Books Within Books, Reviews Within Reviews: ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino

29313004_2119064554786686_3662266665669754880_nI received this book as part of a boxset of Christmas/winter themed books as a Christmas present. From the title and the fact that it had been bunched in with ‘A Christmas Carol’ I expected a fun, possibly slighty spooky, Christmassy read. This was not what I got. Not even close. And I’m okay with that. What I got was a postmodern, meta-fictional, surreal, and strange book. And this strange book when I was finished with it, for better or worse, I lent to my friend, fellow writers society member, and Sunbury Coffee House colleague Alex Smith. He agreed to write a review for me to feature on this blog. What he has written is horrid and brilliant and very much outshines everything I already had saved in my drafts and he’s going to do his stupid smug face reading this sentence, so without the need for introduction here’s Alex’s guest review:

A long moment passes. You blink, and then lean back abruptly from the screen of your computer. You have been lost, for an indeterminable period of time – minutes? hours? – in the vast white space between the letters on the page. Perhaps you are aware that, up close, the pixels formulating the colour white are in fact composed of subpixels shining red, blue, and green in equal amounts, creating only the illusion of whiteness. Perhaps not. In any case, you have become distracted. What were you reading?

Ah yes – it’s a review of ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’, the novel by Italo Calvino. But this isn’t the webpage you were looking for; no, this isn’t right at all. You wanted to read that new essay on the book, just published, by your favourite amateur literary critic. Whereabouts might you find his site? You open up a new tab, key in a few hesitant search terms. There. You click the first link that appears, and read:

The opening lines of the article evoke in you a very specific sense of frustration; you trust that this is deliberate on the part of the author, your beloved online essayist. He seems to have decided to imitate the self-referential style of Calvino’s novel in his piece, perhaps hoping to impart indirectly some new insight on the form through the process of imitating it. There are no broad, introductory statements; no amusing anecdotes from the writer’s personal life used as lures to bait the reader into engaging with his critique on a personal level; there isn’t so much as a quote from Calvino’s book, the ostensible subject of the piece. Instead there is only a series of reflexive statements serving as commentary on the essay itself, the text perpetually attempting to describe and evaluate its own attempts to describe and evaluate its own attempts at description and evaluation, in an ouroboros devouring any semblance of meaningful content that might once have been found within. 

And yet – there is something there, in the gap between the mouth and the tail of the serpent.  It must be you, the Reader of the website, who is providing this dirt-speck of value – certainly no such value seems forthcoming from your favourite critic, for whom your affections diminish with each fresh line of excessively metatextual posturing you read. No, what matters here is not the writer at all, but the Reader – and this makes sense to you, Calvino’s novel being, after all, a piece of writing devoted to the subject of reading. Yes – it’s all starting to come together now.

The fragmented opening chapters contained within ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ are invariably unfinished and unresolved; they are also frequently discredited as fraudulent, stolen, or mistranslated works by the characters that populate the narrative of the parent novel. By contrast, the chapters which follow the nameless Reader form a relatively coherent narrative, with recurring characters and even a romantic arc revolving around the Reader and the girl Ludmilla. The implication, you think, is that the act of reading – and, even further, the act of simply attempting to read, of wishing to read, of imagining reading – is infinitely more important than the act of writing. As the Reader of Calvino’s novel learns, it is entirely possible to leave a written work permanently unresolved, perhaps simply by tearing out the final pages; on the other hand, it is impossible to leave the act of reading unresolved, for the Reader is constantly in a state of remembering having read, of thinking about other books you have read, of mentally comparing this book to that, of planning on reading more books in the future –

There is a break, indicating a new paragraph, but as you scroll down only white space greets you. The writer appears to have accidentally published an unfinished draft of his essay.

You recline back in your chair. Slowly, you reach your hands to your forehead and gently massage your temples. You are confused: this, you now suspect, is not the webpage you were looking for, either. Your favourite amateur literary critic is thoughtful, well-spoken, concise – the unfinished essay you have just read, on the other hand, seems to have been written by an idiot, with no sense of intellectual rigour and no apparent desire to actually engage with Calvino’s work in a useful or original way.

Irritated, you resolve to search the internet once more for your favourite critic – although, now you come to consider it, you were actually rather enjoying Alice’s review of the novel, back over at Red Hat Reads. You contemplate your options for a few moments and reach a decision. If the review fails to capture your attention, you tell yourself, there’s always that vegan chocolate mug cake recipe you could check out. That sounded pretty interesting.

Smiling, you click back to your original tab, and continue to read:

The book begins with you, the reader, and a fictional reader sitting down to read ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino. Calvina uses the 2nd person skillfully throughout, literally bringing you into the story and blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Sometimes the fictional reader within the book is your ally, sometimes you’ll hate him. We read the first chapter of this book within the book before, due to a printing error within the fictional world,’If On a Winter’s…’ is cut short. In the quest to find the rest of this book for various reasons we discover 10 others books, all of which are broken off for various reasons and with perfect timing at a moment of plot climax (or horrible timing depending on how you feel).

If my attempt at a short plot summary sounds confusing, and Alex’s attempt at a review was absolutely infuriating, don’t panic! At times this is a difficult, and sometimes frustrating, read but I think this is what Calvino was aiming for. He wrote an intentionally challenging book to reflect on what it means to be a reader and a consumer of literature.

Find more horrid content from Alex on instagram: @itsmeyourfriendalex

Have you ever read a book that was so difficult to read but completely enjoyable at the same time? Discuss in the comments below


One thought on “Books Within Books, Reviews Within Reviews: ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino

  1. Oh, wow. I love this book, and Alex’s review had me cracking up, it captured the style so well! I’ve heard some people say that the book doesn’t work so well on the second reading, but that hasn’t been my experience. A really wonderful work of metafiction. I completely agree about the love/hate nature of the main character – his attitude towards Ludmilla borders on stalking, I’d say.

    Liked by 1 person

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