Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller
Last year I started to write a review of Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller”. I read it while we were in Germany for Christmas. We’d visited Bremen and also undergone the bizarreness of Christmas in another language - the same motifs played out in different words and different customs. I’d tried to write the review in a similar structure to the book but, in a testament to Calvino’s writing I couldn’t pull it off. Here’s the opening paragraph:
You are currently reading my blog post called If on a winter’s night a traveller, which is also a novel by Italo Calvino that you have just learned Matt was reading over Christmas. Perhaps you know that Matt bought a copy for Ingrid as a Christmas present last year and that Matt had decided to read it once she had finished. Because she didn’t quite get on so well with the experimental nature of the novel, it took her a while. You might guess that Matt also approached it (for a second time) with some trepidation (and no memory of the first time).
It also devolved into a second person telling of the story of the musicians of Bremen (because, why not?):
You are a donkey. You are aware that you are less useful to your farmer compared to the old days. You fear your days are numbered, perhaps you will be condemned to living your life out misused as a slave-donkey. You fear worse, that they may kill you and use your hooves for glue.
You say as much to your friends, the cat, the rooster and the dog. You realise that they are getting on a bit too. They share your concerns.
You decide together that it’s time to leave the farm and find somewhere safer to live. Bremen seems a good bet, you’ve always fancied your chances as a musician and you’ve heard that everyone in Bremen is so rich that even a rag-tag bunch such as yourselves could gain employment as musicians in such a city.
You are tired of walking. How far is it to Bremen anyway? You are in the middle of nowhere. It is cold and dark. But look, a farmhouse. You decide to ask for shelter.
You instinctively know something is wrong. As you and your merry band of would-be entertainers approach in the dark you see the lights are on and the doors are open. A group of thieves sit around the kitchen table discussing the loot and how they will be spending it.
You determine with your friends to drive these bandits away. They stand on your back and you decide to scare the robbers away by making a din. You chortle as the men run for their lives, not knowing what the strange sound is. You sense that maybe a musical career is not for you. You take possession of the house, eat a good meal, and settle in for the night.
Later that night, you hear the robbers return. They send in one of their number in to investigate. He sees the Cat’s eyes shining in the darkness, thinking he is seeing the coals of the fire. As he reaches down to light his candle things happen in quick succession; the Cat scratches his face with her claws, the Dog bites him on the leg, you kick him with you hooves, and the Rooster crows and chases him out the door, screaming. He tells his companions that he was beset by a horrible witch who had scratched him with her long fingernails (the Cat), a man who has a knife (the Dog), a black monster who had hit him with a club (you), and worst of all, the judge who had screamed from the rooftop (the Rooster).
The robbers abandon the cottage to you and you live happily there for the rest of your days.
So I had some fun with it, but perhaps not quite enough of an idea for it to really work. As a result, the idea of writing a review has sat mouldering in my come-back-to pile ever since. And now here in the clearing house of the new year, and as part of reflection on the year past I found I could no longer ignore it, as it’s now a book that’s played a part in three successive Christmases.
As mentioned above I’d given the book to Ingrid as a present in 2018. True to form, the gift tag had read “you are holding in your hands a present from your husband Matthew” etc and so on, in a foreshadowing of my later failures with the medium.
And this Christmas and new year I keep thinking about how this past year has been a lot like a concentric nested set of stories all confined in one space. The idea of if on a winters night is that it’s a meta narrative that spans multiple chapters of different books that have been bound together by accident. Except you also get in-between chapters that feature you the reader settling down to read the next chapter, so it’s not quite like that. And you track down different chapters in other places and there might or might not be some sort of weird conspiracy involving spy novels also going on at the same time.
But just like my first attempts at a review, it’s really hard to pull off that structure in a convincing way. This might be why you’ve not heard of it. You’ve probably heard of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which arguably uses the structure to better effect (from a storytelling point of view at least) and even manages to throw in similar jokes about publishing.
I was given the Calvino book by a friend who gave me this and a couple of others as a sort of “there’s nothing new under the sun” gesture back when I was raving about Cloud Atlas as a younger, more gauche man. (Well I’m probably still gauche but change is difficult n’est-ce pas?)
Winter Traveller is a satisfying read and pretty funny, though it was probably easier to believe when smartphones (even actual phones would obviate most of the plot), the internet and Amazon weren’t quite so much in the picture. Nevertheless, it remains a book for the ages.
Of course back in Germany at the end of 2019, in a hotel room in Bremen I first read about a new potential SARS outbreak in Wuhan. And ever since, each month that has passed has seemed like picking up a new chapter in a different book or walking back into a room after five minutes to find all the furniture has changed. That amorphous shifting narrative of the year gone, those attempts to find and understand a continuous thread, have all gotten “If a Winter’s Night a Traveller” right under my skin.