If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller was a curious novel when virtuosic Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote it in 1979 – and it remains a curious novel today.
On the one hand, it completely deconstructs not just what a novel is but even the very act of reading. At the same time, it is also a celebration of the novel and of the reader, so much so that the main character in the book is actually You, the Reader.
The book begins with You going into a bookshop and buying a copy of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino. And then You begin reading it, the story of a man arriving at the train station of a small European town with a mysterious mission in mind.
Told in the first person, the tale is a little unclear on whether You, the Reader, has now become I, the character. No matter, it is a gripping start to a story. But one chapter in, You discover a printer’s error, and the rest of the book is unreadable.
So You take it back to the bookshop for a replacement copy. But when You begin reading again, it becomes clear that this is a different story altogether. Now You are curious about this book too. But when You try to track it downw, You get the beginning of a whole other narrative.
In this way, Calvino’s nesting dolls-like novel presents 10 different, tantalising, story openings – everything from a detective story and historical fiction to erotica – without ever actually completing them.
Tying them together is the framing story, of You and Ludmilla, the Other Reader whom You met at the bookstore. With her, You begin to uncover what seems to be a worldwide conspiracy involving translators, publishers and even libraries.
Pretty trippy stuff. Calvino had clearly perfected the tale-within-a-tale concept long before filmmaker Christopher Nolan even dreamt of Inception (2010). In fact, Calvino’s Postmodernist approach to storytelling also feels like the predecessor of the type of meta storytelling screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman is known for – in, for instance, Being John Malkovich (1999) or Adaptation (2002).
Calvino seems to be asking us, what exactly is a story? What does it mean to be a reader? And what makes a reading experience complete?
Interestingly, in a contemporary context, there is one experience that mirrors that of Calvino’s book, even giving rise to the same questions: the way we consume content online.
We leap from story to story, often reading only the beginning. We abandon story threads and plot points halfway when we are led down a different path, both through our curiosity and algorithmic suggestions.
We consume material of vastly different tones and tenor – humour to tragedy to news to fiction – one after another, without much context or logical flow. Perhaps most tellingly, it is a narrative built entirely around ourselves, the Readers; and we are as much the story as the things we consume.
Which certainly makes it timely to ask ourselves the same questions above: What is a story? What does it mean to be a reader? And what makes a reading experience complete?
Calvino, of course, deliberately crafted the experience of reading If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller to question and complicate our understanding of narratives, asking us to think about our relationship to the stories we read.
It isn’t too much of a stretch then, to think about how information or narratives are framed by the way we engage with them.
It is certainly to Calvino’s credit that a book he wrote almost four decades ago should feel so contemporary. It is up to us, however, to think about what these connections are, and what they say about life today.