If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

I got the book as a Christmas present. I’ve never read anything like this and it’s awesome. Absurd. Confusing. Hilarious. I’m close to calling it a must-read. The book certainly does not belong to the categories of: “Books You Needn’t Read”, or “Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered”, or “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too”, though it does probably belong to the category of “Books You Haven’t Read” (all the previous categories are listed in the book; it turns out there are a lot of book categories..). I assume that for me it’ll at some point become a “[Book] Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread.”

There are a lot of ‘stories within the story’, and many of the “I’s” (and “you’s”) in the quotes to follow refer to completely different people. I’ve tried to pick out some quotes illustrating just why this book is awesome, funny, absurd, intriguing and original:

i. “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. 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. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.” [The book’s first paragraph…]

ii. “For a couple of pages now you have been reading on, and this would be the time to tell you clearly whether this station where I have got off is a station of the past or a station of today; instead the sentences continue to move in vagueness, grayness, in a kind of no man’s land of experience reduced to the lowest common denominator.”

iii. “You have now read about thirty pages and you’re becoming caught up in the story. At a certain point you remark: “This sentence sounds somehow familiar. In fact, this whole passage reads like something I’ve read before.” […] just when you were beginning to grow truly interested, at this very point the author feels called upon to display one of those virtuoso tricks so customary in modern writing, repeating a paragraph word for word. Did you say paragraph? Why, it’s a whole page; you make the comparison, he hasn’t changed even a comma. And as you continue, what develops? Nothing: the narration is repeated, identical to the pages you have read!
Wait a minute! Look at the page number. Damn! From page 32 you’ve gone back to page 17! What you thought was a stylistic subtlety on the author’s part is simply a printer’s mistake: they have inserted the same pages twice. […]

The next day, as soon as you have a free moment, you run to the bookshop, you enter, holding the book already opened, pointing your finger at a page, as if that alone were enough to make clear the general disarray. “You know what you sold me? … Look here … Just when it was getting interesting …”
The bookseller maintains his composure. “Ah, you too? I’ve had several complaints already. And only this morning I received a form letter from the publisher. You see? ‘In the distribution of the latest works on our list a part of the edition of the volume If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino has proved defective and must be withdrawn from circulation. Through an error of the bindery, the printed signatures of that book became mixed with those of another new publication, the Polish novel Outside the town of Malbork by Tazio Bazakbal. […] A Polish novel. Then the book you began reading wasn’t the book you thought but was a Polish novel instead. That is the book you are now so anxious to procure. Don’t let them fool you. Explain clearly the situation. “No, actually I don’t really give a damn about that Calvino any more. I started the Polish one and it’s the Polish one I want to go on with. Do you have this Bazakbal book?”

iv. “”Me? I don’t read books!” Irnerio says.
“What do you read, then?”
“Nothing. I’ve become so accustomed to not reading that I don’t even read what appears before my eyes. It’s not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me.””

v. “I try to follow her, but she doesn’t turn around.
Several paragraphs ensue, bristling with names of generals and deputies, concerned with the shelling and retreats from the front, about schisms and unifications in the parties represented in the Council, punctuated by climatic annotations: downpours, frosts, racing clouds, windstorms. All this, in any case, solely as a frame for my moods […]”

vi. “”You need another sack to stick over his head,” Bernadette said, and once again I had to admit that girl’s intelligence was superior to what you would expect from one of her background.
The trouble was that we couldn’t manage to find another large-size plastic bag. There was only one, for a kitchen garbage can, a small orange sack that could serve very well to conceal his head, but not to conceal the fact that this was a human body contained in one sack, with the head contained in a smaller one.
But the way things were, we couldn’t stay in that basement any longer, we had to get rid of Jojo before daylight, we had already been carrying him around for a couple of hours as if he were alive, a third passenger in my convertible, and we had already attracted the attention of too many people. For instance, those two cops on their bicycles who came over quietly and stopped to look at us as we were about to tip him into the river […] It seems impossible, in a big city like Paris, but you can waste hours looking for the right place to burn up a corpse.”

vii. “What are you like, Other Reader? It is time for this book in the second person to address itself no longer to a general male you, perhaps brother and double of a hypocrite I, but directly to you who appeared already in the second chapter as the Third Person necessary for the novel to be a novel, for something to happen between that male Second Person and the female Third, for something to take form, develop, or deteriorate, according to the phases of human events. Or, rather, to follow the mental models through which we live our human events. Or, rather, to follow the mental models through which we attribute to human events the meanings that allow them to be lived.
This book so far has been careful to leave open to the Reader who is reading the possibility of identifying himself with the Reader who is read: this is why he was not given a name, which would automatically have made him the equivalent of a Third Person, of a character (whereas to you, as Third Person, a name had to be given, Ludmilla), and so he has been kept a pronoun, in the abstract condition of pronouns, suitable for any attribute and any action.”

viii. “I would like all the details that i am writing down to concur in creating the impression of a high-precision mechanism, but at the same time of a succession of dazzles that reflect something that remains out of eyeshot. For this reason I must not neglect to insert every so often, at the points where the plot becomes thickest, some quotation from an ancient text: for example, a passage from the De Magia Naturale of Giovanni Battista della Porta, where he says that the magician—that is, the “minister of Nature”—must know “the reasons that the sight is deceived, the images that are produced under water, and in mirrors made in various forms, which at times dispel images from the mirrors, suspended in the air, and he must know how things done at a distance may be clearly seen.”

ix. “The plan to trap me envisaged that between the Honda motorcycles of my escort and the armoured car in which I rode, three Yamaha motorcycles would interpose themselves, ridden by three false policemen, who would suddenly slam on their brakes before the curve. According to my counterplan, there would instead be three Suzuki motorcycles which would block my Mercedes five hundred meters before, in a fake kidnapping. When I saw myself blocked by three Kawasaki motorcycles at an intersection before the other two, I realized that my counter-plan had been frustrated by a counter-counterplan whose author I did not know.”

x. “In a deck chair, on the terrace of a chalet in the valley, there is a young woman reading. Every day, before starting work, I pause a moment to look at her with the spyglass.”

xi. “I [this is a quote from a chapter in the book including stuff ‘from the diary of Silas Flannery’] have 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 …I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader … I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary…”

xii. “at the moment it [a book] doesn’t seem to be available. But if you will be so patient as to wait a week, or two at most, I have an exquisite surprise in store for you. Our informers report that one of our most important banned authors, Anatoly Anatolin, has been working for some time on a version of Bandera’s novel in an Ircanian setting. From other sources we know that Anatolin is about to finish a new novel entitled What story down there awaits its end?, for whose confiscation we have already arranged a surprise police action, so as to prevent the work from entering underground circulation.”


December 29, 2012 - Posted by | Books


  1. A fine book this one, but then again it is a Calvino work,. Invisible Cities is an immense work also, if you haven’t read that.

    Comment by StetotheJ | December 29, 2012 | Reply

    • I haven’t read it (yet). But I think I probably will at some point.

      A week ago I’d never even heard about Calvino. Now I’ve read one of his books and I’m thinking about reading another one of his books later on. Maybe I’ll change my mind before I ever do that – it’s not easy to figure out precisely what to read and what not to read, and as Gwern put it in his essay, With our too too short lives, and so much to see, one does oneself a great disservice by consuming anything but the best..

      Comment by US | December 30, 2012 | Reply

      • _Invisible Cities_ is one of my favorite books, FWIW. I liked it much more than _If on a winters night_, as interesting as the latter was; not for nothing did I put it on my favorites list:

        Comment by gwern | January 1, 2013

      • Thanks for that comment Gwern – that’s yet another not-insignificant argument for reading the book.

        Comment by US | January 1, 2013

  2. well the great thing about Calvino is that each of his books are stylistically different, the best is definitely an intriguing idea. If magical realism is your thing, then any Márquez or Eco’s best works may interest you…

    Comment by StetotheJ | December 31, 2012 | Reply

    • Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ makes Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ reads like high school writing.

      Comment by Miao | January 5, 2013 | Reply

  3. Since you like Calvino (and have read Hamlet), you should read/watch Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (which is also on Gwerns favorite list, I see).

    Comment by Stefan | January 5, 2013 | Reply

    • You could also have written ‘since you like Stoppard…’ – I covered The Real Inspector Hound here on the blog a while back.. Anyway I’ve added Rosencrantz… to my list of books to consider reading (as well as The Name of the Rose).

      I should probably point out that I think you’re mistaken about me having read Hamlet. I’ve read King Lear, All’s well that ends well and Romeo and Juliet. But I don’t think I’ve ever read Hamlet. I certainly haven’t blogged it (a blog search on Hamlet gives 0 hits – it’s sometimes a bit difficult for me to keep track of the stuff I read so I like to use the blog as a way to remember, and though I don’t blog everything I read I think I’d have blogged Hamlet if I’d read it.).

      Comment by US | January 5, 2013 | Reply

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