Goodreadings: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

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I’ve just finished one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read.

Now I love weird books. Books with cheeky narrators, with weird narrative structures, strange concepts, odd orders and philosophies. They often take more energy to read than ‘conventional’ narratives, though; which is why it took me quite a while to finish this particular book.

I’ll do you one better; I regularly forgot I was reading Traveler at all, even while I was reading it!

Weird. I know. But very logical, too, you’ll see.

If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino is one of those books which balance on the border of faux pas; baiting its readers just enough to make them want to keep reading and not throw it across the room in frustration, or worse, put it down out of boredom. It also utilizes one of the most uncomfortable and least used narrative structures of literature: the second person narrative.

Second person narratives are not popular. They’re confusing, and can very easily cross into ‘awkward’. Understandable, really: not every reader is ready to be not only addressed directly, but actively inserted into the narrative without an ounce of agency. You know, since the narrator explicitly tells you what you, the Reader, do, think, feel, and want. It’s a strange experience at best.

The adventure in the second person narrative in If on a winter’s night a traveller is alternated with books the main character encounters and reads. The main character, who is you, the Reader, who is called the Reader by the narrator. You read these chapters as the main character supposedly reads them, and then read about how you (Reader) react(s?) to these chapters. Yeah, the levels of narrative structure really blur throughout this novel, but it’s not as off putting as it might sound!

We should never judge a book by its cover, but it often does offer a sense of what the book is all about…

These chapters each are the beginning of another novel, with each new characters, a new time period, situation and plot. Each time, the Reader hopes it’ll be the continuation of the last book he’s read, but each supposed translation of the previous book turns out to be its own thing. Frustrating for both Reader and, well, the actual reader. It’s almost artful how each chapter is just the right length to make you forget you were reading the Traveler, only to be drawn out of the story again and back into the frustrating quest of the Reader, trying to reunite with his story.

There’s many weird and super interesting things going on, all kinds of intrigue and plots by publishers, governments and secret organizations. It escalates quickly, but somehow, due to the Reader not really understanding everything, it feels like it’s okay that you don’t either. But I won’t spoil too much. I will definitely come back to this book in order to discuss the rogue translator the plot evolves around, though. But not today. Today I’m telling you this:

If on a winter’s night a traveler is a book about reading; about the magic of it, and the technicalities of it, about the dangers and the joys, the confusion it can often bring. The freedom it offers and the maze it can turn out to be. It’s just as much a love-letter to reading as an attack on writing, and vice versa; it blurs the lines between readers, writers, translators, and anyone who has anything to do with books. It offers ideas without real judgments, encouraging you to form your own opinions on literature and reading, and make you somehow love it whilst simultaneously being incredibly frustrated.

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. 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 meta is real in this one, friends.

When I bought this book in a small bookshop in Rome, the girl at the counter groaned, then smiled, then mentioned how everyone in Italy is supposed to read this book in high school.

Now that I’ve read it myself, I understand her reaction. It’s a whacky book, which makes it better than most things I had to read in high school. That doesn’t make it any easier to get through, understand, or write a report about. There’s a lot of stuff going on, both in the Reader’s adventures and the many first chapters he reads. And that cheeky narrator just tops it right off for me, but can be confusing or annoying to those who won’t accept the strange relationship you have with them.

I definitely recommend If on a winter’s night a Traveler, I had a blast with it, even though it took me some time to get through it. If you enjoy whacky narrative structures, in-depth considerations of the literary world and the process of reading itself, or being kept on your toes in general, it’s definitely for you. It is a difficult book to summarize, but it is full of interesting concepts to explore. More than enough for short essays or theoretical exploration, it’s an interesting postmodern experiment in writing. I’ll certainly be coming back to it, so keep an eye out if you’re interested!

And, in the meantime, Read it!