Reviewing this book in the New Yorker, John Updike said that it “manages to charm and entertain the reader in the teeth of a scheme designed to frustrate all reasonable readerly intentions.” I don’t think I can put it any better, so you may want to stop reading now. But I’ll put down the rest of my thoughts anyway.
The most striking thing about this book is that addresses you, the reader, directly: the opening line is, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” You then become a protagonist in the story, along with another reader, Ludmilla, to whom you feel an immediate attraction. The other striking thing about the book is that after the first chapter, the story changes. Your copy is defective – it just contains the first chapter repeated over and over again. Angrily, you take it back to the bookshop, where you receive a replacement copy, which turns out to be a completely different book. This one, too, contains only one chapter, and in trying to track down the rest of it you end up reading a different one, and a different one, and a different one. All fragments, all broken off at the moment of greatest suspense.
This is the frustration that Updike was talking about.
Nevertheless, you keep going, and you gradually become closer to the Other Reader, and a whole bizarre plot develops around you and your attempts to read the book. It sounds as if it should be a nightmare, but it really works. For one thing, the aborted novels are mostly very good. I did find myself becoming absorbed in them, even though I knew they would soon be interrupted. Calvino is a great storyteller, and this is what made me tolerate his endless digressions and interruptions.
The other thing that made me tolerate them was that the digressions themselves were often fascinating discussions of the nature of reading or of writing. One character for example, talks of the reader for whom “reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say.” Meanwhile another reader “wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood.”
There’s a lot of falsehood even in the stories that the reader reads. There’s the one about the rich man who, to avoid being kidnapped, creates endless doubles of himself, each going about his routine, and then he creates duplicate mistresses, duplicate cars, etc etc so that the kidnappers will never know which is the real one. He then even creates a fake gang and carries out fake kidnappings, before eventually his counter-plot to a kidnapping plot is foiled by a counter-counter-plot and he ends up imprisoned in a room of mirrors. At all points there are mysterious, shadowy groups, double-agents and triple-agents, infiltrators and infiltrators of the infiltrators, deceptions, fictions and confusion.
Yet amid all this falsehood you do “catch a voice” every now and then communicating something else, something deeper, and this is perhaps what Calvino is saying good fiction does. He is both a cynic and a prophet, showing us all the artifice of fiction, the shabby “tricks of the trade”, and at the same time going beyond mere storytelling and saying some important things about books and reading. It’s an impressive achievement to start off with such a difficult premise and to pull it off.