Study Guide

If on a winter's night a traveler

By Italo Calvino

If on a winter's night a traveler Introduction

When you sit down to read Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, you quickly discover that this book is about, well, you sitting down to read If on a winter's night a traveler. Written in the second person, the book addresses "you, the Reader" as its main character, just like in those old Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Back when the book was published in 1979, this was a highly experimental style of narration. And you know what? It kind of blows our minds even today.

Once you've figured out that you're going to be the main character, things get crazy. Due to a printer's error, the story gets majorly interrupted. And then, to make up for this inconvenience, the book just goes ahead and does this to you ten more times, leading you through a plot that involves corrupt dictators, a torturous romance, and a worldwide book conspiracy.

In order to tie this all together, the book is divided into twenty-two parts; every odd-numbered section describes your worldwide quest to finish the many books you've started reading, and every even-numbered section is the first chapter of one of these fictional books. Confused yet? Good.

The outlandish structure of this book was no doubt inspired by Italo Calvino's involvement with the Oulipo group, a club of sorts that was founded in 1960s France to bring together writers and mathematicians who wanted to discuss new ways of structuring art. That's right. Despite how much people try to peg you as a right- or left-brain thinker, art and math were once close allies.

Oh, and before we forget, If on a winter's night a traveler was originally written in Italian (Se una note d'inverno un viaggiatore). But English-speaking audiences just can't get enough of it. And once you come to terms with being the main character and learn to deal with Calvino's philosophical rants, you'll be on board, too.

What is If on a winter's night a traveler About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever thought about writing a killer opening to a novel, only to realize that you don't have the stamina or interest to figure out how the rest of the story should go? Well Italo Calvino has the perfect alternative for you: write a novel made entirely out of the first chapters of novels. What better way to avoid the boredom that can overtake you once the initial enthusiasm for a story has worn off?

At its core, If on a winter's night a traveler is a book about the pleasure of reading. By working your way through it, you can become much more connected to that part of you that truly loves to follow a story. On another level, the text also contains countless shining examples of how to write an interesting story yourself.

Coming into this novel, you might think that books are just straightforward stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Well, Calvino has something to say about that. If on a winter's night a traveler is nothing if not weird, and it's weird for a good reason. See, it makes an incredible use of literary experimentation. But where most experimentation ends up making a book difficult and annoying to read, Calvino's tactics can make you all the more obsessed with soldiering on.

If on a winter's night a traveler Resources

Websites

Outside the Town of Malbork
This page was created by one fan so dedicated to Calvino that he has taken on the name of Tazio Bazakbal (whom you might recall as the fictional author of Outside the town of Malbork in Chapter 4).

In Calvino Veritas: The Critical Calvino Page
Looking for full-text Calvino and critical essays? As you might imagine, plenty of people have plenty to say about him.

Articles and Interviews

The Words that Failed: Italo Calvino on Che Guevara
In a one-on-one setting, Italo Calvino gives his thoughts on the revolutionary figure Che Guevara. It certainly invites interesting comparison with Calvino's treatment of revolution in If on a winter's night a traveler.

Author David Mitchell Rereads If on a winter's night a traveler
Famous author David Mitchell recalls reading Calvino's If on a winter's night as a young man, and speaks about how his impression changed when he read the book as an older man.

Salman Rushdie's Take
(In) famous author Salman Rushdie reviews If on a winter's night a traveler in his (as always) super-smart way.

Video

Gore Vidal on Italo Calvino
Watch as man of letters Gore Vidal speaks on Calvino and why he should be a bigger deal in literary circles. The guy also takes some shots at another major writer or two, referring to Calvino as the "only great writer of my time." Watch out—dude is pretty crabby.

Italian Interview with Italo
Okay, so it's not in English, but if you want to get a sense of the demeanor and body language of Italo Calvino, check it out for a minute or two. Also, Italian is such a cool language—totally worth a viewing.

Audio

Italo Calvino's "The False Grandmother"
Did you ever think you'd be listening to John Turturro reading a fairy tale by Calvino? Well, life is here to surprise you.

Images

Italo Calvino on Pinterest
Yeah, he's that cool.

Fancy Italians
Check out the cover of If on a winter's night a traveler (Se una note d'inverno un viaggiatore) in italiano, the language of love—and Calvino.

Calvino Portrait
Always the thinker.