The passion for reading uses to be a life-long one. I’m sure that everybody who has fallen under its spell like me will confirm this statement, and yet, it’s a passion that seldom appears centre stage in fiction. Of course, there are many examples for literary characters who pass their time reading, pondering or discussing books, but in general this serves the author only to create a mood, to show peculiarities or to form a bond between characters. So far I have never come across a novel that actually revolved around the pleasures of reading – except If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino which I’m reviewing today. Its protagonist is a rather annoyed reader who for different reasons never gets a chance to finish one of the books that he has just begun and who hunts after the interrupted reads getting involved with another reader, Ludmilla, on the way.
Italo Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas near Havana, Cuba, in October 1923, but grew up in San Remo, Italy. During the war he went into hiding to avoid military service and eventually joined the Communist wing of the Italian Resistance to fight against the Nazis. In 1945 he returned to the University of Turin to study literature. The same year he made his debut as a writer bringing out a short story in a weekly. After graduation in 1947 he began to work for the publishing house Einaudi and later as a journalist for different papers and magazines. Still in 1947 his first novel, The Path to the Spiders' Nests (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, also translated as The Path to the Nest of Spiders), came out. It was followed by the fantastic novels The Cloven Viscount (Il visconte dimezzato: 1952), The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante: 1957) and The Nonexistent Knight (Il cavaliere inesistente: 1959) making up the famous Trilogy of Ancestors. Other notable works of the author are the novels Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili: 1972) and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore: 1979) along with story collections like The Crow Comes Last (Ultimo viene il corvo: 1949), Italian Folktales (Fiabe italiane: 1956; also translated as Italian Fables), Cosmicomics (Le cosmicomiche: 1965), and t zero (Ti con zero: 1967; also translated as Time and the Hunter). In September 1985 Italo Calvino died from a cerebral haemorrhage in Siena, Italy.
The protagonists of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller are two passionate readers, an unnamed male you and Ludmilla Vipiteno who in a later stage of the novel changes into a female you directly addressed by the author as well. They first meet in a bookshop when he makes a complaint about his copy of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino that he bought there the other day and that turned out to be defective repeating over and over again the pages 17 to 32. He is immediately attracted to the woman and pleased to have something to talk about with her since she is there for the same reason as he. They both are told that the first chapter that they read actually is from a completely different book, a crime novel by a Polish author called Tazio Bazakbal. They agree to exchange their impressions on it and he jokingly evokes the situation that now that they wish to read Bazakbal they’ll find Italo Calvino between the covers. In fact, the book contains neither the first nor the latter, but an entirely new novel set in (the fictional country) Cimmeria and again it’s a defective copy. He phones Ludmilla and she suggests meeting at the university’s Bothno-Ugaric language department to find out more. The cranky professor there identifies the story as a fragment of a novel by a Cimmerian author, but his extemporised translation makes clear that this one is yet another novel. A colleague, a Cimbric “enemy” of the Cimmerian professor, is sure that the novel in question is by a Cimbric author and the subject of a course that Ludmilla’s sister Lotaria attends. In the course the reader and Ludmilla listen to the beginning of a fourth novel. Alas their pleasure is interrupted again before reaching the end because the students want to discuss. During their continued hunt after the started books male and female reader get to read six more first chapters, among them works by or ascribed to the famous Irish author Silas Flannery suffering from writer’s block. By and by the male reader finds out that behind the mess there is a former lover of Ludmilla, the translator Ermes Marana who out of jealousy of her absorbing reads started an international conspiracy.
Highly unusual for a novel, the frame plot of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is written in second person and directly addressed to the reader who is also the protagonist from whose point of view it is told. Alternating with the frame plot are the ten beginnings of the novels that the reader gets into his hands or listens to in two cases. Those novels all belong to different genres and show a wide range of literary styles, a fact that speaks for the author’s great skill and expertise. In every case the narration is precise, to the point and plausible (as far as it isn’t meant to be absurd). Thanks to Italo Calvino’s wit and originality the novel isn’t just a great work of literature, but also an entertaining and amusing read full of irony and critique of repressive measures often used by dictatorial governments. In the original Italian version the language feels pleasantly light and elegant, but I reckon that it must be difficult to translate this into another language, especially one like English that doesn’t know gender-specific forms of the word “reader” corresponding with “il Lettore” and “La Lettrice”. Although I read an Italian edition, I also consulted the German translation occasionally and found that it seemed so clumsy and stilted by comparison that it might have spoilt my pleasure had I been limited to it.
In retrospect I dare say that If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino has been one of my favourite reads this year. I enjoyed reading it immensely although my Italian isn’t as good as I would wish it to be. Having this novel in mind, Salman Rushdie said about the author that “He is writing down what you have always known except that you've never thought of it before” and this is true. We all know how it feels to indulge in the pleasure of reading, but this author managed to put it into words – and marvellously. I recommend you to get a copy and start reading. For me it was a mere pleasure to read it and I hope that you’ll like it too.