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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 11 May 2017
Just didn't do it for me
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on 28 April 2017
Only managed 100 pages , which was pretty good compared to rest of book group.
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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 26 October 2014
Perhaps I am being unfair, but I really cannot finish this book. It meanders all over the place and tests my patience, which is normally quite good. I expect it is very cleverly written, but it is not for me. I am reading it for book club, but decided that I am not going to waste any more time on it. Apologies if I have offended.
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When I visit an art gallery, I see lots of beautiful/ exciting/ dramatic works that grab my attention, and that I would gladly give wall-space to. And then i come across various obscure installations that are no doubt terribly clever and inventive, but (as a Philistine) I would question if they're art.
That's how I felt about this book. After a beguiling lead-in chapter, it takes you to places you've never been with a novel. It starts off as a (spy?) story set in a station. But then Calvino addresses you, the reader, observing that your edition had pages missing so you took it back to the shop, where you hooked up with a fellow dissatisfied customer. They swop your book for you (cue a few more pages of a different story); you get back in touch with the other customer; it's apparently a foreign work so you visit a professor of literature...
I gave up at this point. I need a story to have a plot line I can follow through. I'm sure it's post-modern, it's highly original...but does one actually enjoy reading it? I didn't.
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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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on 22 October 2016
A great title and intriguing reviews but what a lot of old rubbish it turns out to be! I gave up after the third chapter ( at the beginning of the fourth actually.This might be a work of great 'invention' as the back cover reviewr says, but it is not a novel.There is no plot, no continuing storyline even linking one chapter to the next. Pretentious in the extreme I thought and alI could think of saying as I was reading it was WHAT'S THE POINT!!!
I don't usually give up easily on any book but this is one for the charity shop for me, sad to say.
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on 28 September 2016
Don't want to
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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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