Home > English > Extension 1 > Module C: Language and Values > Elective 1: Textual Dynamics > If on a winter's night a traveller

If on a winter’s night a traveller

by Italo Calvino

This unit was prepared by Robert Pastorelli, Centre for Continuing Education, The University of Sydney


Characterisation in brief

The text

Themes and techniques


Some notes on the text



If on a winter’s night a traveller is an extremely intricate and devilishly clever book which works on many different levels across many themes. The first and most obvious of these is the metafictional aspect which questions our notion of reality and its relation to the fictional or “fake” in the contemporary world. There are also many other aspects of the contemporary world which inform the work such as questions of identity, questions of originality and intertextuality.

Confusion, complexity, uncertainty, frustration are all aspects of the postmodern world as Calvino sees and experiences it.

Underlying all of these themes however there is a sense of humour and of ironic intelligence and in the end the work becomes a very clever self-reflexive game which the author is playing with us the readers.

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Characterisation in brief

(In this discussion the character within the work will be referred to with an upper case “R” or “Y” as in “Reader” or “You”.)

The protagonist of If on a winter’s night a traveller is You, the Reader. At first, the narrator speaks to you directly advising you on how to get ready to read. As the novel continues however, the distinction between you, the reader, from the world outside the text, and another identity found within the work, that is, the “Reader”, starts to blur. This is a parallel to the way the first embedded text “If on a winter’s night a traveller” is introduced. The result ultimately is that “You’re the absolute protagonist of this book” (219).

There are two considerations which are apparent. Firstly, you the reader in a reality outside the text is becoming identified with You, the Reader, a character within the text.

How does this make explicit what happens when a reader reads a novel? Does the process of reading a novel make a reader identify with a character within the work?

The second consideration revolves around the notion of identity in a postmodern world. The character of this work is a construct of language made within the particular frame of the text.

If the reader outside of the text is identified with the Reader within the text, to what extent is the identity of the reader outside the text also a construct of language and the particular social context?

But what are the particular characteristics of the Reader? The character remains sketchy although we know he is a male and we do know that “You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything.”(4) This is ironic in that the reader is shown to continuously be expecting something but nothing happens as expected.

Once the character of the Reader is established within the text he seems to be trapped within the narrative (conspiracy) which increasingly appears to be out of his control.

Does this feeling of losing control reflect the postmodern world we live in?

The Other Reader, Ludmilla, is the main female presence and love interest for You, the male Reader within the work. (For a detailed account, see Chapter 7.) She is a companion, a sexual presence, a pure reader in that she refuses to cross the boundary into the writing and publishing side of books. Also, the author introduces the embedded text that she would like to read. The type of book that the female presence would most like to read is the type of work that follows in the embedded beginning of a novel. Ludmilla continuously refuses to be seen as a subordinate character, for example she doesn’t go with the Reader to check the publishers.

Ludmilla is also always dissatisfied with the book she reads. To avoid this dissatisfaction she reads several books at once and constantly wants to move on to a different type of novel.

There is a narrative voice that talks to the Reader and therefore the reader. The narrator in the first embedded text for example is an “I” that narrates but refers to a controlling author in the third person (20). In an essay found in The Uses of Literature Calvino writes:

“The preliminary condition of any work of literature is that the person who is writing has to invent that first character, who is the author of the work…It is always only a projection of himself that an author calls into play while he is writing; it may be a projection of a real part of himself or the projection of a fictitious ‘I’ – a mask, in short”. (1986:111)

Hermes Marana is a falsifier and creates confusion. He is the founder of the secret organisation OAP. (For a detailed account see Chapter 6.)

Silas Flannery the Irish novelist is a character whom many critics see as Calvino’s alter ego. (For a detailed account see Chapter 8.) He complains that he has lost the pleasure of disinterested reading.

Lotaria is Ludmilla’s sister and another female presence (sometimes several other female presences - see Chapter 9). A reader who analyses and dissects, using electronic devices, and reads in terms of politics and sexual politics.

Irnerio, the non-reader, is a sculptor who uses books as objects and as material for his sculptures. His sculptures are works built of books much the same way as Calvino’s novel, but whereas Irnerio only uses the physical properties of books (he is the non-reader) the author uses the styles of books.

Irnerio’s work is to be involved in an infinite regress in that a book will be made about his sculptures which will be used to make other sculptures about which another book will be made and so on.

Cavedagna is a publisher who invites “You” to make sense of Marana’s correspondence. A correspondence in which time and space are non-linear. Calvino may well be asking the reader to make sense of the world.

Professors Uzzi-Tuzii and Galligani are academic readers who study literature in terms of the historical and cultural contexts constantly arguing and bickering over interpretation.

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The text

Schematically, the text is made up of twelve numbered chapters with the first ten having embedded beginnings of novels which have titles and which the Reader is never able to finish. The embedded texts are interrupted when they have gained the Reader’s desire to continue reading. This leads to a certain frustration for the Reader (the character and protagonist) as well as for the reader and also provides the basis of the story for the framing narrative.

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The framing narrative

There is an over-arching framing narrative. This framing narrative starts out as an instruction book on how to read. It tells the reader how to prepare for reading and talks about all of those aspects of buying a book that are part of being a reader, but quite disconcertingly the text speaks to “You”. It is this “You” which will become an alter ego of the reader of the text, that is, the character of the Reader who becomes the “absolute protagonist of this book” (219) The protagonist finds that the book he (the Reader is a male) starts to read repeats itself like “one of those virtuoso tricks so customary in modern writing” (25) (note the irony) but soon realises that he has a defective copy. The desire to finish reading the book he started to read motivates the story which at various stages becomes a quest, a detective story, a thriller/ spy novel. These are all genres that interweave to form the framing text.

The framing text is also composed of different types of text from a type of “How to…” manual on reading, to a translator’s letters, an author’s diary entries, dialogues, even parts of a story, or rather another beginning of a story that another reader remembers from his childhood which in fact becomes integral to the list of titles that make yet another beginning. These paratexts, which usually form the background notes for a novel, are here internalised and made explicit within the text. This “making explicit” becomes a metafictional device used by Calvino to make transparent the processes of creating a fiction.

Calvino is clearly playing on the notion of a suspension of disbelief in that we as readers are quite willing to get caught up in the narrative and believe that a reader would travel all over the world to find the end of a novel he has started to read. It is all quite humorous. The Reader finds that he moves from the bookstore, visits the publisher of the book, and is finally arrested in Ataguitania only to be released on condition that he carry out a mission in the country of Ircania, a police state where the world is ordered in terms of censorship (notice the use of lists) and where the potential power of writing is not undervalued: “Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do” (235).

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The embedded texts / beginnings of novels

Below is the beginning of a table which summarises some elements of the numbered chapters and the embedded texts. Using this basic structure, or one of your own, construct a summary of the text.

(Hint: Leave plenty of space for adding new points and ideas on re-reading.)

Please keep in mind what the female character wants to read in each chapter and to what extent the following beginning of a story is an attempt by the author to give the female character what she wants to read.

Why would the author do this? What does this desire tell us about the author, and the relationship between author and reader?

Numbered framing text

Characters introduced.

Title and beginning of the novel


Dialogue of the “Author” towards “You” the “Reader”. The obvious and disconcerting prospect of a novel that speaks to you the reader as if you have as yet not begun to read the novel itself.

Instructions on how to read (a “How to” book).

“Let the world around you fade” notions of film but also a very important indication of the act of reading which involves a suspension of disbelief and the change in the focus of the Reader from the world of reality to the world of the text.

The humour present in the whole process of settling in to read the book and in the continuation of this line of reasoning is that the reader finds himself (male) reading the book on horseback (the author playing games).

Description of the whole process of reading, the reading about a book, the going to the bookstore, the types of books in a bookstore in relation to the reader (very important, notice the use of lists), finding the book (ironic in light of what happens later), reading the blurb on the cover

You, the Reader

If on a winter’s night a traveller

The framing text and the world of the story overlap as if they fuse into one another like clouds of smoke and steam. Like something not discernible, nothing is really definite.

Reality for the story seems to be hidden by smoke and steam.

Pastiche- Film noir genre/thriller/detective story/conspiracy “organisation is powerful”

Problems with truth and reality. Don’t know what is really happening.

1) Imprecise description

2) Crisis of identity- no one is who they seem to be.

3) Smoke and steam provide a descriptive metaphor for the inability to “see” the real.


The novel If on a winter’s night a traveller is interrupted by white pages (an image which recurs in the text).

The reaction of the reader. The emotional reaction of the Reader elicits a breaking down of the reality outside the text to atoms and particles and then the expansion outwards to the galaxy… (the presence of scientific “knowledge”, breaking down of reality into the elements that constitute it)The Reader learns from the bookseller that the problem seems to have originated with the binders (notice the reference to others involved in the process of making and selling books as products). The Reader is given a choice to read the complete text of If on a winter’s night a traveller (irony) or to continue reading the book which he started reading which is actually another book called Outside the town of Malbork. The choice is made without regard to the author or the title that the Reader wanted initially but solely in regard to the text which he started reading and which has now captured his interest. Clearly this is a statement on the relative importance of the author and the text (see Roland Barthes The Death of the Author).

The Other reader (female reader) is introduced. The introduction of a love interest as a theme found in novels and as a motivational aspect which informs much of what is to come.

Physical description-

“Huge, swift eyes, complexion of good tone and good pigment, a rich wavy haze of hair.”(29)

“She has dimples. She is even more attractive to you.” (29)

Aspects of the Other reader’s character-


The novel she would like to read is -

Outside the Town of Malbork is a completely different novel and descriptions contrast with the rather vague descriptions of the first novel. The descriptions indicate precise textures, colours, and smells. The precision in description leads to a belief in “schoeblintsjia” even though that thing may not exist, yet this literary technique makes “You” believe that it does and the author openly tells you.

The fight between Gritzvi and Ponko and the way it is described in very physical terms. The revelation that there is a relationship between Ponko and Zwida and the existence of a feud between their two families, the Ozkarts and the Kauderers (a reference to Romeo and Juliet?)Will Gritzvi take the place of Ponko in terms of the relation with Zwida?

1) There are precise descriptions which involve all of the senses.

2) There is a change in identity as one character is substituted for another almost metamorphosing (and outside of this embedded story the Reader is substituting himself for the main character as he is reading, and in the real world…).”While we were clutching each other I had the sensation that in this struggle the transformation was taking place, and when he rose he would be me and I him, but perhaps I am thinking this only now, or is it you, Reader, who are thinking it, not I”. ”I try at the same time to strike myself, perhaps the other self that is about to take my place in the house or else the self most mine that I want to snatch away from that other”. “I headed toward Brigd thinking of Zwida: what I sought was a two-headed figure, a Brigd-Zwida...”

3) Alienation as one character transforms into another.


Outside the town of Malbork is interrupted by white pages… 

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The ending

Calvino quite suddenly and ironically finishes with a “happy ending” (or does he?) in one of the shortest final chapters even written. A closed ending such as this, in this book, is openly subversive explicitly reiterating the very falsity of itself for many reasons. Some of these are its brevity, its lack of development and essentially because it is so surprising and such a contrast to all that has come before. It is also, in a way, a form of resistance.

By handling the ending in this way does Calvino draw attention to it?

Is the ending satisfactory? How does it differ from endings of other postmodern texts you have read?

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Themes and techniques


The immediate and overarching impression of the book is that it is a novel about novels. Calvino himself called it a “hyper-novel” (Weaver, 1989:31). It is certainly a fiction about fictions, that is, a metafiction. Patricia Waugh writes that “Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text.” (1984:2)

The blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality is of prime importance in this work.

Some of the techniques used in metafiction are:

  1. Russian dolls/Chinese boxes: novels within novels, a story embedded within another.
  2. Mise-en-abyme: a story within a story but in this case the story is basically the same as the story being read. Sometimes a writer may use infinite regress to achieve the same result (see “In a network of lines that intersect.”). Examples:
    1.  The reader reading a story called If on a winter’s night a traveller is found within the novel where a character called “You” is reading a story called If on a winter’s night a traveller.
    2. The reader is reading about a writer who keeps interrupting stories to keep another reader interested (see Chapter 6, also a reference in reverse to the Arabian Nights) which is what is occurring in the book.
    3. The Silas Flannery’s idea for a novel is most accurate example of a mise-en-abyme (see Chapter 8).
  3. Blurring of boundaries between the layers of the text, for example, the boundaries between the framing text and the embedded texts in the first two chapters, echo the blurring of boundaries between the text itself and reality.
  4. Use of second person pronoun “You” as a character, and later considerations of “You plural”.
  5. The internalising of paratexts. Notes, diary entries, letters and other material that an author may use to prepare a work are made explicit within the work thereby bringing to the fore the processes involved in making it. 

Is the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality descriptive of the world we live in? Does it indicate a sense of uncertainty and uneasiness in the world?

The central message of If on a winter’s night a traveller is that “you find yourself prisoner of a system in which every aspect of life is counterfeit, a fake.” (215)

Comment on this statement as a valid description of the novel and of life in a postmodern world.

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“The term intertextuality was initially employed by poststructuralist theorists and critics in their attempt to disrupt notions of stable meaning and objective interpretation.” (Allen, 2000:3) One of the reasons for this is that these theorists believed the text really had no meaning in itself but could only have meaning in relation to other texts. So meaning, in a similar way to Derrida’s “différance” is constantly being differed to other texts. In If on a winter’s night a traveller Calvino suggests this in many ways and not just in using different genres within the text but explicitly in pointing to specific works, Arabian Nights or Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo for example. Calvino then postulates a Father of Stories or a Homer still alive today.


Pastiche has a similar manifestation to intertextuality but essentially it has a completely different foundation.

John Bath, an American writer and critic responsible for many postmodern texts and a keen fan of Calvin, wrote about a “literature of exhaustion”. The idea Bath expressed was that postmodern writers were aware that everything has already been said, there is nothing new to say, so all that was left to do was play games with what had been done before. Writers would form a “pastiche” of past styles and ideas, rearranging them and openly playing self referential games inviting a knowing recognition from readers and consumers of the culture.

Sometimes this technique undermined all traditional forms of narrative but sometimes it also imbued them with new resonance.

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Mixing of high and low culture

The mixing of high and low culture was particularly evident in early postmodern writers who were rebelling against modernism and its quite undemocratic sentiment. Calvino’s work does this by mixing say crime/ thriller fiction with traditional/ classical novels and genres, television, film noir, or westerns with literature.

Language and literature

This is a vast subject but this discussion will be limited to two areas.

The first is the notion of difference / différance, the idea that words can only have meaning because they are different from other words, an idea developed firstly by Saussure and then Derrida. At the same time, a word’s meaning is constantly being deferred to other words and meanings, for example if someone were asked what a word meant they would answer using other words. Therefore all text undermines its claim to have a fixed meaning. Meaning is always unstable because of the very nature of language (Derrida).

The second area involves the idea that the world we live in can only have meaning through language. If reality exists at all we cannot know it because we can only perceive it through the medium of language which in turn changes what we perceive. We can only live within the world of language. We are travellers in a mental space. Therefore a work of fiction, because it is constructed of language, shares much with the world outside the text. Fiction and reality can be seen to correspond, hence the correspondence of reader and Reader and other references.

So in many ways a work of fiction is also a way of knowing the world. Calvino returns to this idea again and again in his essays.

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For the postmodernist identity is a construct of language and culture and does not exist meaningfully outside these.

In If on a winter’s night a traveller there is a blurring of the boundary between fiction and reality pointing to an ontological uncertainty and problems of identity.

Also, in both the framing narrative and in the embedded texts characters are often not who they seem to be. In doing so Calvino is questioning, among other things, our notions of identity.

Levels of reality

Calvino points to the idea that the world only exists in a meaningful way at the level of language and culture. The “I”, the experiencing subject of reality, does not exist as an entity free from language and culture but is seen as their construct. At the other end of the spectrum, objective reality similarly cannot exist in a meaningful way outside of language and culture. If reality exists at all we cannot know it. We human beings therefore operate between the two at the level of language.

Literature, because it also operates at this level is, for Calvino a way of knowing, as he says the “literary work is a map of the world and of knowledge.”(Uses of Literature: 32). It is a science like other sciences. It is this search for a map of the knowable which occupies much of his works Invisible Cites and Mr Palomar and “The Count of Monte Cristo” (T Zero). Language and indeed literature becomes a bridge over a void [unknowable reality] as in “Without fear of wind or vertigo”. This void is sometimes expressed as blank pages. Language and symbols which work within these layers have no external referent. In the end, just as the Reader is ultimately frustrated in his quest, so is Calvino. There is always “the awareness of the complexity of the universe which gave no reassurance and was beyond all possibility of expression” (Why Read the Classics?:198)

Joanne Cannon, a critic who knew Calvino, writes that If on a winter’s night a traveller “lays bare the dual potential of literature: poised between two voids, the absence of the subject and the absence of the object, literary discourse may be only a series of veils masking a blank page or it may be an effective cognitive activity unmasking the inexhaustible depths of reality.”(“The last two decades”: 59)

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The labyrinth

Calvino symbolically saw the world as a labyrinth. He wrote about the “sfida al labirinto” (the challenge to the labyrinth) and what is If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, if not a labyrinth, a series of blind passageways which begin promisingly.

How does one make a map of the labyrinth? One way, and Calvino is not the only writer to use it in Italian letters (see Umberto Eco’s works), is to make lists. You may like to refer to other works such as Invisible Cites which is a listing and categorising of cities in Kublai Khan’s empire or Collezioni di Sabbia (1984- not translated into English) which is a catalogue of collections.

In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller a number of lists are used. These are humorous as will as a method used to try to bring order to a world which seems to resist order. Lists are used as a framework.


Postmodern writers have a profound scepticism towards the idea of progress. Calvino is no exception. In If on a winter’s night a traveller the Reader is constantly frustrated in his attempts to progress towards finishing any of the stories or solving the mystery. Usually the detective story and the “pursuit of clues appeals to the postmodern writer because it so closely parallels the hunt for textual meaning by the reader.”(Lewis, 1998: 126) but in If on a winter’s night a traveller the mystery is not solved.

In the end progress is abandoned to ironic game playing. The text remains a series of open-ended puzzles, light in tone where humour is found throughout.

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Secret organisations

There does appear to be a controlling influence in the work. This could be the author but there is constant reference to secret controlling organisations for example “The Organisation for the Electronic Production of Homogenised Literary Works” (the OEPHLW [122], which sounds suspiciously like the organisation of which Calvino himself was a member - the OULIPO), the “Organisation for Apocryphal Power” (the OAP, see Chapter 6).The “Archangel of Light” and its nemesis the “Archon of Shadow”, “Section D”, the “organisation” mentioned in the embedded text “If on a winter’s night a traveller and the “band of gangsters” of “In a network of lines that enlace” are a few examples.

There are also the secret agendas of the characters for example in “Leaning from a steep slope” or “Without fear of wind or vertigo.”

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We can see from this conclusion that everything fits nicely into place.

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Some notes on the text

Several students have asked about the use of one “L” in “traveler” throughout the work and whether this use was deliberate, but the word “traveller” is spelt “traveler” with one “L” because the book uses the US English spelling. You will find the US spelling of many other words, for example the word “colour” is spelt “color”. The cover of the book available through Vintage in Australian bookstores however has English (not US) spelling.

The book has been translated into English from the Italian by William Weaver. As William Weaver himself said, Calvino distrusted translators. Weaver seems to be an exception, however there are passages which have different connotations in the two languages. An example is the second last paragraph of chapter one just before the beginning of “If on a winter’s night a traveller” of the first chapter. In this passage we find words such as “pleasure”, “thrust” and “consummation of the act” (9). The word “thrust” in connection with the other words especially seems to have an erotic connotation but the Italian word which Weaver has translated is “spingere” which is a verb meaning literally “to push” which could mean here the striving or pushing forward to overcome a challenge and seems to have rather little of an erotic or sexual connotation at all.

Towards the end of the last paragraph of this section the words “confronting something” (9) is more aggressive than “trovarti di fronte a qualcosa” (10) which is far more passive.

It is not altogether clear in the translation what the using “tu” (48,154) means and here we are moving within a different cultural system. The pronoun “tu” is the second person singular pronoun “you” and indicates the use of the familiar form of address as opposed to the formal form of address (the “Lei” form). One would use the formal address in formal situations, for example with older people, with professionals and with strangers.

The “tu” form is used with family, children, among young people (even though they may not know each other), and friends. In the case of Irnerio it portrays a certain attitude towards the Reader but Calvino uses this form of address towards the Reader in the Italian version as well. That is, Calvino is taking the liberty of addressing the Reader informally immediately, from the very first word of the body of the text, as if Author and Reader are, in a way, old friends or have been acquainted with one another for quite a while.

Finally, a reader of the Italian text would know immediately that “the Other Reader” is a female because the Italian word used is “Lettrice” or “Female reader” however “the Other Reader” was chosen as the translation in consultation with Calvino (Weaver, 1989:19).

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Allen, G. (2000) Intertextuality, Routledge, London.

Cannon, J. (1989) “Italo Calvino: The Last Two Decades” in Ricci, F. (ed.) Calvino Revisited (University of Toronto Italian Studies; 2), Doverhouse Editions, Ottowa, 51-64.

Lewis, B. “Postmodernism and Literature (or: Word Salad Days, 1960-90)” in Sim, S. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Routledge, London, 121-133.

Calvino, I. (1998) If on a winter’s night a traveller, Weaver, W. (trans.) Vintage, London.

Calvino, I. (2000) Why Read the Classics? McLaughlin, M. (trans.) Vintage, London.

Calvino, I. (1986) The Uses of Literature, Creagh, P. (trans.) Harcourt Brace & Co., San Diego.

Waugh, P. (1984) Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, Methuen, London.

Weaver, W. (1989) “Calvino: An Interview and Its Story” in Ricci, F. (ed.) Calvino Revisited (University of Toronto Italian Studies: 2), Doverhouse Editions, Ottowa, pp17-31.

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