This week we’re looking at one of my favorite books: Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. It’s the sort of thing that is often dismissed as a mere gimmick because much of it is told in 2nd person, but I’m not one to dismiss books that way.
It begins with you going to the bookstore to buy Italo Calvino’s newest book and then sitting down to read it. Then it switches to the first chapter of that book. But there’s a problem: the book is defective. That first chapter is simply repeated over and over. So back to the bookstore you go, only to find out that this book isn’t even If on a winter’s night a traveler but a different book with the wrong cover. You have the choice of buying that book or getting a proper copy of the book you accidentally started reading.
This sort of thing happens many times over the course of the book. Every time you think you’ve tracked down the book you’re looking for, it turns out to be a whole new book that you now want to read the rest of. Along the way you meet the Other Reader, a woman who is in the same situation and accompanies you in your search.
This is one of those books that I not only enjoy but that I admire as a writer. Calvino had a very tricky line to walk. He was creating the same frustration in us, the real world readers, that his in-universe reader feels by constantly denying us the next part of each story, but he couldn’t let that frustration get bad enough that we would stop reading.
Before that balancing act begins, there’s the wonderful opening chapter that is a love letter to books and readers. I especially adore the description of walking through a bookstore and seeing all the different categories of books:
“Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
“the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
“Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.
“With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).
“You cast another bewildered look at the books around you (or, rather: it was the books that looked at you, with the bewildered gaze of dogs who, from their cages in the city pound, see a former companion go off on the leash of his master, come to rescue him), and out you went.”
I never get tired of that passage.
I know some people get frustrated by 2nd person because they can’t help constantly thinking “but I wouldn’t do that”. For me, this book’s narrator exists in a sort of Schrodinger situation, where he both is and isn’t me. When I can relate to him then I’m happy to accept all the “you”s in that spirit, and when I can’t then it’s simply the way the protagonist is being referred to in this book.
Each chapter is succeeded by an excerpt from the latest book you’ve found. Not exactly an except though. It’s a very interesting style of narration that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another book. Each of these sections has a first person narrator but it also continues giving your impressions as you read:
“Where would I go out to? The city outside there has no name yet, we don’t know if it will remain outside the novel or whether the whole story will be contained within its inky blackness. I know only that this first chapter is taking a while to break free of the station and the bar: it is not wise for me to move away from here where they might still come looking for me, or for me to be seen by other people with this burdensome suitcase.”
I’d like to read the rest of some of these fictional books. Sometimes I even think about writing my own version of them. I doubt I could replicate the style of some of them but it would be fun to borrow some of the plot details, just for my own amusement.
If you’re interested in seeing how this nameless Reader’s search plays out, you can find the book at Barnes & Noble and Better World Books.