Italo Calvino – "If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller"

13 Oct


GENRE: Literary fiction
PUBLISHED: Harvest Book, 1982


The back blurb:
” ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambiance, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense. Together they form a labyrinth of literature, known and unknown, alive and extinct, through which two readers, a male and a female, pursue both the story lines that intrigue them and one another. They are the true heroes of the novel, for what would writing be without the readers?”


Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is one of the novels a lot of (literary) people say you have to read. Luckily, I always wanted to read it. So, when there was a special edition of this novel in German, coupled with a reasonable price, I bought it. (I used the edition by Harvest Book for illustration here, because on amazon.com you can see the back blurb, with which I like to start my comments.)

I wasn’t disappointed – it was what I expected. It’s a postmodern novel. It’s a “mechanical” novel. It’s a “philosophical” novel. It’s an “arty” novel.

It’s an “arty” novel, because the art of writing is made into a theme by writing ten different beginnings of novels in it. For me, these beginnings illustrate the art of writing: they are all different, but they serve all the same purpose – to suck the reader in and to make the reader want to continue. Of course, then they break up at a moment of suspense.

It’s a “philosophical” novel, because the novel is basically about reading. It considers all kinds of things connected with the reading process and theorizes the role of the reader. There is even a typology of readers near the end. The novel emphasizes the significance of the reader for literature (and writing in general) and celebrates the reader – both male and female, although the female reader is addressed directly rather late into the book. Because of this celebration of the reader, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller reads like the novel for the reader-response approach to literature. Because of that I say it’s a “philosophical” novel.

It’s a “mechanical” novel, because the reader can watch the writer “putting the novel together”. I had the feeling that there was this idea to illustrate the importance of the reader, and to do it in the form of the novel. Because of that, the frame story about the reader(s), which connects the beginnings of the different novels, got weaker the longer the novel progressed. The reasons why the reader isn’t able to complete yet another novel are from time to time more difficult to believe. The longer the novel, the more the reader can see the writer put together (or bend) the elements of the frame story to get his idea across. That’s why I say If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a “mechanical” novel.

So did I enjoy reading this novel? The answer is: Yes, in a detached way. Meaning: I enjoyed it most when I thought/think about the book. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is an illustration of reader-response criticism, and in that way I enjoyed it. I was impressed by Calvino’s ability to write all these different beginnings, and I enjoyed this ability (his art of writing). I, too, enjoyed his imaginative ideas to interrupt the novels in the novel and to connect them, even if the later interruptions and connections seemed to be a bit out there. And, finally, I enjoyed the subtly suggestion of eroticism involved in the process of reading.

But I didn’t enjoy this novel like Ludmilla, the female reader in it, enjoys (and reads) a novel in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.


Would I recommend this novel? Yes.

Would I read this novel again? Probably not.

Grade: 4 / 5


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