Of all the July re-reads, If on a winter’s night a traveller is the one I have been most looking forward to and yet dreading most at the same time. I first read this book on its initial publication in paperback in 1981 and was knocked out by it. It set me off on a major Calvino obsession but I haven’t actually read it since. Because I thought so highly of it, I approached a re-read with trepidation – would the long passage of time altered my perspectives and would I end up wondering what I’d seen in it?

Wikipedia described the book thus:

The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveller. Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter. The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read. The book begins with a chapter on the art and nature of reading, and is subsequently divided into twenty-two passages. The odd-numbered passages and the final passage are narrated in the second person. That is, they concern events purportedly happening to the novel’s reader. (Some contain further discussions about whether the man narrated as “you” is the same as the “you” who is actually reading.) These chapters concern the reader’s adventures in reading Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Eventually the reader meets a woman, who is also addressed in her own chapter, separately, and also in the second person.

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This rather bald description gives no real hint of the greatness of this work. You know from the word go that this is not going to be your normal kind of read. The initial chapter gives a sense of unreality from the start, describing the whole process you are about to go through in settling down to read the new Calvino. Any booklover will recognise with joy the section about negotiating the book shop to try and by the volume you actually want. The first tale, in a railway station, describes the smoke from the train obliterating part of the first paragraph of the story (except it isn’t because you are reading it) and the rest of this tale continues to blur the lines between the real reader, the narrator/reader and the whole normal narrative structure of fiction. This tale is broken off after the initial section and this sends the Reader off on his quest to read a completed work – an act that becomes increasingly difficult and complex as the book progresses.

The tale of the Reader and the Other Reader in search of the Unfinished Books is entertaining enough on its own. But when you add to this a sequence of stories/beginnings of books which stand in their own right and could have been completed works, you realise the endless fertility of Calvino’s mind.  It is a mark of the greatness of Calvino’s storytelling that each of the short (incomplete though satisfying) tales could have been successfully written as a short story/novella/novel. The variety of different narrative style he employs for these is dazzling. It’s also worth remember Calvino’s track record and experience in producing short stories and he’s adept at conveying a lot in a few pages. Although the unfinished novels break off with no resolution they are surprisingly satisfying although we, as the External Reader, would no doubt like to find out how they end as well.

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Soon the chapters concerning the Readers and their quest become as strange as the Tales themselves. As the reader/narrator is drawn ever further into the labyrinth of the search for the various stories, events from the authorial side of things seep into real life until it becomes unclear which are the stories and which are the tales of the Reader(s) – or are both fiction? One of the delights of this book is simply not knowing where you will be taken next: but knowing you are in the hands of a master storyteller so wherever it is, it’s going to be good!!

Because the stories are told from a series of shifting perspectives there is a heightened sense of unreality, but never confusion due to the skill of the author. The resolution is brilliantly conceived and executed and had me grinning with delight. I remembered much of the book but had forgotten enough to create an almost new reading experience. It also has the most wonderful last page – no cheating by skipping to the end please!

I left so many page markers in place when I was reading, brilliant sections to quote within a review – and then I realised that it was pointless, because this book is so marvellous it demands to be read in total. There is no point taking pieces out of context, however wonderful they are, because you really have to read all of this book to appreciate it.

So I needn’t have worried – re-reading this book was a magical experience. Calvino takes us on a merry dance into the centre of the very nature of reading itself and questions all our assumptions about our relationship with books, authors, stories in a prolonged meditation on the meaning of books and reading – and possibly on life itself. He deconstructs the whole nature of fiction and tells a damn good tale while doing so. This is a deeply satisfying and thought provoking work, and also very funny. To discuss and dissect the meaning and nature of reading and books, whilst at the same time telling a wonderful series of (fragments of) tales is the mark of genius in my mind. This is possibly the best book I have ever read and I realise now why I love Calvino and his work so much.

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