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Italo Calvino: Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller)

This is certainly one of my favourite Calvino novels with its very witty tongue-in-cheek postmodernism. It starts off by telling you to relax and switch off the TV. It goes on to speculate how you might have purchased the book, going to your local bookshop, where the books are classified not according to the usual classifications but as books you haven’t read, books you can do without reading, books made for uses other than reading, books already read without needing to open them as they already belonged to the already read category even before being written and several other similar classifications. You know, having read this, that you are not in for the usual linear novel.

After the introduction, we move to a railway station, where we meet a traveller who is reading a book but who also knows that we are reading about him. He tells us of this book but, unfortunately, the second chapter seems to be missing. The traveller goes to a book shop where he learns that the whole edition is defective and what he is reading is not, as he thought, the opening of Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller) but the opening of a novel called Fuori dell’abitato di Malbork (Outside the Town of Malbork) by a Polish writer called Tazio Bazakbal. He then starts to read Bazakbal’s new book but it is also missing a key section. We end up reading a series of opening chapters of books in various styles, ranging from the nouveau roman to magic realism to a contemporary Japanese novelist. Of course it gets more complicated as another reader – a woman – joins in. We read part of a book translated from an extinct language. The various writers and Calvino himself throw in comments on writing and literature. And, of course, behind all his there really is a novel with a plot, involving international conspiracies, book fraud, translation and repressive governments.

It is all enormous fun but also very cleverly done, though somewhat frustrating both for the reader (us) as well as for the two readers in the book. However, Calvino is clearly making a point about reading itself and how we, as readers, respond to a work of fiction, clearly making us well aware that what we reading is a contrived work of fiction, no more and no less.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Einaudi
First published in English 1981 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Translated by William Weaver