If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

by Italo Calvino

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Characters Discussed

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The Narrator

The Narrator, who is unnamed and physically undescribed. The Narrator may be a single person or as many as eleven different writers, each the author of a separate novel, including the encompassing book (supposedly written by Italo Calvino). Each of the novels is told by a person who might plausibly be called the Narrator. The Prime Narrator is the author of the book that enfolds the other ten, and his main theme is the relationship between writers and readers. He is an open and friendly fellow, addressing the Reader (another character) directly, giving hints and directions as to how and why a perceptive reader reads. He points out the novelistic tricks of the other writers, but he himself uses these same devices, displaying and explaining them as the book progresses. In a sense, the Narrator constructs the novel as the reader watches. While he constructs the novel, the Narrator participates in the reactions of his reader. He is amused, baffled, irritated, and intrigued by the devices that the subsidiary authors use. There is an inescapable air of illusion about the entire work, and the Narrator, for all his honest appearance, is a sly and devious character. Within the novel, there are ten more novels and ten more narrators, and it appears that all these narrators are variants of the Narrator. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the first novel-within-a-novel, has the same title as Calvino’s book but is actually a story of espionage. It has become confused in printing with another novel, Outside the Town of Malbork, by Polish writer Tazio Bazakbal. It appears that this novel in turn has been mixed with a Cimmerian story, Leaning from the Steep Slope, by Ukko Ahti. That appearance is an illusion, for the novel seems to be a Cimbric one, penned by Vorts Jiljandi, with the title Without Fear of Wind or Vertigo. At this point, the split Narrator splits again, introducing Ermes Marana, a shadowy translator and literary agent provocateur. Marana seems to be a dark version of the Narrator, practicing plagiarism and deceit to produce the works that next appear: Looks Down in the Gathering Shadow (Regarde en bas dans l’épaisseur des ombres) by the almost unknown Belgian author Bertrand Vandervelde, and two confusingly titled works by best-selling novelist Silas Flannery, In a Network of Lines That Enlace and In a Network of Lines That Intersect. Flannery—who is yet another avatar of the Narrator—provides pages from his diary, another kind of book. The Narrator reveals that at least one of the Flannery books is almost certainly a translation by Marana of a Japanese work, On a Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon, by Takakumi Ikoka. Once more, this novel gives way to yet another one: Around an Empty Grave, by Latin American writer Calixto Bandera. It in turn fades into the penultimate novel of the entire series, What Story Down There Awaits Its End? by Slavic author Anatoly Anatolin. Only then does the Narrator return and bring the enfolding novel to its close. Throughout the novel, the Narrator has been the guide of the Reader; sometimes a wise and avuncular host, sometimes a sly and teasing jester, the Narrator embodies the key aspects of authorship—its talent to entertain and its ability to mystify.

The Reader

The Reader, a sort of Everyman, a person of indeterminate age, although clearly an adult male, who is unmarried and whose expectations of life seem to have been reduced to a careful minimum. As the story progresses, the Reader learns to raise...

(This entire section contains 1424 words.)

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his standards and his hopes, expecting and finding greater enjoyment both in his reading and in his life. Beyond the obvious attributes given at the start of the book, the Reader is left outwardly a generally shadowy and elusive figure. Calvino is careful not to limit the character by extensive description of his physical appearance or personal history, instead allowing the Reader to develop in a fashion determined by the individual, actual reader. The parallel developments in the book are the Reader’s growing fascination with the unfinished novels he confronts, and the Other Reader, or Ludmilla, who joins him on his adventure. This personal relationship develops so that by chapter 7 the two have become lovers, and by the book’s end they are married. The Reader becomes a more active and adventurous individual as time goes by, running ever greater risks in pursuit of the elusive books. The journey begins innocently enough in a bookstore and gradually escalates until the Reader is acting as a double agent in the totalitarian nation of Ircania, on a mission from the equally dictatorial state of Ataguitania. As the Narrator becomes, in a sense, the author of each of the succeeding novels, the Reader identifies with the male hero in each of the books, and in the end it is difficult to tell where the original Reader ends and his shadowy selves begin.

The Other Reader

The Other Reader, or Ludmilla, the Reader’s female counterpart, love interest, and, finally, wife. Like the Reader, she is interested in books and in reading; indeed, her love and appreciation of literature are deeper and more instinctive than those of the Reader. She sees both writing and reading as natural acts, and her ideal of an author is one who produces books “as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins.” The physical attributes of the Other Reader are more clearly defined than those of the Reader, in large part because she is described not only by the Narrator but also through the perceptions and desires of the Reader. Both agree that Ludmilla is an extremely attractive and highly intelligent young woman. As first seen (appropriately enough, in a bookstore), she is striking, even beautiful, with large, expressive eyes, flawless skin, and a mane of richly waved hair. Her apartment, which is described in greater detail than the woman herself, reveals her mental and emotional nature: She is practical, yet romantic; her kitchen has a variety of appliances and utensils, but her refrigerator holds only an egg, half a lemon, and a few jars of condiments. On one wall are a number of framed photographs, but some of the frames are empty. The combination of contrary signals and impulses does not create a contradictory character; rather, it establishes Ludmilla as a more believable and realistic person. Ludmilla’s main trait is her devotion to reading. Throughout the novel, she remains relatively consistent in her reaction to the succeeding novels that appear, breaking off at their most interesting points. The Reader is exasperated and bewitched by each of the novels in turn; Ludmilla, on the other hand, readily accepts each new work as she finds it, and her interest is less in the plots of characters than in the very presence of the written word. Because of her devotion to the word, Ludmilla appears at times retiring, even shy. She is, however, friendly with a variety of odd and intriguing characters who, like her, are drawn to the life of the mind and the lure of books. In the end, the Reader is the most notable of these characters, and his dominant trait is that he comes closest to matching Ludmilla’s passionate devotion.


Lotaria, the antithesis of her sister, Ludmilla. In her own way, she is attractive, but in an odd and not quite appealing way, with a long neck, a bird’s face, and a mass of curly hair. Her voice is harsher and sharper than her sister’s and carries an ironic edge to it. Lotaria is intelligent, highly educated, relentless, and humorless. She seeks to reduce reading and literature to a precise, objective science from which the human elements can be completely removed. As in all matters, Lotaria is literal in her quest: Her highest ambition is to perfect a machine that will make it unnecessary for a person actually to read any novel. Instead, mathematical formulas and electronic computations will reduce the meaning of any given book to a set of numbers. Lotaria’s approach to literature is purely theoretical. Instead of reacting to a book as either pleasurable or not, or even as good or bad, she must place it within a rigid scheme. In the discussion group that dissects one of the novels, the jargon flows so freely as to obscure all traces of the actual story. This is the approach to literature that Lotaria demands and that is the opposite of the unforced, natural acceptance of her sister.

The Characters

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Italo Calvino’s two Readers, man and woman, reflect his previous attachment to allegory and fable. The Reader aggressively pursues the elusive complete novel and presses forward to resolve the confusion of the abortive novels to his own satisfaction. Concurrently he is pursuing Ludmilla, the Other Reader, carefully soliciting her telephone number at their first meeting and striving to know her better, although only at the end acknowledging that he wants her as his mate. Ludmilla represents the feminine approach to fiction and to life. She appreciates the “driving force” of a good novel and is content simply “to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves.” Throughout the book, the woman reader, whether Ludmilla or an ideal reader imagined by one of the fictional authors of the aborted novels, is presented as receptive, unwilling to impose prejudgments, ready to follow where the story leads. As the Reader’s beloved, Ludmilla responds decorously to his advances and eventually accepts him as husband.

The real readers of the book, whether male or female, are invited to identify with the (male) Reader, but it soon becomes clear that the true reader is a hermaphrodite. The Reader’s and Other Reader’s efforts complement each other, and their marriage is the logical resolution of their quest for an integral reading experience.

Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, seems to represent the critical mentality at its most confident, categorical, and dogmatic. She is, in other words, not a reader at all, only a person using books to promote her own opinions and to provide fodder for study sessions with like-minded friends. As such, she represents a temptation to the Reader, who, being male, displays domineering tendencies. Inevitably he takes up with Lotaria, only to find their frantic and short-lived passion thoroughly unsatisfying, for she is all head and no heart, not even likable, much less lovable.

The narrator is a somewhat satirical portrait of the Author—that traditional, omniscient provider and director of the reading experience. The story “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” for which he is responsible is only the first of the ten novel beginnings. It is as though “Calvino” has no more control over the situation than does the bewildered reader who cannot ever get on to the second chapter of the original story. Calvino is adapting to his own purposes a narrative stance resembling Geoffrey Chaucer’s six centuries ago in another set of “framed” stories, The Canterbury Tales (1386-1390). Like Chaucer the pilgrim, Calvino, or rather a version thereof, has become a character in his own work. Like Chaucer’s persona (not only in The Canterbury Tales but in several of his other works), he has great difficulty getting his story told. The pilgrim Chaucer is the victim of impatient fellow travelers who, not seeing the satirical point of his “Tale of Sir Thopas,” cut him short; Calvino is victimized by his publisher, whose supposed carelessness and general disorderliness prevent readers from finishing the story of the man with the suitcase. Chaucer, whose audience was accustomed to having stories read or recited to them, had to endure not being listened to; Calvino, not being read. Meanwhile, the real Chaucer and the real Calvino are getting the larger job done.




Critical Essays