Reading is a leisure for any devoted reader. When you read about a character, it either makes you happy, or drenches you with anger and sadness. But at the back of your mind, there is always a thought that, “After all it’s not my story.” What if, the writer decides to write about you? Yes, about You-The Reader, hiding peacefully behind the pages of the book. When you, yourself are the protagonist of the book you are about to read. Sounds mindboggling, right?Presenting this idea, “If on a winter’s night a traveller” by Italo Calvino is a tribute to all the readers, writers and to this beautiful art of reading.

Italo Calvino

“If on a winter’s night a traveller” by Italo Calvino

About the author

Italo Calvino(1923-1985) was an Italian writer of short stories and novels. Calvino’s mother gave him his unusual first name to remind him of his Italian heritage. But, to Calvino, his name sounded “belligerently nationalist”. Both his parents, being accomplished Botanists and coming from Agricultural background held less esteem to Literature than Science. Whereas, Calvino’s interest in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, made him the ”black sheep” of his family. His best works include, Cosmicomics, a collection of short stories(1965), and the novels, Invisible cities(1972) and If on a winter’s night a traveller(1979). His works carry different writing styles and themes such as postmodernist, neorealism. Being one of the most creative writers, he is the most translated contemporary Italian writer.

This book is of interest for

  • People looking for books on Postmodernist style.
  • Any reader, who wants to read a book on struggles of reading and writing.
  • Anybody looking for a book with good vocabulary and can’t tolerate reading Ulysses by James Joyce, can prefer this shorter book.

Premise of the book

Disclaimer: This book will mess with your concepts of time and space. 😛

If on a winter’s night a traveller’, just like its title this book is quaint and incomplete. But, the reader should not forget the fact that he/she is reading a book based on postmodernist style where you will see unreliable narrators, impossible and unrealistic plots. There will be references from various books, you will not be able to decide the genre of the book or in which direction it is taking you. Apocryphal (of questionable authenticity) is the word that fits best in talking about books based on postmodernism. Calvino has justified this by using it several times in this book.

The story starts with an unnamed protagonist reading a book titled- “If on a Winter’s night a traveller” by Italo Calvino. Calvino addresses the protagonist as You i.e. The Reader. As he(The Reader) reads the book, the story starts taking shape and then comes the nightmare of every reader. He finds that the story is incomplete. He runs to the bookstore, complains about the defected copy. The bookseller calms him by telling him about a Polish novel that got mixed with the book during binding.

The Reader is now more interested in reading the Polish book titled- “Outside the town of Malbork” by Tazio Bazakbal. In the bookstore, he meets a young lady named Ludmilla, who is also looking for the same book, after reading incomplete Calvino’s book. Ludmilla is the other reader introduced by Calvino. They exchange numbers in order to stay in touch for the discussion of the book. The reader takes the Polish novel home in the hope of continuing the story he was reading. But soon he discovers the story is different and incomplete at the most gripping point. These incidents keep on happening, as a result of which he ends up reading 10 different incomplete stories. Sounds frustrating right?

So if I talk about the premise of the book, it could be summarised in just two lines. There are two parallel stories going on in this book. First is the main story of struggles and the crazy things The Reader has to go through to find the right book and impress his love interest Ludmilla. And second is the stories that he ends up reading from those books. Calvino cleverly shifts the storyline to-and- fro between The Reader and the stories he is reading. But, are you satisfied with such kind of book, where nothing makes sense? Absolutely not!

Even if it didn’t make any sense to me, but there were certain instances when Calvino’s words were too impactful to be ignored. I want to talk about all the things that made sense. The gamots of wisdom hidden in between the lines of this book, that are:-

  • Ideal is a delusion:

This could be an issue with the majority of readers out there. The dilemma of deciding the right posture to read with perfect mood and lighting. But, Lord Calvino once said that, “The ideal position of reading is something you can not find.” And the truth of these lines can not be ignored. By giving quirky examples of old days where people used to read standing up after getting tired of horseback riding is something only Lord Calvino could think of.

Italo Calvino

  • Stop Expecting, Start Reading:

After deciding a comfortable reading posture, the second obstacle that every reader faces is “what to read?” In more words, “what to read that blows away your mind, takes away your breathe and sleep?.” Now, this thing I have personally faced in my life, when my friends used to ask for book recommendations and their first priority was always- a super- interesting book with something different. And this super-interesting is a relative term so one can never decide what other person will like or dislike. Lord Calvino gave perfect solution to this problem, that:

” There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general affairs.”

Even though, it’s not bad to expect something from a book because after all you will be investing your time and emotions into it, still the best thing to expect is that it won’t be a worst experience. Every book has something different to offer, so whether it would be an interesting read or not, reading it will surely add some value in our lives. Just like reading this book was frustrating at some places, but these hidden anecdotes are something to cherish.
Calvino’s style taught me that sometimes reading a story at a particular moment is what matters more than worrying about its ending or were it’s taking you.

  • Reading is transcendental:

It may sound cliched as every reader knows the magical experience of reading but hearing this from Lord Calvino is an icing on the cake. How a solid material object like a book could force to measure ourselves against something that belongs to immaterial, invisible world because it could only be imagined.

” What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.”

  • Plagiarism is Bliss:

Now people may think I have gone completely mad. How can I learn such a thing after reading a book? Yes, but let me explain. Italo Calvino, being an experienced writer himself must be well acquainted with the pros and cons of writing. When your readers expect you to write something interplanetary and you are going through a writer’s block. What will you do in this case? You can transform your dissatisfaction into an exciting experience. But, how? By writing an Apocryphal book.

“The copyist lived simultaneously in two temporal dimensions, that of reading and that of writing; he could write without the anguish of having the void open before his pen; read without the anguish of having his own act become concrete in some material object.”

According to Lord Calvino, a writer could annul himself and give voice to what’s outside him by writing the books of all the possible authors. This will not only lighten the burden of producing a unique masterpiece but will also leave his readers in awe. I think this was also somewhere an inspiration behind writing “If on a winter’s night a traveller.” 😛Even if, nothing made sense, the stories surely awed me. Calvino was successful in tricking all his readers, making them unable to decide, whether to praise or hate this beautiful mess.

My experience was not that bad though I coincidentally chose this book to buddy read with a friend. So getting frustrated or overwhelmed by it was sort of shared in buddy reading, that made easy to sail through it. Some books are meant for buddy reading, just like this one. 😀

As Italo Calvino rightly stated that Reading is something that should be done at a moment, enjoying the process without expecting what’s next, just like living your life. This is the biggest lesson one should never forget. I don’t know whether this post inspired you to pick up Italo Calvnio’s book, but it surely would have encouraged you to pickup a book. So what are you waiting for. Read a book, will you?