Italo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler


Reader, if you enjoy the openings of books more than anything else in them, this might be the ideal book you’ve been searching for all these years. The first, third and subsequent odd-numbered chapters tell the story of a chap called ‘Reader’, who is addressed in the second person, trying to find how a book he enjoyed starting carries on. That first chapter describes exactly what it ought to be like browsing in a bookshop or library. Alternate chapters are the book he’s trying to read.

Sort of.

It’s tricksy and whimsical and the second-person address could be thought to assume a male readership (which complicates the subplot of another reader searching for the book, a lady called Ludmilla who is herself sought by Reader as the story progresses). This might be the kind of thing that usually annoys you. However, stick with it as the various permutations of the book ‘You’ and Ludmilla are trying to track down are intriguing and the weird obstacles they face are familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to find a specific book with scant information.

Calvino was part of a movement called Oulipo, whose members included Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau and whose influence can be seen, if you know what to look for, in writers as diverse as Iris Murdoch, Ian Rankin, Umberto Eco, Will Self and Iain Banks (with or without the M). Their take was that fiction is a game, and the object is to figure out the rules of any given work. For that reason, Calvino is worth reading simply because he never wrote the same book twice. This book has been cited as one of the inspirations for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas but don’t hold that against it. Calvino is pin-sharp and imaginative, rewarding closer inspection rather than falling apart under any scrutiny.

By Tat Wood

[Also see Bill Ryder-Jones’ soundtrack for this book.]