If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino

5 November, 2010

Hmm. This is a tricky one. You may recall my obsessive fangirl moment with David Mitchell where I got to the front of the queue to get his books signed and totally blanked, unable to utter a single word to him. Not cool, and I still thump my head against the wall when I remember the cringy moment. I got a copy of If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino way back in April purely because David Mitchell said it was a great book. I had to, right? So imagine my delight when my book group decided to read it for October. It would give me the proverbial kick up my backside to actually tackle it. So I was really looking forward to reading it. However, reading a book like this on the commute wasn’t such a good idea. You really need to read this sitting down, in a quite space, maybe in bed, all nice and comfy because Calvino’s book is a rollercoaster ride for the mind. A tempest-tossed vessel indeed. Because it’s very metaphysical and postmodern and all the things that somehow manages to screw with my brain.

And I see why Mitchell likes it so much because you can see the seed of Cloud Atlas in this book. Admittedly in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell has taken the most obvious aspect of Calvino’s work and turned it into a more reader-friendly narrative. With If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Calvino makes you do all the work.

The book opens with a meditation on reading which was hysterical and also makes you think about what it means to read. Then we go into the story which turns out to have been cut abruptly and the Reader returns to the bookshop to get another, error-free copy. There he discovers that it is actually the wrong book by the wrong author and he also meets another Reader whom he is attracted to. They decide to meet up and check whether their new copies are the same. Which turns out to be another mistake, in the wrong language, and so it continues. Each book morphs into another, the Reader starts reading the first chapter of the new novel and again, at the crucial point when our interest has been whetted, we are rudely stopped, awoken and must go and search for the correct novel, author, translation. It’s very meta.

There were so many times when I just wanted to stop reading just to give my brain a break. But then I continued and it became interesting and confusing and the cycle starts again.

This is a brilliant and very clever book. You can’t but applaud what Calvino has done because I haven’t really read anything else like it. And I was very impressed that Calvino somehow manages to make it work in the end. Sort of. I’m still in a postmodern haze as I type this, but I liked what he did in the end. I think I can forgive him the mind f*ck, because he ended it quite simply, quite beautifully.

My only quibble with it, and the reason why I thought about quitting, is that there wasn’t much emotional depth to it. You couldn’t really care about the characters including the Reader and the other Reader. But then again, maybe it isn’t about the characters and it’s just about the breaking of form and structure and the possibilities of stories. And it is about books and reading and writing and creating something from nothing. I’m in two minds as to whether I want to read anything else by Calvino for a while, just to give my mind a rest.

The other thing, which probably made Cloud Atlas an easier book to read than this one, was that Calvino didn’t finish any of the stories he began. So we are left with about ten half-finished tales which bugged me somewhat.

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the book group meeting as I somehow managed to do something to my back and had to console myself with some acupuncture instead. I’m so disappointed as I really wanted to discuss it to get a clearer picture and to see what insights the others may have gleaned.

Have you read any of Calvino’s books? Should I persevere? And does it get easier?

You can also find out what Kimbofo aka Reading Matters and Simon aka Savidge Reads thought of this book.

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15 Responses to “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino”

  1. Rebecca Reid Says:

    I didn’t get the Calvino I read when I first began blogging (INVISIBLE CITIES). But I think my mind is getting more open to weird structure and setups. Some day I want to give this one a try too. Sometime when I feel I can handle a brain workout.

  2. Fëanor Says:

    I’ve read a couple of Calvino’s ‘fantasy’ works – they’re set in fantasyscapes but are really meditations on identity, the plot giving way to brainfood, if you know what I mean. Check out: The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount). But he also has a series of utterly whimsical pieces collected in a tome The Complete Cosmicomics, which was great fun. Of course, it’s difficult to read at a single sitting…

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    I read invisible cites and enjoyed that ,I ve this penciled in for January as part of my Italian week,think Calvino a bit like Perec sometimes the cleverness of writing is a bit too much ,all the best stu

  4. amymckie Says:

    Wow. This sounds absolutely crazy. Still not sure I could even begin to try it 🙂

  5. Steph Says:

    I’ve tried to read this several times and finally gave up realizing it just wasn’t for me. I was so frustrated that all of the stories kept stopping partway through and were never going to be finished! I need closure!


  6. I did my dissertation at uni on I Nostri Antenati by Calvino (the Our Ancestors trilogy of fantasy novellas). That was a long time ago but they could be read on so many different levels. Funnily enough I haven’t read any Calvino since although I keep meaning to visit If On A Winter’s Night…

  7. nymeth Says:

    I need to try to read this again at some point – sadly when I first did a few years ago it left me cold. I loved the structure and all the metafictional aspects, but I did get frustrated that none of the stories really went anymore, even if I knew that was part of nthe point. After a while, I just no longer cared.

  8. chasing bawa Says:

    Rebecca: I’d like to read him again after a while too. It was a brilliant book but hard work.

    Fëanor: Thanks for the recs. I will try and check them out at some point. Sounds like they are good for dipping into (but I like books like that).

    winstonsdad: I haven’t read anything by Perec yet but I’m planning too. It will be interesting to see what you think of it.

    amymckie: I would definitely want to see what you think, Amy. Not sure if it’s the best one to start with but I haven’t read anything else by Calvino.

    Steph: I’m with you regarding closure. That was quite frustrating just being given glimpses of stories.

    Teresa: That must have been one interesting dissertation. I felt with this book that I would have found it more rewarding if I had put more time and thought into the reading while discussing it with someone at the same time.

    nymeth: I was really impressed with the amount of thought that must have gone into creating this book. It’s unlike anything else I’d read. But yes, it didn’t really speak to me at an emotional level either.

  9. Dark Puss Says:

    This is an absolutely fantastic book so I urge you to continue! Here is a comment I made upon this book: http://morganas-cat.tumblr.com/post/644027220/on-the-colouring-of-maps

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hello! I did finish it and I thought it was brilliant, although confusing and slightly messy, book. It’s definitely one where you need some head space to digest everything. But it did show me how fiction doesn’t have to be confined within rules and that anything is possible if you can think outside the box.

  10. Parrish Says:

    have just finished this book ,which I got for Xmas from daughter & I loved it. Every unfinished tale from the detective to the borges – like one was fantastic. I found the whole book a page turner, just wanted to see what he came up with next.
    Parrish.
    ps, It also made me laugh alot.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it. It certainly is a brilliant book and extremely clever and I think it shows the scope of fiction, how you don’t need to stick to the rules but can be freer. I think I made the mistake of reading it on my commute and breaking it up so found it very frustrating. Maybe when I do a re-read I’ll try and read it all in one go!


  11. […] Chasing Bawa – “I think I can forgive him the mind f*ck, because he ended it quite simply, quite beautifully.” […]

  12. Alexandra Says:

    I’ve struggled through the book and still feel devastated. I was glad to read this post and the comments to discover I am not alone. The friend who’d recommended this to me, promised to make up with another Calvino. But for now I really need a break. 🙂

    • sakura Says:

      I think everyone in my book group felt the same. Some even wanted to throw the book across the room! So you are not alone. It’s brilliant but it’s certainly not an easy read!


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