Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1107 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 340 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
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...
(The entire section is 363 words.)