Posted by: Nathan | January 1, 2010

Calvino’s Wizardry in If on a winter’s night a traveler

Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler first came into my life in excerpt form in grad school. It was the first chapter of the novel that showcases the second person point of view that the author uses throughout the book: “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” (3). Calvino then walks you–you not the reader because you is and you are the reader–through the beginning steps of reading his book. It’s comical and quaint in the way that only second person meta-fiction can be. It reads like a preface, and you begin the story in earnest thereafter…or so you think. In actuality, Calvino’s novel is one of the most complex reads I’ve ever come across due to its second person point of view, the piling up of stories, and the author’s exploration of truth and falsehood in reading.

Writing in second person is hard to pull off, but Calvino manages. The problem with writing in second person, where the author is directly addressing you the reader, is that the reader may not play along. If Calvino describes you doing or saying something that you would not do or say, you might resist. “That is not me!” you may say, and I did experience some of that in the book. But Calvino brings you along cleverly. He inserts mysteries that you want to solve, so you the character and you the reader don’t seem so different. You meet interesting people. You have beguiling situations to work through. You have a love interest (Ludmilla*). And, most brilliantly of all, Calvino sporadically tells you to do something. In one passage, Calvino chastises you for not being more active in the story, i.e. the story he is entirely responsible for creating: “But do you imagine it can go on this way, this story? No, not that of the novel! Yours! How long are you going to let yourself be dragged passively by the plot?” (217-218). For the most part, I could not resist such charm.

The book is also exceptional in that it is and is not one novel. The story of you spans the reading of ten other novels, which Calvino ascribes to pretend authors. You encounter these books through a complicated series of incidents, but you can never finish the stories you begin due to various problems: you have a defective copy, your book is stolen from you, the person who is reading to you stops, etc. Thus, the novel is constantly in flux as you (character and reader) begin new stories and never finish them. The result is a piling up of stories, which is part of what Calvino is after. Like other postmoderns, he cannot resist dropping hints about what he’s up to. One of the characters in the book is an author who has “the idea of writing a novel composed only of the beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is constantly interrupted. … I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader…” (197-198). This, of course, is precisely the book Calvino has written that you are in the process of reading.

While this conglomeration of the beginnings of stories and never the endings is part of the brilliance of the novel, it is also a drawback. Calvino tests his readers. How many times can he begin a new story that abruptly ends without you throwing down the book in frustration? I admit I was angered when some of the ten “novels” ended, though I was glad to be rid of others. This format is particularly infuriating at the beginning of the novel before you know what’s going on. However, Calvino teaches you how to read his book if you give him the chance. I like this structure, overall, but it isn’t without faults.

The best facet of Traveler has to be the author’s interest in truth and falsehood in reading. I love this novel for exploring this duality. As a postmodern book, I did not expect Calvino to come out and tell me what is true and false (he doesn’t), but I am glad he takes up the issue in a time when “nobody” cared about the relationship between truth and literature. In the novel, there are two opposing groups who fight for control of the printed word–literary mafia, if you will. The one side believes that true books are the key to the future; the other confiscates the “true” books and proliferates cheap counterfeit novels published under a famous author’s name. You (the character) try to find the rest of the book that has just ended, but you find only other books published under the previous author’s name.

The hero of the story is Ludmilla, who, unlike everyone else, can simply read. She enjoys reading and seeks nothing from it except pleasure; all the other characters in the story envy her (including you) and/or want to stop her. For Ludmilla, “‘reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book'” (239).This is a lofty description of reading–almost a supernatural one. I love it. One gets the sense that Calvino wants more of us to read like Ludmilla.

The ending is somewhat iffy, though I have no idea how one could ever end a novel like If on a winter’s night a traveler, but the novel is definitely good reading. The pitfalls of the second person and perpetual interruptions are balanced by the charm, structure, depth, and novelty of the book. I do not recommend this for readers who like to sink into a story until it is over; such readers would loathe this novel. If you are flexible, however, Traveler will entertain and engage you unlike any novel I’ve read.

On the back cover of my copy, John Updike calls Calvino “a wizard.” He casts a pretty good spell. ★★★★

*I would be fascinated to hear from a woman who read this book and didn’t like being forced to be attracted to a female character. Yes, Calvino does something brilliant to ameliorate the situation (I won’t say what here), but is it too little?


  1. I absolutely did not have a problem with being “attracted” to Ludmilla: she was the most fascinating character! I had much more trouble identifying with other traits of the Reader, who was both a little too bland and a little too specific for me…

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