If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Exposition (Initial Situation)
As far as initial situations go, this book is about as literal as it gets. The narrator actually introduces you to the story by saying that you (yes, you) are about to sit down and read Italo Calvino's new book, If on a winter's night a traveler.
The narrator follows this claim with a long explanation of what you might expect to get from this book and what you won't get from it, then describes all the positions you should try out in order to make yourself as comfortable as possible when you read. At first, you might think this is some sort of foreword written by the book's publisher. But as the plot unfolds, the book continues to address "you" as its main character. Confused yet?
You go to a bookstore and get a copy of the exact book you're holding, then take it home, only to find that the story never makes it past the first chapter because of a printer's error. Cursing the names of printers everywhere, you return to the bookshop and meet a woman there who has the same problem. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, you use the misprinted book to strike up a conversation with her. When the initial situation of the book has concluded, you embark on your story with "two different expectations": your expectations for further reading, and your expectation for romance (wink wink).
Maybe not the clearest exposition, but at least we know that you (YOU!) are the main character, you are reading a book, and you like a girl. Moving along.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
Who's Ever Heard of an International Book Conspiracy?
After you tell the bookstore owner about your problem, he offers you a true copy of Calvino's book, but ends up giving you another book entirely, which is written by some unknown Polish author. Once you've read the first chapter of this new book, though, you no longer care about If on a winter's night a traveler and want to keep reading the story you've started. For various reasons, the action continues like this for eight more novels; in all cases, Calvino only gives you first chapters. So what's the conflict? You can't ever finish even one stinkin' book.
You eventually storm to the printer's, where you learn of a trickster translator's efforts to spread confusion about books through false translation and misprinted titles. The rising action occurs as your journey to finish reading your stories takes you around the globe and lands you in the middle of an international book conspiracy (as though there were any other kind). Tension also builds around the fact that you're becoming…well, let's just say a little bit obsessed by your interest in Ludmilla.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
Please, Calvino. Give Me What I Want!
After you've evaded arrest and death several times, you retreat to a library whose catalogue says it contains all of the novels you've been looking for. Overjoyed, you make a list of the titles, but find out that for one reason or another, the library cannot locate any of these books (Who knows? Maybe the librarians are just phoning it in that day).
A number of readers at the library overhear your complaints, and without any invitation on your part, they start lecturing you about how they love reading books that have no clear ending, where meaning endlessly slips away.
You declare that these readers can go ahead and like what they want, but you like books that make total sense and have a clear beginning, middle, end, and a good plot. One of the readers snags your list of books and reads it aloud. It turns out that all of the titles together form a rather beautiful sentence, and he says he can remember reading a novel that begins this way.
Once you hear all the book titles read together in a sentence, you can tell that you've reached the book's climax, because it is clear that all of your interrupted readings and global travels have led you to hear this single sentence. The titles of the books come together like the pieces of a puzzle, and this makes up the climactic "twist" of the book. It's not exactly The Sixth Sense, but it's still pretty clever.
Alright, Book. Sigh. You Win.
You try to explain to the library reader that the lines he's read are actually the titles of different books, but it does you no good. After the reader gives you a final message about how stories used to end in ancient time, you just up and decide that you want to find Ludmilla and marry her.
You can tell that in these moments you've reached the falling action of the plot, since the revelation of the giant sentence (made from the ten book titles) has been the book's last great twist, and you now reach a point of surrender as the book "falls" into its ending: your decision to marry Ludmilla. The book never tells us what Ludmilla's opinion of your marriage plan is, but instead just assumes she'll be cool with it.
That's So Meta(narrative)
In the book's final scene, you are lying in bed next to Ludmilla (a scene you've fantasized about earlier in the book). Despite the frustration that the book's plot has caused you, Calvino takes pity and gives you a traditional resolution in his dénouement, showing that you and Ludmilla have indeed gotten married.
Now that the falling action has led you to this final dénouement, the book has one more clever treat for you: Ludmilla wants you to shut your bedside light off, but you tell her to hold on just a second, since you're just about to finish reading If on a winter's night a traveler. At this moment, all of your disappointment and suffering seem like they've been worth it… almost.