If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino

3 stars3/5

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, was my latest read for Riverside Readers book group.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino

Vintage Classics 2007 edition, 272 pages (paperback) - book group choice.

‘Unusual’ is probably the best word that I can use to describe Calvino’s novel. Is it a ‘novel’ I wonder or is it an experiment of sorts? The book is structured as a collection of unfinished stories with more linear narrative interspersed, and I found a challenging and intriguing read. Via the protagonist (who sometimes appears to be you the reader and sometimes another reader – confusing yes?) Calvino takes a journey through a sequence of different stories, and often talking directly to the reader to explore how and why people read and twisting perceptions about what a book should be.


Calvino’s writing is beautiful – he’s a skilled writer capable of beautiful descriptions and cleverly expressed ideas, but reading If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is often quite a painful experience because it seriously messes with your head. The first chapter is misleadingly easy to read and very engaging. The first ‘story’ seems to be leading you somewhere exciting until… it cuts of abruptly. Sometimes I loved the way that Calvino seems to speak to you and get into your thought process and sometimes this technique felt quite invasive. I still can’t decide if I think that he is merely a playful writer or a bit pompous – perhaps a bit of both?

The funny thing is, that Calvino pulls it off (kind of). When I finally struggled to the end of the book which felt epic despite it’s modest 270 pages, I felt that it was worth it and I did get what he was trying to do. I can’t rate it highly as a book as it wasn’t enjoyable read 90% of the time, however I can’t give it a low score, because I did think it was clever, quite beautiful conceived in parts and really unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Read what some of my fellow book-groupers thought about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller:

Reading Matters – “While I admire Calvino’s ambition, his ideas, his ability to turn our notion of a novel on its head, this book clearly wasn’t for me.”

Savidge Reads – “A weird book that annoyingly defeated me…”

Chasing Bawa – “I think I can forgive him the mind f*ck, because he ended it quite simply, quite beautifully.”

What books have you come across that stretched your idea of what reading is about?

16 responses to “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino

  1. Ha ha, I’m SO glad I wasn’t the only one who thought it was difficult! I’m glad I read it though as it showed me what can be done in the name of fiction and that rules can actually be broken.

    • Same for me. Definitely an interesting – if difficult – read. I couldn’t help but think when I’d finished it that it was a very clever book.

  2. I can’t decide whether I really want to read this, or really don’t… it sounds a bit like Milan Kundera’s Immortality (I think that’s the right title) which was all postmodern and messed with typical novel ideas, and I loved that.

    • Hmm… I’m not sure what you’ll make of this, as I haven’t read any Milan Kundera which makes it a bit difficult to compare. Be interested to hear your thoughts if you do read it though!

  3. I had to read Calvino’s Invisible Cities for a book group years ago and I had no idea what it was about! I’m sure it was very beautiful etc etc but I want to read a story!

    • HAHA, how funny – sounds as if Invisible Cities was also quite complex. I have not been put off Calvino for life, but definitely having a break!

  4. This one has been waiting on my shelf for 7 years for me to get around to reading it. (Yes, I’m geeky enough to know when all of my TBRs entered the house.) After reading your and Simon S.’s reviews, I’m thinking it might have to wait a little longer. Surely I will get smarter as I age and thus be able to handle it better later? 😉

    • Ah, I’m not sure that you’re much geekier than the rest of us lol! I like your logic. Perhaps if I revisit it when I’m older then I’ll absorb the meaning better… or I’ll just think I’m losing my marbles!

  5. I think I want to read this, it sounds like a good challenge. I agree with Simon T that Milan Kundera made me feel like this. And Amelie Nothomb as well, though I have no problem enjoying her work while it challenges me.

    • Definitely a challenge, and I’m glad that I read it for that reason. Stretches your mind which can be a bit taxing at times!

  6. Oh I read this book earlier about exactly a year ago and found it really weird as well. I really liked the first chapter and kinda enjoyed the alternate chapters on the main character. But boy the alternate unfinished new chapters were exhausting! I felt sooo tired at the end of the book (and started to speed-read near the end).

    For me books that stretch the idea of what novel is about (not sure about reading?) are One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, both of which I read this year (and super loved both too!) Not a fan of If On a Winter’s Night though..

    • I’m amazed that you managed to speed read any of it, as I think that would make me even more muddled! I read half of One Hundred Years of Solitude and gave up, so perhaps that’s one to revisit. Kundera keeps cropping up in these comments!

  7. Great review Pol, I am still most annoyed that I couldnt finish the thing. It has ended up on my shelves though as you know, and we discussed yesterday, because its a book I wonder if I might end up turning to again at some point and they do say sometimes loathing is a covering of love!!??!!

    • Thanks Simon 🙂 It was a tough read and I think if you’re not in the mood it’s a real pain in the bum, but perhaps you’ll revisit again someday!

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