Sit back and take a look.  Consider the text.  You may think that you
are reading the marketing department’s copy for the back cover,
but in fact you are on the opening page.  “You are about to begin
reading Italo Calvino’s new novel,
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.  
Relax. Concentrate.   Dispel every other thought.  Let the world
around you fade….”  Find a comfy chair.  Pour yourself a drink.  

Here is an infinite regress, a literary equivalent of the two facing
mirrors.  Two hundred pages into the book,
you will have gone through many drinks, but
are still waiting to get into the substance of
Calvino's story.  At this point, one of the
characters describes his idea for a novel,
and it sums up Calvino’s ploy:  "I have 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 new
novel A by 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…."

And so on and so forth.   Calvino has devised a puzzler for us, a
celebration of
lectio interruptus unmatched in the annals of post-
modernism.  He presents a fractured narrative in which we follow
a reader as he starts ten separate novels—in each instance, our
protagonist is unable to get past the opening pages of the book,
due to various obstacles and misadventures.  Chapters of the
various incomplete books alternate with an account of the reader
trying to track down what Paul Harvey would call "the rest of the
story."

And yes, Calvino tosses in intrigue and romance.  But not your
everyday garden variety.  The guys in this book have the strangest
fetish of all—they want to watch women while they are…(pause
for dramatic buildup)…reading!   Revolutionaries and counter-
revolutionaries are scheming, but only to overthrow the texts.  
The government and police authorities get involved too, but in this
crazy world they are little more than especially influential arbiters of
literary tastes.  

Meanwhile, the character talk…that is, when they are not reading.  
But the dialogue is several steps beyond (or perhaps below) what
passes for insight at your local creative writing workshop.  Calvino's
characters typically make comments such as these:

"The novel I would most like to read at this moment should have
as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon
stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you…."

"The novels that attract me most are those that create an illusion
of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure,
cruel, and perverse as possible."

"I like books where all the mysteries and the anguish pass through
a precise and cold mind, without shadows, like the mind of a
chessplayer."

"You dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading,
innocent, primitive."

Along the way, Calvino borrows almost every tried-and-true trick
from the post-modern playbook.  We have our texts within texts, as
important to this style of writing as the murder weapon in a whodunit.  
We have the crazy cut-and-paste juxtaposition of different prose
styles, all presented with that implied wink of the authorial eye, so
we know where to direct our applause.   We have characters who—
as in so many post-modern stories—always seem to be writers
themselves, or else editors or academics or readers (there are
multiple examples of each in Calvino's novel).   We wander around
in a psychological haze, closed in by a worldview that celebrates
words over deeds, sentences over actions, textuality over reality.  

As I describe it, this book perhaps sounds overly conceptualized
and too self-congratulatory.  Yet what ultimately distinguishes
If
on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
is the sheer determination with
which Calvino pushes his ridiculous conceit, and the virtuosity with
which he withholds closure even while constantly celebrating its
importance to his venture.  The ten opening chapters included here
cover a wide range of modes of expression, settings and attitudes,
and each one is a little gem, a self-enclosed universe where the
meta-textual games have been put aside and a rich fictive world
comes to the fore.  Calvino, in this regard, reminds me of those
great British actors who pride themselves on being able to play
any role, and take on the most disparate parts in order to prove it.  

But those folks eventually get knighted for their troubles. The readers
of this book are merely left benighted. Calvino gets the last laugh,
although you might just be convinced to laugh along, even if the joke
is on you.

I might go further, and claim that you won’t be able to put down
these stories until you reach the end.  But that would be unfortunate,
since this is a book that only includes beginnings.   A recurring loop
back to the start.   But don’t let that put you off.  Sit down. Take a
look. Consider the text….


Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.


Published on April 29, 2013
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
If on a winter's night a traveler

by Italo Calvino

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
fractious fiction
Selected Essays by Ted Gioia
available on the Internet

Notes on Conceptual Fiction

The Adventurer's Guide to Finnegans Wake

Has Music Criticism Turned Into Lifestyle
Reporting?

The New Revolt of the Masses

The Music of the Tango

The Rise of the Fragmented Novel

The Year of Magical Reading

The Weirdest 1960s Novel of Them All

The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery

The Many Lives of James Joyce

Why the Fuss About Jonathan Franzen?

A Conversation About Jazz with Ted Gioia

The Making of Ulysses

The Bumbling Shostakovich

The 100 Best Recordings of 2013

The 100 Best Recordings of 2012

The 100 Best Recordings of 2011

Franco: The James Brown of Africa

How Alice Got to Wonderland

The King of Western Swing

Post Cool

The Letter That Changed Modern Lit

So it Goes: The Unconventional Sci-Fi of
Kurt Vonnegut

Twelve Essential Tango Recordings

Alan Lomax and the FBI

Robert Musil and The Man Without  
Qualities

A History of Cool Jazz in 100 Tracks

William Gaddis's Eight Rules of Unruly
Dialogue

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Fix-Up Artist: The Chaotic SF of A.E. van
Vogt

William Burroughs, Abstinence Teacher

Jazz Vocals in the New Millennium

William Gaddis's The Recognitions: A
Novel About Forgery

A History of New Orleans Music in 100
Tracks

The Great American Novel That Wasn't

In Search of Dupree Bolton

Gulliver's Travels and the Birth of
Genre Fiction

Where Did Our Revolution Go?

Virginia Woolf's Orlando

The Finnegans Wake Toolkit

Do Blues Musicians Need to be Really,
Really Old?

My Favorite American Novel

The New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly
Predicted the Current Day

Why Only Revolutions Will Not be Televised

Calvino's Winter's Night

12 Memorable Works of Hispanic Fiction

Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

Fear and Self-Loathing in Scandinavia

The Alt Reality Nobel Prize

Don DeLillo's Underworld

Can a Dictionary be a Novel?

Milton Nascimento: 12 Essential Tracks

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections

Curse You, Neil Armstrong!

Three Literary Gossip Novels

Bill Evans: 12 Essential Tracks

Early Vintage Wynton Marsalis

Q&A with Ted Gioia

William Gaddis's Eleven-Year-Old Tycoon

Robert Heinlein at One Hundred

The Fourteen Skies of Michael Chabon

Is Bird Dead?

Ken Kesey's Novel-in-a-Box

Why Lester Young Matters

Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire

Who is Grace Kelly?

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of
Solitude

Could Chet Baker Play Jazz?

Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

The Jazzy Side of Frank Zappa

Fritz Leiber at 100

Günter Grass's The Tin Drum

The Jazz Pianist JFK Saved

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

Harlem Jazz: 12 Essential Tracks

The First Postmodern Novel?

Mark Z. Danielweski's House of Leaves

The Postmodern Mystery: 50 Essential
Works

Art Tatum at 100: 12 Essential Tracks

Fringe Guitar

J.G. Ballard's Crash

Herbie Hancock: 12 Essential Tracks

Remembering Drums of Passion

Keith Jarrett: 12 Essential Tracks

In Defense of The Hobbit

Brad Mehldau: 12 Essential Tracks

David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

The South Asian Tinge in Jazz

Assessing Brad Mehldau at Mid-Career

Michael Ondaatje's Jazz Novel

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones

Lennie Tristano: 12 Essential Tracks

Denny Zeitlin on Mosaic

The Chronicles of Narnia

Revisiting James Joyce's Dubliners

Tito Puente: The Complete 78s
(1949-1955)

Toni Morrison's Beloved

William Gaddis's Player Piano Novel

The Tragedy of Richard Twardzik

William Burroughs's Mexican Adventure

A Solipsistic Novel Finds a Reader

Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue

The Science Fiction of Samuel Delany

Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style

Ian McEwan's Atonement

Interview with Ted Gioia (on Delta Blues)

Roberto Bolaño's 2666

Life A User's Manual

Talking to Myself About the State of Jazz

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain

Philip Roth's American Pastoral

How I Learned I Was a Jazz Fan