If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a Traveler by Italo Calvino is a postmodernist novel published in 1979 and translated into English by William Weaver. This summer, I spent my time reading another excellent Italian writer named Umberto Eco, the brilliant mind behind the novel The Name of The Rose. When we talk about contemporary Italian literature, two writers spring up everywhere on every top hundred list: Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. If there is a modern Italian novel which is even more famous than Eco’s famous classic; then, it is undoubtedly If on a winter’s night a traveler by Calvino. A labyrinthine adventure into the world of authorship and readership. The relationship between the writer and the reader is heavily emphasised by Calvino, who offers penetrating insights into the subconscious relationship between the two entities conjoined by transaction and pleasure. Jonathan Franzen, the acclaimed author of The Corrections and Freedom, has said that reading is entering into the author’s dream, to be a participant in someone else’s dream (paraphrased). The book begins with one of the most confusing yet humorous openings in literature: ‘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.’

Imagine a world where everyone is connected by books; the hardcover and soft paperbacks milling around in heaps, mountains of books touching the ceiling and conversations revolve around novels, from one book to another life continues. A book which does not intend to paint an indelible portrait of our time but etches a marvellous story. A book which talks about books which lead to other books. Italo Calvino has done precisely that; he has crafted a book which begins with his book and later carries on to a plethora of literary works which aren’t recognised or canonised in our universe but only existent in Calvino’s multiverse of literary works. Calvino invents writers and their novels’ opening which seem inevitably familiar to us because at a certain point in our lives we may have read those novels, perhaps even admired them. Some of us, strangely, may have tried to write those novels; especially their openings: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ All nascent writers have to have thought of this disingenuous opening to push their writing beyond the first paragraph. Calvino mentions several confusing yet reminiscent passages and pages of novels which remind us of the strangeness of literature.

At a certain point in the novel, it, inevitably, shows flashes of inspiration from Jorge Louis Borges. This novel is one of the first attempts at pushing the boundaries of the modernist novel form; it acts as an heir to the great, melancholy ramblings of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. If modernism was an art form layered upon erudition, political iconoclasm, fragmentation, and a heightened sense of realism; then, Postmodernism goes beyond the frontiers of modernism to meditate on the literary art form and its genres itself. If modernism converses about the world and intricacies; modernism converses to books and their characteristics within. It is a library whose books come together to have a chat and ask the fundamental question: ‘What if we got together and did something insanely wonderful?’ This is the most precise explanation, according to my knowledge, I can attribute to Postmodernism, which is inherent in the context of this novel as American Postmodernism has invented itself in a rather different manner relatively.

This novel stands for everything one would wish to read in a literary work: It has the thrill, the suspense and the dazzling originality and traces of inspiration; a conversation with its predecessors and their way of writing. Realism, in a certain context, took the novel form to be breathtakingly alive in its essence and worked to push the boundaries of emotion which long books could portray comprehensively but Postmodernism intends to do entirely something else; it recognises and reconciles to the fact that the novel form is going to die as many writers have expressed in their own time. Postmodernism instead creates a parody of the novel form, signifying, albeit subconsciously, the novel form as an eternal recurrence of clich├ęs, the mother of eternally endless repetitions arising in different spaces and images. The sleight-of-hand technique of the novelist lies in the constant reproduction of the cliched novelistic samples and twisting them to form an image at once distorted, fragmented and jarringly iconoclastic. A man who creates enough mirrors to fool his enemies of his own reflection that, in the end, he gets lost in his labyrinth. A man who carves stolen books and turns them into something artistic. A sexually racy story about an apprentice who plans to lure his master’s wife and daughter and proves to be successful only to discover the trap laid out for him in the end by his master who is impotent yet skilfully manipulative. An author suffering from writer’s block spends his day glaring at a pretty woman reading a book outside his window, at some distance, with binoculars in vain hope to read the words typeset in the novel in her hands. Another author who writes commercial fiction and spends his time staring at the author suffering from writer’s block.

As the reader flips the pages, the intricate and confusing situations delve into deeper and deeper surrealistic complexities, which uncannily portray the subconsciously delicious and alluring relationship between the author and the reader. Especially, the novelist, authoritatively, breaks the fourth wall to speak to you, yes you, the reader. The novel’s complexity and density of themes undenied yet the language is deceptively simple; the words flow smoothly and turn into sentences which grip the reader from the beginning to the end. The ending is mind-boggling and beautifully written, though not entirely resolving the confusing banquet of themes this novel is.

If on a winter’s night a traveler is a fantastic and constantly gripping novel by Italo Calvino; who has, in the guise of writing an Italian novel, written a global literary text as gripping, bewildering and deliciously seductive as Borges’s short stories or Joyce’s Ulysses although much less difficult than Joyce and accessible. It is the holy book for postmodernist bibliophiles; a must-read for generations gone and the ones to come.

Leave a comment