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Posts from the ‘The Book Club’ Category

Book Club 3: If on a winter’s night a traveller

I am usually bored by the limply self-evident way in which people, having re-read a much loved book, say, “I take something different from it each time”, or, worse, “The book has changed with me as I’ve grown older”.  Of course we read a book with different eyes each time we read it.  Once we have experienced new emotions, a book will have new meaning; it will strike new chords.  But the book will stay the same — the setting and the characters stay the same, and so does the plot, and the ending too.  That is the case, except for a handful of very unusual books, of which one, perhaps the best, is Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller.

I was struck by one sentence in particular in last week’s book club post: “The novel recognises that we are not actually the protagonist (the Reader) but it nevertheless invites us to become his proxy in a more direct manner than most books would deign to”.  There is something in that second-person style that gives this book a changefulness not found elsewhere, that makes those tired statements we hear other people say about books changing ring true.  If on a winter’s night a traveller sits in the Reader’s hand like a ball of clay, moulded by the Reader’s mind and thoughts into a different shape each time he reads it.  Calvino has deliberately played with the very essence of the book, and the results are startling.  


As startling, say, as when the Visitor to the art gallery sees Velzaquez’s Las Meninas for the first time.  The painting shows a room in the royal palace.  Behind the pretty little princesses and an ugly court dwarf, the Visitor sees Velazquez himself looking out from the canvas, brush and palette in hand, painting a picture that the Visitor cannot see.  The Visitor feels uncomfortable under Velazquez’s gaze.  He wants to peer around to see what Velazquez is painting on his other canvas.  Then the Visitor spots a looking-glass at the back of the palace room.  It shows two people, dim and blurred.  A man and a woman.  The king and queen, perhaps, having their portrait painted by Velazquez.  But the Visitor stands where the king should be standing.  The reflection should be the Visitor’s.  Perhaps it is.  The Visitor leans closer, over the rail, and the gallery guard coughs deliberately.  Yes, now the Visitor starts to make out his own face in that old, far-off mirror.  And he realises that Velazquez must be painting him.  

Velazquez and Calvino are playing the same, very compelling trick.  As last week’s blogpost put its: “Calvino proceeds headlong into a story about what it means to be a reader“, in the same way that Velazquez asks what it means to look at a painting.  The Reader must grapple with the discomfort of being addressed by a writer to whom the Reader has no right of reply.  When we read a book in the third-person, or we look at a still-life painting, we can close the book or walk into another room in the gallery without the feeling that we are turning our back on someone trying to communicate with us.  If on a winter’s night a traveller sticks with you long after you shut the book, because there is a funny feeling that you really were doing all those things Calvino said you were, that there really is a shelf in your favourite bookshop of Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them.  Perhaps, as last week’s blogpost concluded, “this is Calvino laughing at himself“.  But he is also laughing at us, and he has the last laugh.

George Richards

Book Club 2: If on a winter’s night a traveller


If on a winter’s night a traveller – Italo Calvino

“Il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter.”

[“We must choose: to live or to tell.”]

The protagonist of Sartre’s existentialist classic Nausea tells us we have to choose between living and telling, that is, between doing things and talking about them.  The problem is that the things we choose to do only seem to acquire meaning and relevance when we talk about them, and this hopelessly complicates the relationship between our active self and our contemplative self.  In many ways, this is the paradox at the heart of Calvino’s novel, or anti-novel, which uses the second-person format to drag the reader kicking and screaming from the safety of his armchair/sofa/bed to the madness of a multi-layered hyper-narrative.  Of course, the reader cannot be in both places at the same time, as the first piece in this series pointed out, and passages in the book often becomes false the moment they are read (see, again, the opening line: “You are about to start reading Italo Calvino’s new novel”).

The novel recognises that we are not actually the protagonist (the Reader) but it nevertheless invites us to become his proxy in a more direct manner than most books would deign to.  Admittedly, this is more difficult for female readers once it becomes clear that the Reader is a man, but this detail is postponed for several chapters, and then the narrative blip is ‘rectified’ when we are introduced to the Other Reader.  In any case, the novel blurs any and all distinction between the reader as man/woman of action and as observer of action: in asking us to make ourselves comfortable at the beginning of the novel, Calvino is in fact demanding that we do the opposite.  After all, for a book to address its reader in real-time is no less unnerving than the idea of any other inanimate object attempting to put itself on speaking terms with a person in its vicinity.

And yet, having recognised the inherent absurdity in making the reader and the protagonist one and the same person, Calvino proceeds headlong into a story about what it means to be a reader, a story that swings from the disconcertingly plausible to the most far-fetched fantasy.  At bottom, it is a novel that asks: what is the reader’s story?  And in attempting to answer its own question, it dramatises the reader’s struggle to engage with narrative.  As it turns out, this struggle is a fruitless, albeit fascinating one, in which the Reader’s frustration is indeed the reader’s frustration:

“Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find.”

Perhaps this is because literature and reading can be all things to all people: narrative perspective is something that can be changed at the author’s whim, and in this case that is exactly what happens, as we pass from detective novel, to neo-realist drama, to exotic romance, and so on.  There is no straight-faced novel that can hope to capture the diversity of human existence simply because the scope is too broad to convey in conventional narrative.  Even Balzac could only do one city properly.  If on a winter’s night a traveller is a novel that takes a step back and laughs at the futility of realism, and in the context of the author’s career as a writer, this is Calvino laughing at himself.

The Editors

Book Club 1: If on a winter’s night a traveler

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller

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

What does it say about a blog that chooses one of the great anti-novels of the past thirty years to kick off its Book Club? For those approaching the book for the first time, it opens itself to the reader with a delicious lie – as does any work of fiction – but this one is lipsmacking in its self-consciousness: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” for as soon as you have read it, it is false.

This is the world of If on a winter’s night a traveler – the silver tongued narrator cajoling you to his own conclusion by acycle of stories – a whirlwind of narrative. If on a winter’s night a traveler is an honest novel, because it is naked in its dishonesty. It is a comic novel, because it bends the form of the novel to its own ends. It is a great novel, because it does these things lightly and in only 200 or so pages. It is one of the finest novels of the late seventies, two fingers to that decade’s chi-chi anti-establishment-ism.

Calvino’s control of the form of the book, his mastery of the narrative, is an ultimate rejection of literature and of the novel and the social structures that gather forces around them – the echoing refrain of “Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them” speaking to a social force by which people surrender themselves to the need to have read something or done something, rather than actually doing it properly and effectively. Calvino’s book is about strength: the strength to ignore the social and structural norms of reading (and perhaps of anything) and to reject them in favour of something which is genuine, strong and well meant.

The book is a rallying call to the reader to take control of the book, of books, and not to be led by society, or the narrator, to investigate the text and its purpose and the meaning and not to be dazzled by the gloss of its surface or the name of its author.

The book represents the values of this site, to lead a considered life, to reject structure for structure’s sake and to grapple with the heart of the book, its purpose, its root. We hope you have enjoyed the process with If on a winter’s night a traveler and we would love to hear your thoughts below this post. Please do let us know how you find reading the book, or anything else you would like to say.

We will be posting again about If on a winter’s night a traveler next Friday, please do join us to discuss our next instalment.

The Editors