If on a winter's night

Collected Works: Literature


If on a winter's night a traveller

by Italo Calvino

View the book cover

‘Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.’ Close the extra tabs that hang around at the top of the browser, cluttering the screen and your headspace. You are about to begin reading about Italo Calvino’s best-known novel. Pay attention; do not skim-read. The journey ahead can be complicated, and you have to find your own way through it. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the truth hiding behind these lines of text. Or you may not.

If on a winter’s night a traveller is a novel about novels. The story it tells is the quest of its protagonist, who is in fact you, to finish reading a book of the same name, despite escalating, and increasingly bizarre, distractions. Calvino often breaks off from his prose to digress, offering irreverent asides and prompting discussions of possible plot paths. These procrastinatory passages are rendered as if in conversation, the author theorising with the reader.

Over the course of the work we are presented with tantalising snippets of ten fictional books, each with their own distinct character, style, and potential: a noir train-station rendezvous, a sweeping wartime epic. Each abruptly cuts off prior to completion, but Calvino allows elements of these imagined books to be echoed within the larger narrative. A blur is created between them, suggesting a more complex message that lies out of reach.

Nor does Calvino’s novel have any resolution; it makes a virtue of fragmentation. Multiple interpretations are allowed to coexist, and the reader is encouraged to embrace the contradictions that result. If on a winter’s night sketches a map of our imagination in real time, its edges unfinished and its boundaries uncertain. Its beguiling ambiguity coaxes us to embark upon our own literary travels, the ultimate destination both unknown and unknowable.

Words by Lewis Coenen-Rowe

More to discover

You can read an excerpt of the novel on Google Books. Francine du Plessix Gray has written meeting Calvino in an article for The New York Times, and Gore Vidal has reflected on Calvino's life and death in a piece for The New York Review of Books.

William Weaver interviewed Calvino for The Paris Review; David Mitchell has written about the influence of Calvino on his own novels for The Guardian; and Ian Thomson has given a short introduction to Calvino's life and work for The Telegraph.

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