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If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

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Title: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler  
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Subject: Italo Calvino, Postmodern literature, If on a Winter's Night..., Self-reference, Experimental literature
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If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

First edition (publ. Einaudi, Turin)

If on a winter's night a traveler (Italian: Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore) is a 1979 novel by the Italian postmodernist writer Italo Calvino. The narrative, in the form of a frame story, is about the reader trying to read a book called If on a winter's night a traveler. Each chapter is divided into two sections. The first section of each chapter is in second person, and describes the process the reader goes through to attempt to read the next chapter of the book he is reading. The second half is the first part of a new book that the reader ("you") finds. The second half is always about something different from the previous ones and the ending is never explained. The book was published in an English translation by William Weaver in 1981.


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 traveler. Eventually the reader meets a woman named Ludmilla, who is also addressed in her own chapter, separately, and also in the second person.

Alternating between second-person narrative chapters of this story are the remaining (even) passages, each of which is a first chapter in ten different novels, of widely varying style, genre, and subject-matter. All are broken off, for various reasons explained in the interspersed passages, most of them at some moment of plot climax.

The second-person narrative passages develop into a fairly cohesive novel that puts its two protagonists on the track of an international book-fraud conspiracy, a mischievous translator, a reclusive novelist, a collapsing publishing house, and several repressive governments.

The chapters which are the first chapters of different books all push the narrative chapters along. Themes which are introduced in each of the first chapters will then exist in succeeding narrative chapters, such as after reading the first chapter of a detective novel, then the narrative story takes on a few common detective-style themes. There are also phrases and descriptions which will be eerily similar between the narrative and the new stories.

The ending exposes a hidden element to the entire book, where the actual first-chapter titles (which are the titles of the books that the reader is trying to read) make up a single coherent sentence, which would make a rather interesting start for a book.

The title If on a winter's night a traveler is a good indicator of this novel which is reminiscent of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. The entire novel, even its plot, is an open trajectory where even the author himself questions his motives. This theme—a writer's objectivity—is also explored in Calvino's novel Mr. Palomar, which explores if absolute objectivity is possible, or even agreeable. Other themes include the subjectivity of meaning (associated with post-structuralism), the relationship between fiction and life, what makes an ideal reader and author, and authorial originality.


Cimmeria is a fictional country in the novel. The country is described as having existed as an independent state between World War I and World War II. The capital is Örkko, and its principal resources are peat and by-products, bituminous compounds. It seems to have been located somewhere on the Gulf of Bothnia. The country has since been absorbed, and its people and language, of the 'Bothno-Ugaric' group, have both disappeared. As Calvino concludes the alleged, fictional encyclopedia entry concerning Cimmeria: "In successive territorial divisions between her powerful neighbors the young nation was soon erased from the map; the autochthonous population was dispersed; Cimmerian language and culture had no development" (If on a winter's night a traveler, pp. 43–44).

The pair of chapters following the two on Cimmeria and its literature are followed by one describing another fictional country called the Cimbrian People's Republic, a communist nation which allegedly occupied part of Cimmeria during the latter's decline.

Languages named Cimmerian and Cimbrian have both existed. The Cimmerians were an ancient tribal group, contemporary with the Scythians, who lived in southern Ukraine. The Cimbrian language still exists today, and is spoken by 2230 people in northern Italy, not too remote from Calvino's home in Turin.


The main character in the first part of each chapter is you, the reader. The narrative starts out when "you" begin reading a book but then all of the pages are out of order. You then go to a bookstore to get a new copy of the book. When at the bookstore, you meet a girl, Ludmilla, who becomes an important character in the book. You think Ludmilla is beautiful, and you both share a love of books. Throughout the rest of the narrative, you and Ludmilla develop a relationship while on the quest for the rest of the book you had started reading. There are a number of minor characters that appear at various points in the story including Lotaria (Ludmilla's sister), Ermes Marana (translation scammer), and Silas Flanery (an author).


In a 1985 interview with Gregory Lucente, Calvino stated If on a winter's night a traveler was "clearly" influenced by the writings of Vladimir Nabokov.[1] The book was also influenced by the author's membership in the Oulipo;[2] the structure of the text is said to be an adaptation of the structural semiology of A.J. Greimas.[2]

In a letter written to critic Lucio Lombardo Radice dated November 13, 1979 (published in Italo Calvino: letters, 1941-1985; Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 501), Calvino mentions Chesterton as having influenced, in various ways, the narrative style of the ten stories that comprise the book.

Legacy and opinion

The Telegraph included the novel in 69th place in a list of "100 novels everyone should read" in 2009, describing it as a "playful postmodernist puzzle".[3]

Author David Mitchell described himself as being "magnetised" by the book from its start when he read it as an undergraduate, but on rereading it, felt it had aged and that he didn't find it "breathtakingly inventive" as he had the first time, yet does stress that "however breathtakingly inventive a book is, it is only breathtakingly inventive once" – with once being better than never.[4]

Novelist and lecturer Scarlett Thomas uses it to teach innovative contemporary fiction, as an example of different kinds of narrative techniques.[5]

Sting named his 2009 album If On a Winter's Night... after the book.[6]

English musician and composer Bill Ryder-Jones released the album "If..." on 14 November 2011. The album is a musical adaptation of the book and serves as an "imaginary film score."[7]

See also


  1. ^ Lucente, Gregory. An Interview with Italo Calvino. Contemporary Literature. Vol. 26, No. 3, (Autumn 1985), p. 252.
  2. ^ a b Calvino, Italo. Comment j'ai écrit un de mes Livres, Bibliothèque oulipienne; cited in Paul Fournel's preface to the French translation of the book, Éditions du Seuil
  3. ^ "100 novels everyone should read". The Telegraph. 2009-01-16. Retrieved 2010-12-09. 
  4. ^ David Mitchell (2004-05-22). "David Mitchell rereads Italo Calvino". The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-12-09. 
  5. ^ "Interview with Scarlett Thomas". University of Kent. 2008-10-14. Retrieved 2010-12-09. 
  6. ^ Andy Gill (2009-10-30). "Album: Sting, If on a Winter's Night... (Deutsche Grammophon)". The Independent. Retrieved 2010-12-09. 
  7. ^ Bill Ryder-Jones (2011-11-07). "Bill Ryder-Jones – If ... (exclusive album stream)". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-03-22. 
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