If on a Winter's Night a TravelerThe Novel
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.
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
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler 1
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
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.
Themes and Meanings
Two related themes emerge in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: the intimate relationship between reading
and living, and the tension between the reader’s expectations and the writer’s quest for distinction and
originality. Reading and living are metaphors for each other. Observations such as the narrator’s “The lives
of individuals of the human race form a constant plot” are frequent. The two Readers “read and review” each
other in Ludmilla’s home. The book resembles life in many ways, particularly in its unpredictability. In
developing a thesis about Calvino’s “narrative discourse” several years before the publication of this book,
Teresa de Lauretis translated a passage from Calvino’s preface to a 1964 novel thus:
Readings and lived experiences are not two universes, but one. To be interpreted, every experience of life
recalls certain readings and becomes fused with them. That books are always born of other books is a truth
only seemingly contradictory to this other truth: that books are born of practical day-to-day life, and of the
relationships among men.
Calvino never exemplified his theory of the “one universe” more strikingly than in If on a Winter’s Night a
The theme of life and reading leads Calvino to play continually with the conflict between the reader’s
demands and the author’s intentions. The former is likely to want to immerse himself (or herself—Ludmilla
particularly expresses this wish) in the narrative, to submit to being swept along to a satisfying conclusion.
The writer counts on the ordinary expectations of the reader but defies these expectations to a greater or lesser
extent, as daring and originality dictate. To conform completely would be to write pallid and imitative books;
to defy all expectations would be to risk unintelligibility and alienation. Calvino takes a risk—not the minor
risk of supplying an unexpected ending but the headier one of furnishing no ending at all, instead producing a
The Characters 2
series of beginnings that resembles neither life nor any of the usual forms of fiction.
The novel comments throughout on these tensions between writer and reader. Calvino’s narrator is lured by
the possibilities of the various counter-narratives that suggest themselves. As far back as Miguel de Cervantes,
novelists have digressed from the main story, and not always irrelevantly. One of Calvino’s fictional
subnarrators is “always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories have been told first.” The reader,
however, may not share this penchant for literary sideshows.
Furthermore, readers have different expectations, some of them excruciatingly inapt to the writer. Some want
only to escape from the world, an outright denial of Calvino’s premise that life and reading are inseparable.
When the Reader encounters the seven readers with different slants on their common interest, one, for
example, reads each new book only until he is sure that it is not one which he read in his childhood but has
not been able to locate since. Another reads in order to go off on a tangent; when he has succeeded, the book
has served its purpose. Clearly, these are perverse readers, unwilling to receive the book as written, in
Ludmilla’s fashion. The Reader, in response to such vagaries, asserts his intention to read only what is in the
book, to connect its parts with the whole, to acknowledge only certain readings as correct, to distinguish one
book from another, and, most important, to read the complete book from first page to last.
This quest for unity, for the one complete book, is signaled in the first interpolated narrative. The traveler in
the train station will recognize his counterpart by a password, “Zeno of Elia.” Zeno was the early Greek
philosopher who stressed indivisibility—“the one”—in contrast to the school of Heracleitus, whose basic
principle was flux—a continually moving and divisible reality. The password is exchanged but not the
suitcases, and the narrative yields to a succession of similarly unfinished stories: the seeming triumph of flux
and disunion and the denial of Zeno’s principle.
The seventh reader in the library is permitted the last word. Beginnings and endings as such are not important;
“the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of
death.” Back with Ludmilla, the Reader plans to finish Calvino’s book. He cannot finish the first story called
“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” but he can finish the book of the same name, which is not, after all, a
pastiche of many books but a complete narrative of his own initiation as a Calvino reader, that is, a reader who
has learned not to demand what the author cannot or will not give him. The main story, his own, ends happily
with his marriage to Ludmilla, which has produced one whole reader, one whole life. Zeno’s principle is
reaffirmed—if one allows for what Samuel Taylor Coleridge liked to call “unity in multeity.” The artist has
made a whole out of seemingly disparate parts, a whole symbolized by the union of the two Readers.
Well before he wrote this novel, Calvino demonstrated an interest in modern critical approaches such as the
semiotic theory of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and structural linguistics, especially as advanced
by Roman Jakobson. One branch of structuralist criticism has emphasized reading as a creative, unrestrained
response to writing, an idea endorsed, with reservations, in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Calvino defies
the reader’s expectations because they impede a creative response. Refusing to travel down literary ruts, the
author leaves the ten stories to the reader to finish—or not finish. This strategy marks what is sometimes called
the antinovel, whose best known practitioner, Alain Robbe-Grillet, has gone much further than Calvino in
obliterating the familiar benchmarks of the novel.
It is Calvino’s awareness of this modern shift in critical emphasis from writing to reading, then, that
differentiates him from Chaucer. Whereas Chaucer portrays an author struggling to master the art of writing,
Calvino depicts the reader wrestling with the demanding art of reading. Both involve impatient audiences, but
Calvino challenges his audience’s motives. Reading demands respect for the writer’s art, but the reader must
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respect the art of reading, too, which calls for more active involvement, more creativity, than the lazy reader
can summon. To cite Coleridge again:
The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a
restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasureable activity of mind excited by the attractions
of the journey itself.
In Calvino’s book the journey is not that of a character in a railroad station but of the Reader—a journey to
which any reader can aspire.