Study Guide

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

by Italo Calvino

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrative of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is divided among alternating chapters that follow the story of the Reader, expressed as the second-person “you.” Interspersed chapters each present a separate embedded narrative, the start of another book that the Reader encounters on his search for the remainder of the book he first began. At the end of chapter 1, which reflects on the types and practice of reading, the Reader settles into reading Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, only to find that the book does not progress beyond the first chapter because of a printer’s error.

Chapter 2 picks up where the reading is interrupted for the first time, after the first chapter. So begins the Reader’s search for the rest of the book, which persists for the remainder of the novel and brings him into contact with various characters and partial texts. The first notable character he encounters, in the bookstore to which he has gone to exchange his faulty book, is Ludmilla Vipiteno, another reader. Here he also encounters his first false lead, as he is told that the book he is reading is not Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler but Tazio Bazakbal’s Outside the town of Malbork.

Just as the Reader settles into Outside the town of Malbork, his reading is again interrupted, this time by a large section of uncut blank pages. In chapter 3, the frustrated Reader tries to contact Ludmilla to see whether her replacement copy has the same problem. Instead, the Reader speaks only with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, a critical reader, and her friend Irnerio, a nonreader. Lotaria leads the Reader to Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, who explains that Bazakbal’s Outside the town of Malbork is really Ukko Ahti’s Leaning from the steep slope. Uzzi-Tuzii begins to read his copy aloud, translating as he goes along.

The reading experience is again interrupted, though, and chapter 4 begins with Ludmilla’s entrance just as the text of Leaning from the steep slope breaks off. Lotaria enters shortly thereafter with her readers’ group and claims that the novel is not, in fact, Leaning from the steep slope but is, instead, Without fear of wind or vertigo by Vorts Viljandi (possibly Ukko Ahti’s pseudonym). The group then begins a reading of Without fear of wind or vertigo.

The group reading ends when, at the start of chapter 5, Lotaria throws wide open a critical discussion of the text; the readers’ outcries parody academic and critical responses to literature. The Reader, fed up, travels to the publishing house to try to sort out the confusion and...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

This novel, which is definitely not a quick read, is considered an Oulipian work. Oulipo, the acronomym for Ouvrior de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), was founded on November 24, 1960, in France as a subcommittee of the Collège de Pataphysique by Raymond Queneau and François le Lionnais. This group of writers and mathematicians sought to create works using constrained techniques, such as repetition, switching every noun in a story with another noun, and writing without using a specific letter of the alphabet.

In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Calvino uses the constraint of repetitive experiences slightly differently. All the odd-numbered chapters are told in the second person and tell the reader what is happening in preparation for the next chapter. All the even-numbered chapters are chapters of the books that the protagonist is trying to read.

Near the end of the novel, the character Silas Flannery perhaps states what Calvino himself thought when writing this work: “I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he cannot go beyond the beginning. . . . He returns to the bookstore to have the volume exchanged . . . ”

As the Reader continually tries to obtain a correct copy of the book that he wants to read, each time he encounters a problem: The chapters are all the same in one book, and the “replacement” is a totally different book altogether, although the pages after a certain point are all blank.

Calvino’s skill is evident in this work, as each of the “novels” within the novel is written as though by a different author, with differing styles, tone, and prose. It is almost as though the author is daring readers to continue reading despite the abrupt endings, U-turns, and divergences. Despite the shuffling and shifting of stories, the end of the book ties up all the loose ends.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Reader—actually one of the central characters of the novel—is invited to relax and enjoy the narrative to come. The first story in the book is “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” which purports to be a cloak-and-dagger mystery in which a man arrives at a railroad station for the purpose of exchanging suitcases with another man, but the latter orders a change of plans, and the first traveler departs, still holding the same suitcase. At this point, corresponding to the end of a sixteen-page signature, the Reader discovers that the book is defective, containing in fact nothing but repetitions of the same pages. He goes to the shop where he purchased the book and there meets the Other Reader, an attractive young woman named Ludmilla, who is there on the same errand. They converse briefly, exchange their books for presumably perfect copies, exchange telephone numbers, also, and go home to continue the interrupted novel.

Unfortunately, the text turns out to be that of a completely different novel, Outside the Town of Malbork, by another writer. The Reader telephones Ludmilla and discovers that her experience is again identical. The Readers visit a university professor’s office, a women’s study group, the office of the original book’s publisher—wherever they go, together or apart, the trail leads to yet another novel, all of which, for one reason or another, they cannot complete.

After beginning ten novels, the Reader visits a library and finds all ten cataloged there, but is frustrated in his attempt to turn up a complete copy of any of them. He talks to seven readers in the library on the general subject of reading; each reads for a different purpose. The last of the seven questions the validity of the Reader’s attitude toward beginnings and endings. Either the hero and heroine marry, he points out, or they die. Contemplating these alternatives, the Reader decides to marry Ludmilla so that they might finish reading and life together. In a very brief final chapter, the newlyweds are reading together in bed, he vowing to finish If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino.