If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

January 2019

Possibly the most “meta” book ever - a book about itself, with a second-person protagonist and stories within stories within stories. From the opening line - “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler” - you (or You) the reader (or Reader) are sucked into the novel. I first read this book many years ago, in Germany and in German. My German reading comprehension wasn’t as strong then as it is now so I missed much of what was going on. Even so, this meditation on the act of writing and reading entranced me, so when a found a second-hand copy of the excellent English translation by William Weaver (Umberto Eco’s translator), I snapped it up. This is your classic twisty, post-modern text in the vein of Borges or Eco, and while it may seem less innovative now than when it was written, or perhaps too clever for it’s own good, it’s no less fun to read for all that. I laughed out loud in parts, especially the opening section with it’s description of you, the reader, making your way through a bookstore to find Calvino’s novel, past the “Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you”, “Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered,” “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too” and many others. Much of the book’s action, as it were, hinges on the activities of a “treacherous translator”, which delights me no end. There is also a “mysterious sect that steals manuscripts”, detective work in a publishing house, a possibly non-existent book in a possibly dead language, and, ultimately and above all, a love story. And it’s this love story at the heart of the book that gives rise to one of my favorite passages of all time from any book ever. I quote it at length because I adore it: “Already, in the confused improvisation of the first encounter, the possible future of a cohabitation is read. Today each of you is the object of the other’s reading, each reads in the other the unwritten story. Tomorrow, Reader and Other Reader, if you are together, if you lie down in the same bed like a settled couple, each will turn on the lamp at the side of the bed and sink into his or her book; two parallel readings will accompany the approach of sleep; first you, then you will turn out the light; returning from separated universes, you find each other fleetingly in the darkness, where all separations are erased, before divergent dreams draw you again, one to one side, and one to the other. But do not wax ironic on this prospect of conjugal harmony: what happier image of a couple could you set against it?” Indeed.

Further reading…