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One definition of metafiction is "Fiction that deals, often playfully and self-referentially, with the writing of fiction or its conventions." That could pretty much describe Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book.
A reader opens Italo Calvino's latest novel, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller," only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. But as the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he keeps running into even more books and more difficulties -- as well as the beautiful Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book.
With Ludmilla assisting him (and, he hopes, going to date him), the reader then explores obscure dead languages, publishers' shops, bizarre translators and various other obstacles. All he wants is to read an intriguing book. But he keeps stumbling into tales of murder and sorrow, annoying professors, and the occasional radical feminist -- and a strange literary conspiracy. Will he ever finish the book?
In its own way, "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler" is a mystery story, a satire, a romance, and a treasure hunt. Any book whose first chapter explains how you're supposed to read it has got to be a winner -- "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler." Relax. Concentrate." And so on, with Calvino gently joking and chiding the reader before actually beginning his strange little tale.
As cute as that first chapter is, it also sets the tone for this strange, funny metafictional tale, which not only inserts Calvino but the reader. That's right -- this book is written in the second person, with the reader as the main character. "You did this" and "you did that," and so on. Only a few authors are brave enough to insert the reader... especially in a novel about a novel that contains other novels. It seems like a subtle undermining of reality itself.
It's a bit disorienting when Calvino inserts chapters from the various books that "you" unearth -- including ghosts, hidden identities, Mexican duels, Japanese erotica, and others written in the required styles. Including some cultures that he made up. Upon further reading, those isolated chapters reveal themselves to be almost as intriguing as the literary hunt. Especially since each one cuts off at the most suspenseful moment -- what happens next? Nobody knows!
It all sounds hideously confusing, but Calvino's deft touch and sense of humor keep it from getting too weird. There are moments of wink-nudge comedy, as well as the occasional poke at the publishing industry. But Calvino also provides chilling moments, mildly sexy ones, and a tone of mystery hangs over the whole novel.
At times it feels like Calvino is in charge of "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler"... and at other times, it feels like "you" are the one at the wheel. Just don't put this in the stack of Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First. Pure literary genius.
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on 7 November 2007
I bought this book having seen it mentioned in various lists for 'Greatest Books of the 20th Century'. If you are a fan of the post-modernist novel then this should please you as it plays with the structure of the novel and with ideas of literary conventions in a very smart way. Calvino was clearly ahead of his time because authors like Peter Carey have clearly borrowed the convention in books examining the act of writing books. If you are a real literary 'nut' or member of the post-modernist cognoscenti then you should enjoy the way that the book leads you along various twists and turns, forensically examining the nature of writing and the fallacy of the novel.

I personally found the book to be a little too clever and I never felt drawn into the self-referential world that is created by the central quest of the book. I greatly admire the intellectual trapeze act, but was left feeling a little cold.
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VINE VOICEon 26 May 2003
Calvino once described a young readers first acquaintance with Stendhal's 'Charterhouse at Parma' and how they are overwhelmed by the first pages recognising the novel they had always wanted to read; how the novel then develops along different lines becoming a multiplicity of novels. He could have been describing this novel. The reader is immediately arrested by the opening chapter in which 'the reader' buys a copy of 'If On A Winters Night A Traveller' by Italo Calvino. The whole description is more engaging and a lot funnier than you might think. The chapter seems to herald a whole new kind of novel. The remainder of the novel follows a number of different directions, but it is the first chapter which remains in the mind most clearly.
It is a novel about novels - usually the most tedious of postmodernist cliches, yet this novel centres on reading rather than writing. The unnamed reader begins a number of novels which for increasingly bizarre reasons he is unable to continue. He meets a fellow reader, Ludmilla with whom he joins in the quest to find these lost novels and with whom he begins a romance. On his quest he encounters publishers and academics a literary forger, censors - in fact pretty much every element of the literature industry ( including a non-reader who uses books to create sculptures), yet he remains the pure disinterested reader.
The book is packed tight with ideas and jokes plus some marvellous literary pastiches - my favourite being the erotic japanese novel.
Calvino belongs to the worlds of Sterne and Joyce and in this case more particularly Borges and Flann O'Brien. It is the perfect book for those who love experiment, playfulness and cerebral humour. It is probably the best introduction to a marvellous (in all senses) writer.
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on 12 January 2001
I might have read this differently to the others who have reviewed it, but I didn't see anything non-linear about it. As I read it, I took the 'meta-fiction' framework to be the actual story, with the first chapters of various novels there to highlight the frustrations of the Reader who is trying to find the end of all these books. The framework itself, I thought, is far more interesting than most of the chapters. The idea of a rogue translater causing all of this trouble, with literary terrorists running around jumbling up manuscripts was hilarious. The chapters themselves varied greatly, not in quality (they were all excellently written), but in content that kept me interested. What struck me about them more than the actual content was the huge amount of styles Calvino seems able to adopt when he needs to. Very amusing and thought provoking at the same time.
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on 21 June 2009
As with Invisible Cities Calvino keeps you spinning with multiple layers of reality designed to make you feel ill at ease. His analysis of the human condition is ultimately that we never get to the bottom of what life is about but on our journey we have choices about our behaviours and some potential at least to escape the trap that existence holds us in.
The ostensible subject is literature itself and the reading of books. People are seeking specific texts which they are obsessed with. One book leads the characters to another, each one unfinished and in some cases not even available because they have been seized by the police or are being withheld by obstructive librarians, or even stolen by shadowy figures that we may or may not meet. Calvino drags you, the reader, into the plot and berates you for your actions (even though he is controlling them). There are hints of Kafka and the helplessness of the individual in society; at one points he gives a character the power to surreally wipe out all of reality only to find it emerging again outside of his control
Written towards the end of his career, this book contains a clear line of humorous scepticism about political dogma; although of the left wing, he pokes fun at the language and rhetoric of the left and how it often does nothing to advance the human condition. Politics is multi layered, and one scene demonstrates graphically that even if a person is stripped naked there are still things beneath the skin that you cannot fathom. Sex runs throughout the book in ambivalent terms, often sensuously and erotically described but also clearly reeking of power and aggression. Society, sex and literature all beckon and promise but ultimately disappoint and defy. Yet people go back for more.
There is a sense of wickedness throughout in the vast range of characters you meet: disputatious university professors, UFO hunters, secret policeman, literary students, pole dancers who perform with alligators, hijackers and terrorists, blocked writers, gauchos settling blood feuds with knife fights, Tarantino-like homicidal couples, and of course you - The Reader. As Calvino himself says of one of the elusive texts his characters are seeking "Whatever it may be, this is a novel where, once you have got into it, you want to go forward, without stopping".
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VINE VOICEon 5 June 2011
There are great ideas at the centre of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Italo Calvino's most famous work is a cornerstone of post-modernism, a rare novel written in the second person which consists mostly of the opening chapters of other novels. It's clever, it's quotable and it's definitely original.

Unfortunately while some of the novel sizzled with genius, some of it was just tedious. Some of the novel openings were electric and I would have loved to read on, but other parts were turgid. It's also a novel that feels dated and must even have done so when it was first published in 1979 - stylistically it's much more similar to authors such as Brecht and Beckett than other books of the same era such as early Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.

Another problem with the novel, which is no fault of Calvino's, is the translation by William Weaver which I found to be clumsy in places. An excess of commas and clauses in unusual places made it frequently obvious that I was reading a book that hadn't been originally written in English.

However, I did enjoy reading the novel and found Calvino's imagination impressive which is what saved it from a lower score. But ultimately, although we're taught to think the original should be the best, If on a Winter's Night was nowhere near as good as its literary descendant Cloud Atlas or Calvino's own Invisible Cities.
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on 21 November 2009
You are about to read Mark Nicholls's review of Italo Calvino's postmodern classic If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. You might want to position yourself in a comfortable chair before you begin, or place a cushion behind your back, as we know how arduous it can be to read things off the internet. You might also care to prepare a coffee, a light snack, or to switch a light on before beginning.

You might be thinking that this blog post is not going to interest you, since book reviews on books you haven't read can often be frustrating. For starters, the writer delves into details about the plot which spoil the surprises a blind reading of the book might create, and likewise you are unable to form an opinion yourself and share your thoughts on the text in question.

Conversely, you might have read the text and are familiar with the second person narration that addresses the reader directly and places them as a protagonist in the book. You might think this review an obvious imitation of Calvino's unique style, and become irate as you read on, wondering when the reviewer is going to get around to summarising the plot.

In fact, you become so irate, you search for the book on Goodreads, but are incandescent when you notice each review is also written in the same imitative style, and the gimmick becomes so irritating you have to leave the room for a moment to calm yourself down.

As you leave the room, someone knocks on the door. It is a door-to-door salesman offering copies of Italo Calvino's novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveller at a reduced price. He begins his sale by saying: "You are wondering whether or not this novel is for you, or whether you might find a novel with the beginnings of ten separate novels included as part of the plot somewhat bemusing or distracting. You are unsure whether to slam the door in my face, or to go get your credit card."

You slam the door in his face. As you return to the living room, you notice that Mark Nicholls has broken into your house and is sitting naked on the couch reading Italo Calvino's novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. You are very confused and frightened. Feelings of arousal and apoplexy stir up inside you. You decide to call the police, but Mark Nicholls springs up from the chair as you move towards the phone.

"You are wondering whether to phone the police to remove Mark Nicholls from your house. You are deeply confused as to why this blogger whose opinions you find facile and banal is suddenly sitting naked on your couch reading the very book you were reading about," he says. You look for a blunt instrument to hit him with, but can find only a cup. You throw the cup, but he ducks and it breaks against the wall.

You start to sob. That was your best cup, and there is coffee over the walls and carpet. Furthermore, Mark Nicholls appears to be swinging his penis at you, performing an embarrassing 360° swingaround which slowly hypnotises you into a deep deep sleep.

When you wake up, you are at your desk. Mark Nicholls and the coffee stain has gone. You wonder why there is a grapefruit in your left hand and an antelope on your sofa. Those of you who read only the opening sentence and skipped to the end get a strange feeling of anticlimax.
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on 2 January 2015
This book is an interesting avant garde-style read for its creativity, structure and plot(s). It's an examination of what it means to read, with the presiding question being: why do we read at all? This is essentially a collection of short stories that has a loose thread that binds the other stories together. The reader, who is the protagonist throughout, is asked which story appeals the most and then ascends to ask, why this particular story?

In my view, Calvino writes the book stylistically well and I felt the translation was good. However, this is like no book I have ever read before. Due to its goal and aim, and as you might imagine, the book is always being interrupted with a new story. There is naturally, and deliberately, no flow. It stops, starts and takes you onto a different reading platform, akin to being thrown from one location to another. Put another way, it's similar to watching the first twenty minutes of a number of different films, where one character finds himself in entirely different situations; so if you're looking for characters and story-build up, then this won't be for you.

If you want to try something different, then this may be for you.
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on 7 June 2013
Italo Calvino is one of those writers who gently tugs you through the book like the soft smell of a delicious meal wafting through the house, or a gentle tug of a summer breeze that makes you anticipate summer even more. And I don't even like summer.

The book is for all readers: avid readers; occasional readers; lazy readers; slow readers - whatever type of reader you are, it's for you. The thing I like the most about this novel is that it plays with the perceptions of books, of readers and of narrative (especially narrative). You are, throughout this novel, both the observer and the observed: you are the reading yourself as a character and as a reader. That's what makes this book fascinating and so engaging, the fact that it is so different and so novel (pardon the pun) in it's conception.

It's a brilliant book and I would definitely recommend it to everyone.
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on 28 January 2009
I found this book a long time ago in the library at my Sixth form college, and was attracted by the title. After reading the first page, I could not put it down. Anyone who loves books will instantly identify with the first chapter - finding the perfect book in the bookshop, then wondering whether to start reading it on the way home or to save it till getting comfortable at home. How could any reader not love a book that begins this way?! Fortunately, what follows continues to captivate as you are led on an increasingly bizarre journey through a series of first chapters of novels. Most of these make you wish the rest of the book had been written!

This work has become a classic of postmodern literature; it should be widely regarded as a classic of twentieth century literature as a whole.
I cannot recommend it highly enough to any book lover.
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