almost totally sums up the entire movement in one novel. And then read Martin Amis – maybe London Fields – and then The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is by John Fowles. It’s all amazing stuff!

  3. adevotedreader says:

    Lisa, I’d wholeheartedly second Matt’s recommendation and encourage you to read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Calvino is a playful and ingenious writer, and one I love although no fan of post modernism. His Invisible Cities is also brilliant.

  4. estelle says:

    seconding adevotedreader above — go for your life with this book. It requires a very different type of reading to early canon books, where each word is part of a static whole. Calvino is very playful, and so fun.

  5. BookSnob says:

    Amazing that I should stumble upon your blog today, as If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler has come up several times for me recently on my own blog, in the context of post-modern literature, and then again when I was contemplating short stories.

    For those interested, reading If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler is the first step in tackling this list (although I don’t agree with all the suggestions…)

    • matttodd says:

      An interesting list – there’s somem really good stuff on there. And no Amis, which seems like a massive oversight. But there you go.

      • BookSnob says:

        I agree re: Amis. I only started reading him about a year ago, and am in love…I actually force myself to wait a few months between his books so I don’t exhaust his whole collection too quickly!

        I also thought that David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas seemed like it should be on the list and was not.

        There are also some authors on that list that I think are there with the wrong book – how can you have Milan Kundera with The Book of Laughter and Forgetting instead of Immortality???

      • ronakmsoni says:

        And no Coetzee too.

  6. Lisa Hill says:

    I found a copy today, and have begun!
    BTW I *loved* Cloud Atlas! It should have won the Booker.

  7. […] If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller which I have been hunting for ever since I read Matt Todd’s seductive review.  I started reading this in a coffee shop in the Block Arcade before meeting up with The Spouse at […]

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