This book had been on my reading list for ages, for two reasons: because some people whose literary taste I trust in enjoyed it, and because I loved the title. It was completely different from anything I expected, but I really liked this book.
Two Readers, one male (addressed as “you” during large parts of the framework narrative, although the perspective shifts later on), one female, run into each other in a bookshop. Both are about to begin reading the new novel by Italo Calvino, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller”, only to find out that the publisher has somehow mixed up this novel with another one. They return to the bookshop to complain and are promptly issued another book that is supposed to fix the problem – but they quickly realise they’ve been given yet another novel. On their hunt for the continuations of all these books, the male Reader and Ludmilla, the female Reader, keep finding the beginnings of other novels. They just can’t seem to finish one of them, or unearth new chapters. Each time they start becoming involved in one book, it’s broken off and they’re left hungry for more.
And so is the meta-reader of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, i.e. you. There are several levels of meta-fiction here, because eventually we meet a writer who has
…had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning… he returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged…
Sound familiar? I really enjoyed these different levels and how they’re intertwined. In general, the word “playful” describes If on a Winter’s Night… very well, I think. Calvino is playing with his Readers, he’s playing with different genres, he’s playing with all sorts of figures of the literary world: readers, bookshop owners, publishers, writers, fake writers, translators and so on, they all make an appearance.
As I was reading, I was reminded of Borges a lot, and then this morning, when I was reading Tony’s review of Borges’s Ficciones, my thoughts wandered back to If on a Winter’s Night…. Like Borges, Calvino plays with different levels of reading and fiction. As in Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, one of the short stories in Ficciones, Calvino plays with authors being protagonists of novels. But I was also reminded, in a more abstract way, of Cortázar’s Rayuela, which has a playful plot (if you can call it that) – though in a different way than If on a Winter’s Night – or Vila-Matas’s writing that bursts with meta-fiction. But I think If on a Winter’s Night is much more accessible than Rayuela, or Vila-Matas’s work (in Vila-Matas’s Bartleby y compañía, for example, I got extremely confused and my evident lack of erudition in the literary department made for a frustrating reading experience at times). This is a book that is experimental, but not in an overly intellectual way – and by no means do I mean to say it’s trivial or shallow, it’s just not as difficult or confusing as a lot of experimental literature tends to be. It inspires you to read more, which is the best thing a book could ever do, I suppose.
If on a Winter’s Night makes a great reading experience for all those who love reading and can relate to the feeling that overcomes you when you dive into a novel, and for those who are fascinated by the world of books and literature. To me, the initial description of a reader moving through a bookshop to buy a copy of “Calvino’s new novel” was like a déjà-vu of so many times I’ve entered one.
I underlined so much during my reading of this book that I’ll refrain from sharing more quotes on here, you should go read it and see for yourselves.
Original title (Italian): Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore
German title: Wenn ein Reisender in einer Winternacht
Spanish title: Si una noche de invierno un viajero