Technically, yes, If on a winter’s night a traveler is a novel. But it’s a novel stitched together from 10 distinct stories, beginnings of other novels, interleaved with a narrative—humorous, experimental, mysterious, and at times confounding—that’s meant as a scaffold to support the whole.
So let’s call them short stories and, besides, who’s going to tell me what I can and cannot read for my very own reading challenge?
This is a book about books, about reading, and about readers. I read it years ago, as a much younger reader, so many years ago that I couldn’t remember a thing about it, only that vague sense of it being a book I admired, one to keep, one to box and unbox, unshelve and shelve, carry from apartment to house, from year to year.
So I put my reading glasses on (something I didn’t require during that earlier reading) and read the first lines of Chapter 1:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.
Oddly comforting, that. The author and I both acknowledging that I am, in fact, reading his book. He then advises the reader (me?) to tell the household that I don’t want to be disturbed (“I’m reading!”), to find a comfortable position, to adjust the light, to “try to forsee now everything that might make [me] interrupt [my] reading.”
A good beginning. And then I turn the page and there’s a new beginning:
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafe odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.
Can I tell you how much I love that? (You knew I would.)
And just as I begin to get really caught up in the mysterious world of the misty train station, the chapter ends (but the story was left hanging in the air, like the fog), and there’s the narrative again about the reader (is it me, or is there suddenly another reader? I can’t exactly tell), and then the next chapter begins:
An odor of frying wafts at the opening of the page, of onion, in fact, onion being fried, a bit scorched, because in the onion there are veins that turn violet and then brown and especially the edge, the margin, of each little sliver of onion becomes black before golden…
And what becomes of the train station, and the mysterious stranger, and the empty suitcase? In their place is Brigd in her kitchen, kneading ground meat into flour moistened with egg, and very soon I forget about the train station and want to know what happens to Brigd.
And of course just at that point is when her story abruptly ends.
And so it goes.
I have to admit to you (there’s no point in writing here if I’m not going to be honest) that I started to resent those intermediary, narrative chapters. I wanted only the fresh beginnings, the feeling of being dropped into an unfamiliar country and just starting to learn the language and then, again, another new country, another language.
It was a feeling of floating upward on an ever -rising series of notes, a mobius strip of a story that constantly ascends, never repeats, never goes anywhere and never ends.
But of course, it’s a physical book and it has a physical limit. 260 pages in fact. And how it ends? With a beginning, of course.
Our books for this month:
We’d love to hear what you read this month!
The category for the coming month is:
See you back here on December 14!
This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category in the middle of next month.