Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 15, 2011

If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979), by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

This is a reader’s  book.  Not a book for people who like reading but otherwise lead normal lives, but for people like me who define themselves by reading, whose lives are absorbed by reading, who would rather read than do (almost) anything else, and who love the idea of playing with the idea of the book itself.

Reams of paper and many an undergraduate hour have been spent analysing the postmodern brilliance of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller so I’m not going to do that.  I don’t know much about postmodernism anyway as you will know if you have read my Postmodernism for the Uninitiated.  You can read about the construction of the book and what passes for its plot on Wikipedia  or here if you want to, though that might put you off. I’m just going to tell you why I was struggling to smother my laughter on the train yesterday…

Italo Calvino died in 1985 but somehow we passed by one another in the bookshop:

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you are looking for.  Following this visual trail, 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 never 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 the Books That if You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered.  With a rapid manoeuvre 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.  Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

the Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment
the Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

Now  you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable to a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which Now It’s Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read and Now It’s Time To Sit Down and Really Read Them.   

(And oh!  I thought with a sudden pang, as I read and re-read these passages with delight, shall we lose this deliciously familiar experience if the bookshop now endangered by the eBook ceases to be?!)

Italo Calvino died in 1985 but somehow he knew what my house was like:

Let’s have a look at the books.  The first thing noticed, at least on looking at those you have most prominent, is that the function of books for you is immediate reading; they are not instruments of study or reference or components of a library arranged according to some order.  Perhaps on occasion you have tried to give a semblance of order to your shelves, but every attempt at classification was rapidly foiled by heterogeneous acquisitions. (p145)

Now admittedly he goes on to say that the arrangement of books on the shelves is chronological by acquisition and that this is ok because there are not so many that it makes finding a particular book difficult – which is clearly not an accurate representation of the state of affairs chez The Spouse et moi –  but he is spot on about the way I shelve and reshelve, classify and reclassify every school holidays and yet within a fortnight the system has collapsed because the new acquisitions obstinately refuse to fit into the inadequate spaces assigned to them.

(What is it, about authors A-J? Why do they always spill out of their shelves while letters K-Z behave?? And why does History always try to take over second and third bookshelves when it already has a whole bookcase of its own, while Music stays modestly confined within its limits??)

Beyond the central idea of teasing the reader who must find out ‘what happens next’ with one inconclusive quest after another, there are many other ideas to amuse the keen reader: Calvino’s advice about being in the right mood to read (p8); faking reading (p30); total absorption in reading , reading all the time and everywhere (p140) and more.  There is also Irnerio, a so-called artist placed into the book to upset us because he doesn’t read and likes books only to take them apart and make objects from them.

It’s true that you will almost certainly experience confusion and perhaps frustration while you’re reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.   It’s not that it’s hard to read (the translation is excellent) but you’ll probably finish it feeling quite uncertain about your own interpretation of it .  This is partly because of the way you as reader (outside the text at home or on the train with your book) become entwined with the character in the book, the Reader addressed throughout the book as You. (This experience will be different for male/female readers because the You the Reader is a male, and a rather randy one at that).  Calvino is playing with the way we readers tend to identify with the characters in books we read, and the way we ‘enter into’ the world of the book.

I don’t think it matters if you find it confusing.  It’s not stressfully confusing; it’s playfully confusing.  It’s like James Joyce’s Ulysses in the way that it invites turning back to the beginning and reading it all over again for the delight in teasing out its riddles and the sheer exhiliration of the ride.

There are some droll reviews of this book on Good Reads, almost as witty as Calvino himself even if imitating Calvino’s style is a gimmick done many times before.  My favourites of these are by  MJ Nicholls from Edinburgh and Yulia from New York but you won’t find them funny unless you’ve read the book, so save them till you have.

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (Vintage classics)Author: Italo Calvino
Translator: William Weaver
Title: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
Publisher; Vintage Classics UK (Random House) 1998
ISBN: 9780099430896
Source: Personal library, purchased at Readings $12.95AUD.

Fishpond  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Vintage classics)


  1. Sounds intriguing.
    I so relate to the arrangement of the books. I can go from the strict library system to a totally random mess in the space of one weekend.


  2. I agree Lisa – playfully confusing! Those Good Reads reviews were funny too. There’s not been too many more inventive writers than Calvino. I’ve read two or three of his and have another under my arm as I type ready to read soon. John


  3. Yes, those bits you quote are charming and endearing and very familiar. But when I read this book last year I found it pretentious and one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. The only reason I didn’t abandon it half-way through is because it was a book group read.


  4. Karen, at Clunes BookTown today, there were books pleading with me to take them home. How could I resist? There will have to be major reshelving of my Miles Franklin winners shelf…
    John, I hope I can find reviews of his other books on your site, yes??
    Kim, *chuckle* yes, it is a bit frustrating. But we’ll have to disagree about pretentious. I thought it was too funny for that.


  5. I found this funny too lisa ,something that isn’t mention a lot about it ,it’s clever but not over the top with it ,it made me want read more of his books ,all the best stu


  6. Books with books as their theme are always beguiling. I echo your opening paragraph. you write about this one so enthusiastically I have sent a sample chapter to my Kindle.

    Bookshops etc – I rarely visit these days but spend hours and hours searching and researching on the net. My literary world has moved into cyberspace for good or ill


    • This is fascinating, Tom – is it just the Kindle that’s made this move into cyberspace happen?


  7. Hi Lisa, I tried to read this a few years ago with BGL. I liked the classification of books that you highlight. Very good. But I stopped soon after that. Too confusing. Not playful. Just confusing. I guess I didn’t get the humour.


  8. This book is one of my favorite all-time reads. It introduced me to the genius and oeuvre of Calvino. Simply brilliant.


  9. What do you think I should read next by Calvino. Kinna?


    • I recommend The Baron in the Trees.


      • Thanks, Kinna, I’ve got that one…somewhere on the shelves. Where have I put it????


  10. I read this book last year, enjoyed it, tried to review it… Oh well! I love your take, Lisa, which, besides bringing out the playful humour of the novel, also highlights aspects I had noticed and interpreted quite differently. Which just goes to show that Calvino has manged to cater for a whole spectrum of readers: an astonishingly versatile book.

    The only other Calvino I have read is Invisible Cities. It is quite different in tone, but bursting with mind-blowing ideas and spectacular images. I plan to read The Path to the Nest of Spiders next, just because I like the title. Which sounds shallow, but I have a lot of faith in Calvino :)


    • I like the sound of that title too. I wonder if it has anything to do with Shakespeare’s spiders?


  11. […] yourself as a reader, of being inside the book as well, sharing somehow in the writing of it. (See my review)  There is, according to the introduction, also a reference to the American writer Dahlberg, but […]


  12. […] as an example. It was inspired by Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (see my review) but it’s more accessible because Mitchell’s interlocking, interrupted stories do end, […]


  13. […] who’s reading Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller bonds with the narrator because he’s reading The Decameron since (ha!) he loves the […]


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