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If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is the title of 1979 novel by Italo Calvino. The story begins as follows:
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door, the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – ‘I’m reading. I don’t want to be disturbed!’ Maybe they haven’t heard you with all that racket; speak louder; yell, ‘I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel.’ Or, if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.”
The reader is then instructed to sit down, find the most comfortable position, adjust the lighting and prepare for an uninterrupted read. A discussion of his book choice follows, as the reader is returned to the question of why, upon visiting the store, he actually selected the book in the first place. The choice, of course, is almost endless – there are 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 that they might 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 “you’ve always pretended to have read and now it’s time to sit down and really read them”, and so on. Any book lover will more than understand Calvino’s list; it runs to over 20 categories.
Next the reader is taken through the purchase process and how the act of reading a new book occurs. Did the reader start leafing through the book in the store? Was it wrapped or not? In a bag or not? Was the reader travelling home by car or by public transport? Hands free or not? If the former, did the reader try to open it en route? Or wait to get home first? If so, did the reader finish chores first or jump right into the book? Finally, the reader is pulled into the act of reading the first line and the first page of the presumed story.
What follows this introduction are 10 different stories and 12 chapters, as the nature of storytelling is explored. It seems that this is not the book the reader was expecting, but the stories are so intriguing the reader wants to know where each one is going. But each story ends abruptly, without explanation, and the subsequent chapter (written in the second person – “you”) is about the reader seeking to explain and/or understand why and pursue a recourse to the error. This search takes on a life of its own, becomes a love story and leads down many more rabbit holes before reaching a satisfying conclusion.
The book ends, fittingly, in a library (could there be any other setting?) with a conversation amongst a set of readers on the act and nature of reading and a (telling?) reference to the Arabian Nights.
Generally, Calvino writes in the same genre of writers as Jorge Borges, José Saramago and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, that of magical realism (most succinctly, a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy). Check out Wikipedia for an excellent summary of the genre. If on a winter’s night a traveller is listed #16 of magical realism’s “must reads” by Book Riot. (Isabel Allende takes the top three spots, in case you’re interested.)
I bought my copy in October, 1982 (a Canadian edition, translated from the Italian by the incomparable William Weaver) at an Ottawa bookstore. I think the book store was W.H. Smith, very near to my office and facing Confederation Square (alas, no longer there; the bookstore, that is, not the square). I’d never heard of Calvino before then and I cannot remember why I chose this selection amongst what would have been many other choices. Perhaps I stumbled upon it on a display shelf or found the cover (which contains the opening words of the book) so appealing. Here is my well-worn copy:
Whatever the reason for my purchase, I do recall the date because it was a birthday present to myself, and, on the way home (by bus), I started reading it. Like falling into a surging river, I was immediately drawn into the flow and swept away. It seemed as if I was living the story and it completely captured me. This book was so enthralling, so captivating, I went on to buy – or was given several others that Calvino has written – Cosmicomics (1982), Mr. Palomar (1983), Difficult Loves (1957) and Italian Folk Tales (1980), all worth reading and all of which I still have. Calvino’s output went far beyond this small selection, but even I only have so many hours in the day for reading.
London: Abacus, 1982 (first published by Jonathan Cape Ltd. 1979)
Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1983 (Original Italian Copyright, 1957)
New York: Pantheon Books, 1980 (Original Italian Copyright, 1957)
Now, having penned this post, I’m determined to reread them, doubtless resulting in further posts down the line.
Finally, for all you reading buffs, here is an intriguing literature map (courtesy of The Global Network of Discovery, gnod.com), showing where Calvino sits compared to all like-minded authors, past and present, the closest being Borges and Saramago, two other particular favorites of mine (which stands to reason):