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if on a winter’s night a traveler

By Italo
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
San Diego: A Harvest /HBJ Book
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publisher, 1981
ISBN: 0-15-643961-1
260 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2015

This was a phenomenal reading experience for me. I not very sure I’ve fully understood the novel, nor that I can say much “about” it that will make much sense. Yet I was gripped from the beginning to the last page, reading on, not wanting to stop, yet often left setting the novel aside and thinking about what I was reading. What SENSE to make of it, how to try to explain to explain to myself the structure or the point of it all?

I guess that in the end I think Italo Calvino wants to create such an experience, such confusion, wonder even, and perhaps in a way, this is a meditation on what it is to read fiction and what is the relationship between the “story” and the experience of the reader and the author. I will go on a bit below describing something of what goes on inside this very unusual “novel,” and some of my reflections and experiences along the way.

Structurally the novel is separated into two parts, but instead of one section being first and the second section being second, they are presented in ten subsections of the “Reader’s” (main character – who is both the narrator and the main character) experience and reading. Following each section in which the “Reader” is a character, there is an excerpt of a novel that has nothing to do, directly, with the other nine “novel’s” from which there are excerpts.

It takes a while to get used to this structure of the novel, and trying to put together the 10 episodes of the Reader’s life is a challenge of a different sort.

What stands out for me in Calvino’s writing is the grippingness of it page by page, separate from “the whom” or “what” of the story, which of course, doesn’t really exist in this fantastically conceived “novel.”

In the first chapter the author sort of talks to the reader about what he is going to write about, but there is a sort of shock in the second chapter when all of a sudden it seems we were misled and the author or main character is actually in some sort of spy thriller, and at some remote railway station to secretly exchange identical suitcases with someone he doesn’t even know.

But this turns out not to be the case. Rather, the printer has made an error and what should have been the second chapter is actually some writing from a totally different novel, which it actually a spy thriller.

The book seller exchanges the book, but there is a benefit to the Reader. In the process he meets a very lovely young woman who is back at the bookseller for the same reason. Just in case they run into more problems with this novel the author/narrator gets the girl to give him her phone number so he could be in touch.

The third chapter, in the newer copy of the book is also from some other work, and it is an extraordinarily esoteric work about some place that no longer exists, and whose language no longer exists. But our hero uses this excuse to try to make contact with the lovely young woman, who has had the same problems with her copy, and it turns out she even knows the only existing professor of this language and expert on this no longer existing country.

In each of the ten sections some new bit from some disconnected novel is presented, and followed by something that is developing in the lives of the Reader and his pursuit of not only the “original” novel, but of Ludmilla, whom he is convinced he loves very much.

Each of the excerpted novels in this work is of a different genre of literature from the very serious to the most trivial, and the chapters of the on-going story of the pursuit of the original novel is bizarre to say the least.

The opening of chapter 9 is simply stunning. He (Calvino, the actual author? I’m not sure) has a one page reflection on a typical journey on an airplane and compares it to the experience of reading. My tendency was to reproduce the whole single page here in these notes, but I thought that would be quite unfair to the author (as well as illegal). However, even though I’ve been reading many brilliant and exciting poets of late, this single page of prose is so phenomenal that I’m still reeling from it. I quickly rushed from my living room reading chair into my partner Sally’s office down the hallway to read the page to her. Ah me, it was stunning!

And yet, it seems to have nothing to do with the novel or perhaps it is an actual revelation of what the novel really is – something somewhat beyond me!

When the reader gets off the plane his book is confiscated. A woman gives him another copy, but, of course it has a different title and is a different book, but she nonetheless claims it is his book, just published with a different name because the book he was reading was banned in this country. It keeps getting crazier and crazier.

At the very end of the novel we learn from some readers in a mysterious library he is visiting what “reading” really is, and that now, at the end of this story, the Reader is reading this very novel.

It may all sound a bit crazy, but the reading of this work of Italo Calvino is a simply marvelous journey; just don’t feel you need to make sense of it all, just read with trust and delight and let the work take you where it goes. It’s a great journey.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett