Publisher: Harcourt Brace
Originally Published: 1979
Translated from Italian by William Weaver
(Review originally published in August 3rd edition of the Lancaster Sunday News)
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. “
So begins the journey into the labyrinthine story — stories really — that the Italian author has prepared for his reader in “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.”
The novel begins with “you,” “the reader,” settling down to read the book. However, just as the story gets good, the reader finds he has a defective book that provides only the first few pages of novel.
And thus begins the reader’s quest for the rest of the tale, in which he soon enlists a woman, known as the “Other Reader.”
Each time the reader thinks he’s found the rest of the tale, he’s actually discovered an entirely different work of fiction, as incomplete as the first.
The chapters alternate between the second-person narrative of the reader in search of a complete novel, and the beginnings of each new, fragmentary text he finds.
Calvino attributes each opening to a different author, and each is written in a different style, with its own characters, setting and plot. Each is simply a sliver of story, never to possess an ending.
The novel as a whole is an ode to and meditation on the act of reading. Throughout, Calvino explores and celebrates the different modes of and motivations for spending time with books.
Even the shards of each story splintered throughout the text seem aware of and acknowledge the awesome power of the reader.
Calvino rewrites Descartes famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” as “I read, therefore it writes,” privileging the reading over the writing.
In fact, the real hero of the novel is you, the reader.
In a time when the death of the book seems imminent, when the Pew Research Center reports that almost a quarter of Americans do not read, Calvino reminds us of the deep satisfaction that comes from surrendering yourself to a good book.
His character, “the reader,” travels great distances and risks many dangers — all in pursuit of the end of a great story.