Author: Italo Calvino
Translator: William Weaver
Published by: L&OD Key Porter
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a marvel of ingenuity, an experimental text that looks longingly back to the great age of narration–“when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded.” Italo Calvino’s novel is in one sense a comedy in which the two protagonists, the Reader and the Other Reader, ultimately end up married, having almost finished If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. In another, it is a tragedy, a reflection on the difficulties of writing and the solitary nature of reading. The Reader buys a fashionable new book, which opens with an exhortation: “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” Alas, after 30 or so pages, he discovers that his copy is corrupted, and consists of nothing but the first section, over and over. Returning to the bookshop, he discovers the volume, which he thought was by Calvino, is actually by the Polish writer Bazakbal. Given the choice between the two, he goes for the Pole, as does the Other Reader, Ludmilla. But this copy turns out to be by yet another writer, as does the next, and the next.” (Source)
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is one of the most beautiful and infuriating meta-books I’ve ever read. It starts out strong, as a beautiful, fantastic love letter to reading and the written word. You, the reader, are the main character and having selected a new novel to dive into unexpectedly find that you’re unable to continue to book due to a printing error. Thus begins a quest of epic proportions to find which book you were reading as no one seems to know, and to figure out why all these printing errors keep happening.
It’s sounds fantastic and whimsical but unfortunately gets old pretty quickly. Since this is the first novel by Calvino I’ve ever read, I’m unsure whether the narrative style is his normal one or is heavily exaggerated for the sake of commentary about the state of meta-fiction. The first few chapters were intriguing but however due to the book being structured between a chapter following the reader and a chapter of different imaginary books, it gets complicated and distracting moving between the two. By the time I was a quarter through I started to get bored and irritated with the narrator and the tone of the book.
Additional one of my main problems with this book is the other reader, Ludmilla. Although Calvino states that she’s the second reader, and supposedly of equal importance to you, the first reader, her characterization and presentation doesn’t reinforce that. Instead she’s a crypric figure, shaped by the desires of the first reader. She has no agency of her own, and is merely a shadow which the first reader spends the whole book chasing, an image of an illusive, perfect woman as he seeks to form a connection to her through literature.
By the time they suddenly got married at the end of the book, I was ready to throw it at the wall. There’s no reason for Ludmilla and the first reader to become romantically involved as she barely shows any interest in him throughout the entire book, whether romantically or in friendship. He spends the entire book chasing after an emotionally unavailable woman who shows no interest in him, only to have his actions rewarded by her apparent love through marriage at the end of the book. It’s an old, old trope and one that I’m really tired of seeing in fiction.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller could have been a really good book. Instead it got bogged down by its perceived self-importance and sexist narrative tropes.