Book 1.2 If on a winter’s night a traveler


Flickr by moriza


Reading about yourself reading the book.

Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler opens with an eye-widening phrase: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

That’s true, I think to myself. Then the author uses polite directives on how to read his book. This is inevitably punctuated by rich indulgences (Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice.”), but it is not trying to scare me away. That doesn’t seem to be Calvino’s style given what my takeaway was from his other book I’ve read. Not so much cerebral or encyclopedic like his contemporaries. Calvino prefers thought poems, exercises in daydreaming. (Note the patent print visible on the cover of that last link…) I wouldn’t mind if this is more of the same as Invisible Cities, which is a beautiful string game of a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is definitely in the same spirit: It blasts through the fourth wall right out of the gate. It wants you to wonder what reading a book means, what writing one means.

What was the reaction of a contemporary reader who picked up this book shortly after it was published? I would like to call the opening pages “shocking and innovative,” but anyone under the age of 40 grew up on this stuff. I have heard only a little about the book before reading it so there is a thrill to guessing what lies ahead.

What does the title mean? If on a winter’s night a traveler. At first I thought that the lower case letters may mean something, but it turns out to be common for Italian novels to have titles that follow AP headline style. The first chapter’s title is the same as the book title, and the subsequent chapters seem to be spelling out a lengthy poetic phrase, suggesting the title is actually abbreviated on the cover, but is in fact a short poem not unlike something kids of my generation first encountered with this album.

Here’s the whole title, based on the chapter titles:

If on a winter’s night a traveler,

outside the town of Malbork,

leaning from the steep slope,

within fear of wind and vertigo,

looks down in the gathering shadow,

in a network of lines that enlace,

in a network of lines that intersect,

on a carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon,

around an empty grave –

What story down there awaits its end?

Final thought – That last bit reminds me of a tiny fragment of poetry that makes up the dedication of Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain:

I will be your child to hold

And you be me when you grow old

The world grows cold

The heathen rage

The story’s told

Turn the page.


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