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Reviews of If on a winter's night a traveler (1979)

Review by mojosmom (2005-04-11)
Count me among those who love this novel. To describe the plot is difficult. You (the Reader) have purchased a copy of Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. You discover that there is an error in the binding, and that your signatures repeat. When you go to exchange the book, you are given a different book, but discover that it has nothing to do with the one you read yesterday. Similar disasters occur, and as you try to find complete copies of the novels, the first chapters of which are reproduced here, you find yourself and "the woman" (Ludmilla) encountering yourselves in the books. And all have a mysterious connection.

Oh, this is sheer delight! From the skewering of academia (" . . . during the reading there must be some who underline the reflections of production methods, others the processes of reification, others the sublimation of repression, others the sexual semantic codes, others the metalanguages of the body,others the transgression of roles . . . "), to the satirization of publishers ("Ah, you've come to collect the manuscript? No, we haven't found it, do just be patient a bit longer, it'll turn up, nothing is ever lost here, only today we found a manuscript we'd been looking for these past ten years, oh, not another ten years, we'll find yours sooner, at least let's hope so, we have so many manuscripts, piles this high, if you like we'll show them to you, of course you want your own, not somebody else's, that's obvious, I mean we preserve so many manuscripts we don't care a fig about, we'd hardly throw away yours which means so much to us, no, not to publish it, it means so much for us to give it back to you"), Calvino gives us a humorous and incisive look at the pleasures and terrors of being a reader, as we hunt for books. Who among us cannot identify with this trip to the bookstore:

. . . you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must neer allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too.

Our Reader inspects the home of the Other Reader. And, as many of us are wont to do, he inspects the books, not only their titles, but their arrangement, their locations, and from this he deduces that she is not a Reader Who Rereads, that she reads several books at the same time, different things for different hours of the day.

I love this book's complexity, its surprises. I love its stylistic conceits. I recommend you buy it, so that you can "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. " Enjoy.

Review by clong (2005-03-19)
This is an unusual, thought provoking book. It is not really a novel in the traditional sense; it is a series of completely unrelated snippets of novels, linked by a story about two readers who desperately want to read any or all of these novels to their completion, but who are prevented from doing so by a convoluted, comical series of coincidences.

It is very explicitly a novel about the act of writing, and the act of reading, and the role of the author and the role of the reader. It is reminiscent of the work of Luigi Pirandello, but with the added benefit of wit and charm. The prose is a pleasure to read.

Review by Jago360 (2004-11-26)
Definitely a book with a unique premise: the story is about you, the reader, who has just bought (or thought you bought) Italo Calvino's new book. The chapters alternate between the storyline of the reader trying to obtain a complete copy of the book, and various excerpts taken from other pieces of literature within the world of the book that, despite first appearances, fit together in some way or other.

The above sentence is probably rather confusing, just like the book it describes. "If on a winter's night a traveller" is most definitely not a conventional book; it attempts, with some success, to bring together many different styles of literature and connect them through interlocking storylines that seem initially seem rather discrete.

It's a valiant effort and worth reading simply for the novelty; however, as far as cohesive literature goes, Calvino's book stumbles a bit. It is difficult to follow the thread of the two main storylines and even tougher to keep straight the many "subplots" (though each subplot is more like a miniature storyline of its own), and tends to come off as a collection of short stories more than anything else.

Still, this book is probably unlike anything you've read before, and as such is worth a look. A word of advice, however: if, after the first few chapters, you find that characters and places are running together in your mind, be warned that it will only get worse.

©Steven Jeffery /, 2017
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