If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

I knew the names, the author and the book, but for a very long time this was one of the books that was out there in the world but nothing to do with me. Because there are only so many books that one person can read in a single lifetime, and because nothing that I read or heard offered anything that said it was a book for me.

But maybe this book and I were destined to meet. When I complained that I couldn’t find a book from 1979 to read for my Century of Books, ‘If on a winter’s Night …’ received two very warm endorsements. Enthused, I went straight to my library’s website and placed an order. And then, just days after I picked up the book, I discovered that Care and Melissa were hosting a readalong this month

51XtSrJYagL__Now that I’ve turned the last page and put the book down I can safely say that this is an extraordinary book, that is like nothing else I have ever read. There were moments when I wanted to hug the book and there were moments when I wanted to hurl it at the wall.

I was disconcerted to find that the first chapter was written in the second person, that it addressed a reader reaching out for a much wanted new book … and that the book in question was ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino. Yes, I was disconcerted, but I was quickly swept away by the magic that the words wove. The words were lovely, I felt that a tide was rising and falling, and the love of words, of writing, of reading, of handling books shone from the page so very, very brightly.

An intriguing story began in the next chapter, and the chapter after that came back again to address the reader searching for the right book, and searching for understanding of the writer and his writing. And the story kept bouncing back and forth. Reader. Story. Reader. Story. Reader. Story …..

I started going back and forth too, happy to read the wonderful words addressed first to one and then to two readers over and over again, and trying to work out how the different chapters of the story fitted together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together, but in time I learned that I wasn’t meant to. I was reading openings, turning points, from a wealth of different stories.

It was strange that I kept turning the pages when I realised that, but there were so many styles, so many flourishes, so many things to captivate me. So many beginnings that could have grown into something more were cut off. It was maddening, but I realised that I had to keep reading, and that I had found a book that told me more clearly than any before that I was a reader, always in search of a story.

The story of the readers became stranger as it advanced, the shifts in style became more noticeable, and yet I felt I was in safe hands. The love words and books, reading and writing, continue to shine. And the book somehow, I can’t quite explain how, pulled that love back from me. That is such clever, clever writing.

But I can’t quite find the words, I can’t quite make a whole out of this book, and that’s what makes it maddening.

I suspect that I might need to read it again, but for now I’m glad I read it and I’m glad I came to the end.

16 responses

  1. Sounds incredible! This is one of those books that has kind of flown past my radar — just kind of “out in the world,” like you said. Maybe I’ll have to give it a try. πŸ™‚

  2. I love this book! It is kind of maddening, but something about it makes me keep re-reading it, and I think it gets better every time. I think I need to read it again now.

  3. Calvino is going to be one of those authors I explore in the New Year – I’ve decided. I’ve got this book and a couple of others of his on the shelves and keep putting off getting stuck in. You and Kaggsy/Karen have convinced me between you to read him.

  4. I’m partisan here, of course, but this is one of my favourite books ever. I think you *do* get more from a re-read but you are quite right about being in safe hands – Calvino knows exactly what he is doing and I was just swept away when I first read this – the blurring of boundaries, the brilliance of all the different tales (how many writers would sacrifice so many potential novels to use them as part of just one?). As you say, clever writing and quite breathtaking!

    • This is my first encounter with Calvino, so I can’t put it into perspective, but I’m open to suggestions. So thank you for helping steer me to this one, and is there a ‘next Calvino’ you’d recommend??

      • That’s a hard thing to do, because his books are so different to each other! “Invisible Cities” is very beautiful and highly thought of, but I am particularly fond of his “Cosmicomics” – haunting, lyrical pieces, science inspired and fantastic but not really science fiction or fantasy! I re-read them last year in the “Complete Cosmicomics volume and fell in love with them all over again – highly recommended!

  5. I had never heard of this book before I saw posts about a reading month to be devoted to it. Yours is the first review I’ve seen though. I am definitely intrigued – it sounds very, very different from my normal reading, and that can be a good thing.

  6. I remember buying this book and I remember that at the time there was a compelling reason why I bought it. But have I read it? No, of course I haven’t. It’s sitting on a shelf somewhere along with all those other books that I’ve bought because there was a now forgotten compelling reason. I must go and find it and put it on a reading group list and then I will have to read it.

  7. Beautiful review! I am happy that our readalong gave you incentive to read it with us. I am very much curious to read more Calvino and give him my trust once again.

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