What Makes Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night You Travel Gripping?

Italo Calvino

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino is as experimental as a book comes. Released in 1979, the 260-page novel contains ten novels with different writers, different plots — different everything. While the stories are different from one another, Calvino holds the book together with You and the second-person narration. With at least 17 novels published, Italo Calvino started his fiction-writing career with the publication of The Path To The Nest Of Spiders in 1947.

Some of his most famous works are the Cosmicomics collection and Our Ancestry Trilogy. He wouldn’t fall under the category of an ordinary storyteller; most of his works of art are experimental, with an emphasis on distorting the norm of storytelling. With this text, he critiques how language is ever-changing.

So You Are In If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler?

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler contains 12 numbered chapters told in second person narration — you. The plot follows the Reader who starts reading If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. However, the Reader has trouble finding the end of the story. Right when the climax is about to happen, the story cuts. The Reader instead finds other novels written by different authors. When a numbered chapter ends the next novel begins, and the pattern continues until the end.

Before We Look At The Reader, Let’s Look At The Author(s)

The only real author of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is Italo Calvino. The novel mentions how other authors have written other stories in the narrative. In reality, those authors are imaginary, so why would Italo Calvino want to use pseudonyms for the rest of the novels? Here’s a quote from Italo Calvino about the ten authors in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

“Thus, I have had to write ten novels from imaginary authors, each in a way different from me, and all different between themselves : a novel entirely made of suspicions and confused feelings ; another based on incarnated and sanguine sensations ; an introspective and symbolic novel ; another, revolutionary and existential ; an, cynical and brutal ; another yet, ruled by obsessing idiosyncrasies ; a logical and geometrical ; another, erotical and perverse ; a telluric and primordial ; a last one, apocalyptic and allegorical.”

Italo Calvino, 1984
The traveler in If On A Winter's Night A Traveler in the first novel
Nai Zakharia, 2017

Italo Calvino mentions that since each writing style is different from his own, the writing is technically written from some other part of him — a part of him that is trying to connect to the Reader. What is confusing about this quote is that the first novel in If On A Winter‘s Night A Traveler is technically written by Italo Calvino. So does that mean that Italo Calvino considers himself to be a fictional author within the story? Also, the description of the first novel is “a novel entirely made of suspicions and confused feelings,” so does Italo Calvino see himself as this type of author as well? If only we could ask him! He passed away on September 19th, 1985.

What Effect Does Having Different Authors Have On The Reader?

First, the Reader is the person who the second-person narration is referring to. You, the Reader, journey through the novel, encountering different processes in which a novel is created. The reader then learns how publishing companies tend to make mistakes. Silas Flannery, the author of books six and seven, is having difficulty creating his next book. The Reader witnesses in the unnamed city how literature is censored so much that it changes a text into a new text. The journey shows us how the novel is changing based on its travel to different Readers, changing the narrative of the story. Since the ten novels are different from each other, a conflict of which of the ten novels contains the original narrative is present. Here’s Italo Calvino explain the relationship the Novels have with one another.

“But, most of all, I’ve tried to bring forward the fact that each book is begotten in the presence of other books, in relation and by opposition to other books.”

Italo Calvino, 1984
An author's perspective of self, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler.
Literary Kicks, 2005

The Reader encounters different origins of the creation of novels, but the Reader realizes that the journey of finding the origin is the true adventure in the narrative. Think about it; the Reader goes to the bookstore in search of a finished copy of the novel and encounters Ludmilla, who has the same copy of the novel. Ludmilla, being a character in the book referred to us as the Other Reader, is described as a female third-person character. The encounter at the bookstore starts with a domino effect between the Reader and the Other Reader, Ludmilla, to find the end of the novel.

Did You, The Reader, Find The End?

Did the Reader find the end of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler? When the Reader finishes reading the last novel “What Story Down There Awaits Its End,” he goes to the great library. When looking for the end of every novel he’s read, it’s discovered that no end for any novel is in the library. So technically, the reader never finds an end for any of the ten novels. That doesn’t mean the Reader failed. In the great library, the Reader encounters different readers. One Reader explains that the novel he seeks interlace with all novels. A novel begins with a traveler yearning for something, creating a want to know the story behind the object which the traveler desires.

The Perspective of you, the reader, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler.
Darkness on Unsplash, 2018

“There was somebody who went along a lonely street and saw something that attracted his attention, something that seemed to conceal a mystery, or a premonition; then he asked for explanations and they told him a long story.”

Italo Calvino, 1979

What Does The Reader Want Most?

At first, it seems that what the Reader wants most is to find the end of the novel. What started as a journey to find a climax changes with the encounter of Ludmilla, the Other Reader. When Ludmilla gains interest in finding the end of the novel, the Reader gains an interest in her. In chapter 11, one reader inside the great library comments that most of the stories produced end in one of two ways. The hero lives after obtaining the object he sought, or the hero dies in his journey to obtain the object he desired. The Reader ends up marrying the Other Reader, Ludmilla.

Author of "If on winter's night a traveler"
Dominique Nabokov, 1979

“Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died. The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

Italo Calvino, 1979

What About The Readers In The Great Library?

When the tenth novel ends and chapter 11 begins, the reader goes inside the great library. The Reader sits down and encounters another reader. This Reader is not paying attention to the book in front of him; his eyes wander away from the pages. This encounter starts a domino effect, causing other readers in the room to speak their minds about reading books. Readers spend time reading to experience a thought-provoking reaction, such as eye wandering, or rereading books to understand metaphors or juxtapositions of words.

In this scene, Italo Calvino captures the different types of readers who wander through his novel. Every reader in the room has read every novel that the protagonist Reader has read. Calvino may not identify every reader, but he’s captivated any reader who would catch interest in the ten novels. Just look at the quote from the main Reader from the novel.

The Great library or Cambridge
WPP Central, 2013

Gentlemen, first I must say that in books I like to read only what is written, and to connect the details with the whole, and to consider certain readers as definitive; and I like to keep one book distinct from the other, each for what it has that is different and new; and I especially like books to be read from beginning to end.

Italo Calvino, 1974

Why “You” Are Important In If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

Since If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is technically ten novels, every novel differs from one another. The writing styles differ because according to the novel, there’s not just one author. There’s Italo Calvino, but then there’s Silas Flannery — who writes In A Network Of Lines That Enlace, In A Network Of Lines That Intersect, and chapter 8, The Diary of Silas Flannery; Calixto Bandera — a Japanese author — and more.

A reader of "If on a winter's night a traveler"
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, 2019

Although there’s no connection between novels, there is a connection with the Reader, who’s on a journey to find the end of If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Reader is conveyed by You and is never named. The only form of identity the reader has is that he’s male. The story gets more complicated as the reading continues since the Reader travels to publication houses, author’s homes, and across the world just to find the end of the novel.

The ‘You’ Is Not Only Male

In chapter seven, You, the Reader is invited by Ludmilla, the Other Reader, to her house. When the Reader is inside the house, the male reader starts to look at the objects inside the home. This causes a shift in perspective.

“What are you like, Other Reader? It is time for this book in the second person to address itself no longer to a general male you, perhaps brother and double of a hypocrite, but directly to you who appeared already in the second chapter as the Third Person necessary for the novel to be a novel, for something to happen between that male Second Person and female Third, for something to take form, develop, or deteriorate according to the phases of human events.”

Author: Italo Calvino. Copyright Harcourt, Inc. Page 141
how "If on a winter's night a traveler" describes metafiction.
Somethingisgoingtohappen, 2019

The chapter continues to describe the house from the second person female perspective, Ludmilla. This is an attempt by the Reader to analyze the Other Reader. He doesn’t jump to conclusions about the Other Reader, but questions what type of person she is based on certain objects. Once the perspective shifts back to the male You, it’s revealed that You can shift perspectives from the male You to the female You anytime the word “You” is present. The second person narration contains layers of who could be the real reader of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.

What Do The Short Novels Tell Us About The Second Person?

As stated earlier, the ten short novels have no correlation between one another. In fact, Italo Calvino ensured that the imaginary authors who wrote the novels had different personalities. The reason for this is because as the author, Calvino is not trying to relate to the authors. He wants to relate to the Reader.

“Rather than identifying myself with the author of each of these ten novels, I have tried to identify myself with the reader: to figure the reading pleasure of this or that genre, rather than the text, properly speaking.”

Calvino, 1984
Fan Art of "If on a winter's night a Traveler."
The second lunch, 2014

With different genres, different writing techniques, and different voices, the Reader has more choices in his or her reading. In fact, to have a better experience with the novel the reader is encouraged to not start from the beginning, but to start from anywhere that catches their attention. Calvino likes to think of this novel as just an endless present — there’s no beginning or end.

Why You Must Read If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler comments on itself. The novel is always describing the writing process of the author. The narrative also describes the reading process of the Reader. This journey is perhaps one of the best representations of metafiction. The Reader can have a better understanding of the form of metafiction. With many genres in the novel, the reading process isn’t limited to one single narrative.

Better yet, you are in the story! What this book describes with the ten novels is that beginnings and end are great, but there’s nothing like the present moment. Remember, the ten novels break off with an unfinished climax. The narrative told in the second person shows how individual readers are more important than any character, so much so that you, the Reader, are the protagonist of the novel.

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