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If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller


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If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore) Italo Calvino – 1979

This book is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter's night a traveler. The first chapter and every odd numbered chapter are in second person, and tell the reader what they are doing to get ready to read the next chapter. The even numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.
This is a really weird book. You don't know whether you are reading it or are on the lookout for a book the author is looking for. You don't know whether it's a book, a novel, some letters, the story of one person or two, or more? You really don't know where you're going and after a while you don't even know where you are coming from.

 

But it's a lot of fun. I don't remember the last time reading a book that questioned my ability to understand a book as much as this one and gave me so much pleasure.

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I started this but couldn't decide whether it was a wonderfully written book about reading and books, or maybe just too...pretentious, maybe is the word.

 

I didn't get far into it but might give it anotehr go. I didn't realise the bok was structured that way. I was worried the book would carry on in the same style as the first few chapters which is the reason I didn't carry on with it.

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I started this but couldn't decide whether it was a wonderfully written book about reading and books, or maybe just too...pretentious, maybe is the word.

 

I think it unfair to label anything pretentious because you didn't get it. Fair enough, but others did and continue to do so. I would strongly encourage you to read if on a winter's night a traveler again and appreciate it as a novel about reading, about the reading process, and about the reader.

 

Calvino's work was postmodern throughout and one only has to look at the art in other works such as the musings in Mr. Palomar, the descriptions of myriad cities in Invisible Cities, or the stories inspired by tarot cards in The Castle Of Crossed Destinies.

 

 

I was worried the book would carry on in the same style as the first few chapters which is the reason I didn't carry on with it.

 

Spoiler, for Adrian:

 

What you have to remember is that a great deal of the chapters you read are from completely different books. They are written in different styles, supposedly by different authors. It's the journey between these pages that is fascinating and, when the book comes to an end, you will look back on all that's gone befoe and smile at just how good it actually all was. So very good.

 

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I would strongly encourage you to read if on a winter's night a traveler again and appreciate it as a novel about reading, about the reading process, and about the reader.
Yes, Stewart, that's exactly how I saw it. As I mentioned before, it's very hard to describe and it's strange to read (though not in a difficult way, I thought, just strangely weird) but it certainly is a very, very interesting read.
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I think it unfair to label anything pretentious because you didn't get it. Fair enough, but others did and continue to do so. I would strongly encourage you to read if on a winter's night a traveler again and appreciate it as a novel about reading, about the reading process, and about the reader.

 

Calvino's work was postmodern throughout and one only has to look at the art in other works such as the musings in Mr. Palomar, the descriptions of myriad cities in Invisible Cities, or the stories inspired by tarot cards in The Castle Of Crossed Destinies.

I just noticed that I did surround the "pretentious" with two maybes as I wasn't sure it was the right word I wanted. It's not that I didn't get it (I was aware beforehand it was a postmodern look at readers and reading and books and such) I just didn't enjoy it enough to make me want to read more.

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  • 2 months later...

I think I found this through a recommendation in a forum and I'm so happy I did. Don't think I would have found it otherwise. As I mentioned earlier, it is a weird book but I would recommend it to anybody. You feel like reading so many different stories but never lose the plot, either.

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  • 2 years later...

I just finished reading this, I can see the link to Cloud Atlas, which I never finished. I enjoyed the read, and yes it was a strange style, but I loved the first chapter so much (where he describes the process of sitting down to start a new book), that I think I spoiled the book for myself :o

I'm looking forward to trying more of his work

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On bookclub, Radio 4 yesterday, David Mitchell quoted this book as inspiration for Cloud Atlas. I'm definitely going to try it. Thanks, guys.

 

This really surprises me - I couldn't stand the Calvino - didn't finish it, but Cloud Atlas is possibly my favourite read of all time (it vies with Owen Meany and the Book Thief for top spot, but I'm always aware that I admire Cloud Atlas the most).

 

If it wasn't for the fact that I genuinely hated If On A Winter's Night, which is a really, really rare response for me, I would give it another go on Mitchell's recommendation. Can't bring myself to though!

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  • 8 months later...
  • 10 years later...

Just finished this.

 

It's a very original book where you, the reader, become one of the characters. You buy a book but it has typos so you take it back to the shop where you meet a woman, also wanting to read the book, and then you speak to a university professor with her about the book, then another professor, then a publisher about a different book, then a writer about another book, then you begin a relationship with the woman, then you go to another country to find the complete manuscript... and so on etc. 

 

Sadly, that didn't work very well for me because after the first couple of chapters where you're in the bookshop, having a coffee, thinking about the writer, you then go on an adventure with a woman called Ludmilla that instantly makes the idea of you as a character entirely redundant. It very quickly feels like you, the reader, is in fact not you at all, but rather some blank individual that doesn't matter in the slightest. The initial chapter really worked and grabbed me immediately but after that, I found myself tolerating the parts of the book where you, the reader, are doing this or that.

 

Meanwhile, the fictional chapters (opening chapters from books that you, the reader, are trying to find complete versions of) were far more interesting to read. There's a really great one about a couple who kill a man and are trying to dispense of the body somewhere. And one where a man is traumatised by ringing telephones; and an excellent erotic story set in Japan. Plus the others are pretty great too. When these chapters ended, I genuinely wanted to know more, what happens next, which I guess is the point. Calvino even mentions how writing opening chapters alone is very easy because there's no expectation to fill in the blanks. I even wonder if he deliberately squeezed a lot of his own aborted ideas for novels into this book purely to do something with them.

 

Overall, it's an interesting idea. But it doesn't entirely work. The first chapter is wonderful and really excites you but the rest of the book always feels like it's chasing that initial burst of inventiveness. It can never quite live up to it. Which is the problem with a lot of experimental novels.

 

I read a quote by David Mitchell about the book which rather perfectly sums up my feelings. He essentially said he was magnetised when he first read it, but on rereading it, felt it had aged and was not as "breathtakingly inventive" as it first seemed. To be honest, I didn't need a second reading to reach that same conclusion. It tries to be something breathtakingly inventive but never actually achieves it.

 

Definitely worth a read though. 

 

7/10

Edited by hux
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