If on a winter’s night a traveller

If you have never read Italo Calvino this may be a misleading book to start with, it’s certainly not reminiscent of his short stories and I believe it is unlike his other novels, but it has a kind of cult status in that it is was an original and much talked about experimental work.

‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ starts out as a conversation, Calvino entering and leaving the exchange within the pages of his novel in an unpredictable fashion. This is not a book to lie back and lazily escape into, it requires your attention and concentration to stay with where you are at and to understand what is going on and then just as you are spirited away by his seductive prose and enjoying the ride into the depths of one of his stories, you turn the page and Monsieur Calvino is back.

I enjoyed the diversions, although I was disappointed that he was unable to find a way to leave the sex of the reader neutral, having been almost convinced he might well be speaking to me, it becomes clear he is speaking to his male readers, political correctness not in full swing in the early 1980’s when this was published. But I readily forgive him, especially when assured by Lorna Sage, author of the memoir ‘In Bad Blood’ who wrote in the Observer:

‘devastating, wonderfully ingenious parody of all those dreary best-sellers you buy at the airport…It is a “world novel”: take it with you next time you plan to travel in an armchair’

Chapters are interspersed with stories, the titles of which are referenced in each preceding episode, the stories are the beginning of novels and you the protagonist are searching for the rest of the story while listening to Calvino expound on readers, reading, and writing. Best described in an extract from one of the stories themselves, where he writes:

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion…I see something like a forest that extends in all directions and is so thick that it doesn’t allow light to pass…so it is not impossible that the person who follows my story may feel himself a bit cheated, seeing that the stream is dispersed into so many trickles, and that of the essential events only the last echoes and reverberations arrive at him…’

Playful, impossible to label, is it a…, it is a question, a poem, a collection of stories, a novel and a conversation with Italo Calvino. The author imposes himself and his voice within the pages and we as the reader also become involved in the action as Calvino switches into the second person narrative. If I were an academic I would probably be littering this text with a lot of technical terms describing the literary tools Calvino plays with, literature students are likely to come across it, or at least they did in the past, as David Mitchell, author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ reminisces about here, when he rereads it for a second time.

It’s an oeuvre that defies categorisation, which plays with the reader and will entertain some while annoying others, myself I am content that it has now stopped taunting me from the bookshelf, my curiosity sated, it can now be talked about with some knowledge of its interior. That curiosity won’t rest long however, no doubt it will soon find another dusty volume to settle on, another book I haven’t read by that author I have often read about but have yet to enter their imagined world.

18 thoughts on “If on a winter’s night a traveller

    • I agree, it was a little hard going, it enticed in its day, but the way writers succeed in doing that now has certainly moved on, so I don’t believe it entices in the same way today; I’m happy to have delved but unlike Mitchell, I won’t be buying multiple copies as Christmas gifts!


  1. Beautiful sentiment on the pull that books have on their readers. Oftentimes, it seems that the book I choose to read (or does it choose me) is just the one I needed at a particular moment in time.


    • Yes, I love the way books put themselves in your way and even if we choose not to pick them up today they often reappear as if we didn’t hear them the first time. And sometimes it may be a passage in a book, the random opening of a book that speaks to us. Confessions of a book addict and I’m in good company 🙂


  2. I agree with the others who have commented here, Claire. I don’t think I’ll be buying this book anytime soon. I’m distracted enough as it is to read a book whose writer is as well :-). But, I LOVE the title, and I am a travel writer, so I appreciate having the book pointed out to me. I will read it at some point when I can enjoy it and not be frustrated by its diversions.


    • With certain books timing is everything, and for me certain books bubble to the surface and it gets to the point where I have been looking at them for too long and have to either read them or remove them from the shelf. Calvino gets to stay, but he won’t be frustrating me any longer 🙂


  3. I am on chapter 5ish. I put it down to read something light and will go back. But, after my senior thesis on Orlando, I’m prepared for the task. It is a directive book with streams of consciousness and unconsciousness. I liked how you phrased it “this is not a book to lie back and lazily escape into, it requires your attention and concentration.” It does take the extra effort to stay on task, but there is the reward, which to me was so freeing. I can literally write anything after this!


    • Yes, perseverance is rewarded, even if only for persevering; I too took a pause and read another book which highlighted to me the different speeds with which we consume certain books, I certainly like to vary my choices, I am simultaneously reading ‘Gertrude and Alice’ and they have been on my bedside table for months now, I love the book but it’s a good slow read – the slow movement could equally apply to books perhaps.


      • That’s an excellent point, Claire! In fact, I have a couple of books that I’ve been reading off & on again for the last couple of years! One is, Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope, and another is, Coming to Our Senses, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I got far enough into each that it’s no problem picking them up from time to time to continue where I’d left off.


  4. I absolutely loved Calvino’s Invisible Cities and have been meaning to read this one for ages. It actually sounds like just the book for me at the moment, so I may have to start this weekend.


  5. It sounds like that’s one of those books I’d read in conjunction with other lighter books. Yanno, read intently one or two chapters of Italo Calvino, then read one or two chapters of The Penderwicks, and so forth. 🙂

    It sounds like something I’d like to try, though. Thanks for your insight on this novel.


    • Reading ‘If on a winter night a traveller’ is like reading more than one book at a time 🙂 although I did take a short break while reading to remind myself what it is like to completely devour a book, which I did with ‘How to Spot a Pyschopath’.


  6. I love Calvino… and I read a lot of his novels and short stories when I was first learning Italian. Now I’m pleased to see my older son reading him in elementary school and enjoying him as much as I did. It’s been years since I read “If on a Winter Night…”, which, as you point out, is so unlike his other works. Looks like I’ll have to re-read… thanks for the inspiration!


    • Me too, I have more of his work to read, Calvino is something special.

      I have just been made aware of the work of Primo Levi and yesterday picked up his ‘If this is a Man – The Truce’ which I have started and already moved by, I love reading the work of writers from other cultures, especially those who display interesting insights into humanity captured through a thoughtful collection of words, expressions and style.

      Your son’s story reminds me of when I read Alessandro Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ and really loved it, then heard that because it is(was) compulsory reading on the Italian school curriculum, it wasn’t always enjoyed there – I think that could be said of a few classics, I certainly enjoy them more for being able to pick and choose. But Calvino’s short stories are a real joy.


      • Too funny, Claire. You’re right! “I promessi sposi” is (almost) universally loathed by Italian high school students. I have to admit I find the Italian quite dense and have given up on it several times myself… although I will read it before my kids reach high school!Maybe I should try in translation. : ) I like Primo Levi, too. You may also enjoy another Italian Levi – Carlo Levi and his “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, an incredibly moving book. Thanks for all your great book reviews. I enjoy reading them.


  7. Playful is the premier word I would use to describe Calvino. In a single sentence he can be both mischievous and profound.

    “If on a Winter’s Night…” is very clever and enjoyable but I’ve found “Invisible Cities” and “Cosmicomics” much more rewarding for re-reading. “Invisible Cities” is probably my favourite, some of the passages have wonderful conceptual & literary beauty.


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