You are about to begin reading Sirena’s book review on Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Adjust the lighting or the brightness on your phone or laptop, so as not to strain your eyes. You’ve come here because you’ve seen Calvino’s book in a bookstore and you’re currently debating on whether or not you should get it. You decide that you should. You open his book and you find that you are the protagonist. You are the Reader and, the plot of which you read, is of you reading.
Here, your journey may take several paths. You may read this novel in a single day and, at the end, leave the novel never being able to read the same again. You may also have enjoyed the book thoroughly but, having such an ethereal experience in which you are exponentially more aware of the act of reading, you can never read again. Or you may not like Calvino at all.
I, unfortunately, am only a reader (of which kind, I’m not entirely sure even after completing this book) and an aspiring writer still in need of much development; I’ve such a long way to go before I can share the authority of Calvino to go so far as to tell you how to read this book and what you’ll find. Here is my experience (and I use the word liberally because this novel truly is an experience):
I must begin with the disclaimer that this is my first novel told in second person that I’ve completely read. (I’ve attempted other second person prose—mostly short stories—and never brought myself to finish reading them, largely because I simply didn’t like them. I’ll delve into the mechanisms working in Calvino’s narrator that made me like this novel as opposed to others in my next post.) Next, I must say that this is a genre of metafiction, perhaps not as extreme as Barth, but metafiction nonetheless. As much as I’d love to write which parts of this book worked for me and which parts didn’t, I feel instead that it may be more beneficial, for me to tell you what to expect.
If you are a reader that views reading as a form of escapism, don’t read this book. The act of reading itself is a central part of the novel, especially how you and “you,” the Reader, take part of the book, thus you are constantly reminded of reading. Some may argue this pulls the actual you out of the book’s world, but the book’s world is the act of reading, so by becoming aware of your own experience, you are taking part of Calvino’s intent.
This narrative is also not smooth nor fluid. Now, that is not a mistake or accident, but the fragmented form (stories never completed, narratives between chapters) is the very purpose of this novel. Calvino explores the relationship between a reader and his or her books; does the reader read each book as its own separate voice or, through the world of literature and our own human bias, do we approach each work of literature looking for something, hoping to gain the invaluable aspect that makes literature so special? If the latter, isn’t reading, therefore, a fragmented life experience, each narrative contributing to our own? If, instead, it is the prior, how often does one read an entire book in one sitting? In between one’s break from books, does our experience in reality not affect how we view a novel’s intent?
All these are questions Calvino proposes through the form of his novel and through the plot of incomplete chapters and the Reader’s search for closure. That being said, to obsess over the technicalities of the relationships (the true Calvino, the actual narrator, the real “You,” etc.) would result in you missing the point. The interlaced connections within and surrounding If on a winter’s night a traveler is meant to blur the novel’s own reality. What is truth and what isn’t becomes irrelevant. If you do approach this novel, a difficult task that should not be intended for the light, easy reader, then focus on the experience of the novel as a whole. The first few chapters does an excellent job of helping you surrender to the dynamics of the world and the “You” that is the Reader. Do not approach this novel critically, but instead focus on your experience and how the broken narrative affects your own views of literature.