Study Guide

If on a winter's night a traveler Chapter 21

By Italo Calvino

Chapter 21


  • Exhausted from all your travels, you are elated to visit a single library (in the same city where you started!) whose catalogue claims to hold all of the books you've been searching for.
  • Did you really think you were going to get those books, though? We didn't think so. It turns out that for one reason or another, the library is unable to locate any of the books that you request through its catalogue.
  • As you wallow in despair, you feel someone's eyes on you and turn around to see a number of readers sitting at the library tables. Two of them start waxing philosophical with each other on the nature of reading. This is the last thing you want to hear right now.
  • Then a third person chimes in, then a fourth, and it keeps going until eight of them have spoken.
  • You say to these people that you don't like all their weird theories about how books go off in different directions and never have clear endings.
  • You tell them that you like your stories to be normal, with a clear and understandable beginning, middle, and end. This is all you want, but it keeps going wrong for you.
  • One of them describes a story to you, and you write another title at the bottom of your list: He asks, anxious to hear the story.
  • One of the eight readers takes your list from you and reads out the titles aloud. It turns out that when you read them all in order, they form a beautiful sentence which would make a really interesting beginning to a novel:
  • "If on a winter's night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave— What story down there awaits its end? he asks, anxious to hear the story" (21.20)
  • Despite your limp protests, the reader swears he's read a novel that begins like this.
  • The reader then tells you that not all stories need to have a clear ending. In ancient times, he says, there were only two types of endings: marriage and death. The first is about the continuation of life; the second is about the inevitability of death.
  • After briefly reflecting on these words, you just up and decide that you want to marry Ludmilla.