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Some thoughts on ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ by Italo Calvino


A book about reading, even how to read in a variety of ways, that is. A book that is a pleasure, that speaks itself of the pleasure being released, just as a lover would. But is there any lasting satisfaction? We are led on through never-ending teases to stories that speak not of fulfilment, but of humiliation, revenge, anti-climax, threat, mistaken identity – anything that can go seriously wrong in a relationship. Calvino’s stories offset the hope that we can have an affair with this book and get away with it. Do not believe that we have here some short stories yoked together by the author’s imaginative diversions about reading. Each story is telling you very sharply what the ideal dream reader would not wish to know, that promise is temporary, that a story does not speak of survival and death, that the book is what you are caught inside now and from which (to which) you will always be referring to something else.


What sort of a person writes such a book?

This is the story of you reading this book. Or, at least, the story of the ‘you’ reading this book. You follow yourself through the excitement and the setbacks of the story Calvino is telling. It’s like Snakes and Ladders, stories that come abruptly to an end, leaving you where you had not expected to be: stories and twists of the narrative that open up new ideas about storytelling itself and the act of reading itself, which you take so much for granted.

What is tells you, amongst other things, is that all of your reading is a story in itself, your story of yourself reading. Instead of the normal distance between the reader and the text, the drama of this novel excites one to the realisation that our very existence is tied up intimately with the arrangement of words and actions in a novel.

Calvino plays havoc with the ‘You’. Instead of putting the reader in the passive position of enjoying the different experiences of characters, he makes the reader the central character, sometimes placing them in highly embarrassing, stressful situations. This action of Calvino’s in the novel leaves one wondering if he does not, in his own mind, want in this book to get back at the reader – not just to involve them but to, in fact, put them under fire.

Here is a work that comes in reverse order of creation. We think. Normally a book will have its own basis at least an item of an idea. And so too does this. But we usually expect the story first and theory later. Here we have a book that starts as theories and is then illustrated by stories, so much so that we read the stories in order to uncover the theories behind them. The stories, even the main story of the Reader (You) and the Other (Ludmilla), are secondary to Calvino’s purpose. They do little more than dramatise the mind game he is at work on.

Another achievement is Calvino’s expert descriptions of the reading process – how we choose books, what it is that succeeds in leading us on, how we get tired of a story, or leave it for a while.

This book makes us aware, as critical guides cannot, of our reading habits, of what it is we are doing when we end. And what Calvino is telling us is that our reading is not innocent – if we identify or at least appreciate in part the position of the You in this book, then we are not innocent in what it is we are looking for – entertainment, edification, diversion, titillation, escape, learning – and that all of these things are very often not at the surface when we choose what we read, and that we can go away perfectly aware of what the book has said but perfectly unaware of our own truest motives in reading it and responses to the work itself.

The stories and the connections are all concerned with relationship: between writer and reader, writer and his other, writer and his rival writer (imagined or real), reader and other reader. He brings out very well in these stories the passion of these activities and the jealousies and rivalries that can happen, almost as an inevitability of love for the story.

Could it be suggested that what is lacking here is the experience? This is the product of a story-teller’s thoughts about the act of creation and his relationship with the reader. This removal from the lived experience is one thing I do not like – an artificiality about the whole work which has to do with the nature of the enterprise itself.

Entries in Notebooks, 10-14th December 1989 


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