Analysis of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a novel by Italo Calvino (1923–85) from late in his writing career. Calvino was an Italian fiction writer well known for stories and novels that range in character from fables to neorealist tales. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler incorporates these disparate elements into a single text. The book meditates on the art of storytelling and features a character simply named the Reader as its protagonist.

Written largely in the second person, the story begins with the Reader starting to read a novel that proves defective in its printing. Irritated by the mistake in the book’s manufacturing, the Reader decides to return it to the bookseller. While at the bookstore, the Reader meets the same book’s “Other Reader,” whose name he learns is Ludmilla. The two become fast friends as they find they share a great love of reading. They pick up what they believe to be good copies of the volume they had been reading. The two agree to read the novel at the same time and to share with each other their impressions of the book. Once the Reader delves into the text, however, he quickly realizes that he is now reading an entirely different novel from the one he had begun before.

Italo Calvino / The Guardian

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler continues in this way, as the Reader finds over and over again that the book he begins reading breaks off at precisely the moment it becomes interesting, and out of frustration to know what happens next in the book, the Reader is driven to find the rest of the text, each time only to start a new book. Through this process, the Reader goes through 10 novels in total. These novels vary greatly in subject matter and in tone. One concerns a young man named Nacho Zamora, who seeks his mother in a South American setting; another centers on a young university student who lives with his mentor, Mr. Okeda, but cannot resist his desire for Mr. Okeda’s wife and daughter; and yet another tells of a man living incognito in France who is desperately trying to dispose of the body of the rival, named Jojo, he has killed. Each book contains different characters and a different plot, but each breaks off as its suspense increases.

Mimicking the different situations and locations of the books he reads, the Reader’s search for novels to read leads him on a number of adventures. With Ludmilla, the Other Reader, he encounters Professor UzziTuzii, who is an expert on the literature of the lost Cimmerian culture of Europe, and meets Mr. Cavedagna, an absentminded editor at a publishing house. (Calvino himself was an editor at the Italian firm Giulio Einaudi, which published his books). The Reader eventually finds himself arrested for bringing a banned book into the country of Ataguitania. Through his knowledge of books, the Reader finally frees himself, but not without first trying to locate all the missing books in a special library. Here, again, however, his search proves futile, and he learns that the titles of the novels he has been looking for can all be strung together into a single sentence that yet another reader in the series of readers notes represents the opening of yet another novel.

Just as the books all fold into one another, so too do the authors of these books overlap in puzzling ways. The Reader searches for information on the authors until finally learning that the person of his affection, Ludmilla, has carried on a relationship with one particularly intriguing writer named Ermes Marana. The Reader’s pursuit of information about Marana proves as empty as his quest for the novels, however. The novel closes with the Reader, despite the jealousy that he feels concerning Ludmilla’s affair with Marana, deciding that he must marry Ludmilla.

The style of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is often called metafiction, a writing approach that concentrates on its own status as artifice. Instead of a work that seeks to pull the reader into a fictional world, metafiction reminds the reader that he or she is always reading a contrived text. Metafiction was a popular style in Calvino’s work of the 1960s and 1970s as well as in the work of his contemporaries such as the Americans Donald Barthleme and John Barth. In Calvino’s hands, metafiction is taken to a new level in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, as it is the very act of reading—and all it entails—that proves to be the subject of the story.

Self-Reflexive Novels and Novelists


Experimental Novels and Novelists

BIBLIOGRAPHY Bloom, Harold, ed. Italo Calvino. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 2000. Bondanella, Peter, and Andrea Ciccarelli, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Weiss, Beno. Understanding Italo Calvino. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Categories: Experimental Novels, Literature, Self-Reflexive Novels

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