Fionnuala's Reviews > If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
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bookshelves: oulipo-word-puzzles, translated-from-italian

Original review: November 2011
Imagine that it is winter and there is snow everywhere and you can't go out and all you do for days is read book after book, story after story, gorging yourself on fiction until your subconscious is saturated with characters and plots.
Imagine that you fall asleep late one night while reading and you have the cleverest dream ever.
That is what reading this book by Calvino is like.
(I forgot to mention that if you're a woman, in your strange Calvino dream, you will most definitely be a man!)

2014 Update: Amazingly Befitting Calvino Discovery!
When I read If on a Winter's Night a Traveler in 2011, I muddled through it, admiring the prose but frustrated in traditional readerly fashion by the amount of interrupted narratives it contained. I knew there was something very brilliant going on, some complex underlying logic, but I also knew that figuring it out was far beyond my capabilities, at least my 'awake time' ones.
And so it was.

Yesterday, I came across Calvino's rationale for the book written in a complex code in the yellowed pages of an old copy of one of the volumes published by the experimental mathematician-writers and writer-mathematicians of the Oulipo group.

The Oulipo group was active in France in the sixties and seventies and counted such authors as Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec among its numbers. Italo Calvino was also a member and, as an Oulipian experiment, he created If on a Winter's Night a Traveler using the ‘semiotic square’ as a basic model, a concept he borrowed from A J Greimas’ book about semiotics called 'Du Sens'. Here's a brief description of Calvino's method as he outlines it in La Bibliothèque Oulipienne Volume II:



Chapter I is represented by a single square with the following cordinates: L, l, L’ and l’.

The explanation of the diagram representing Chapter One is as follows (my translation):

The Male Reader who is present at the Beginning(L) reads The Book that Is Present at the Beginning (l)
The Book (l) recounts the story of The Male Reader Who is in The Book (L’)
The Male Reader Who is in The Book
doesn’t succeed in reading The Book That Is in The Book (l’)
The Book That Is in The Book doesn’t recount the story of The Male Reader who is present at the beginning
The Book That is Present at the Beginning would like to be The Book that is in the Book

Chapter II has two diagrams and some new signifiers (which I would add if only I had a pencil (I've tried the Grapher app with no success) so I'll just continue to use bold for the elements to which Calvino gives signifiers):

The Male Reader suffers from The Interruption of the Reading
The Interruption of the Reading leads to a meeting with The Female Reader
The Female Reader
wants to continue reading
The continuation of the reading excludes any further encounter with The Male Reader
The Male Reader
wants to find The Female Reader again
The Interruption of the Reading becomes The Continuation of the Book

The Male Reader wants to continue The Book he began
The Male Reader is happy to meet The Female Reader again
The beginning of The Begun Book doesn’t satisfy The Female Reader
The Book which was Begun has no desire to continue
The Female Reader wants to continue a different book
The beginning of this book looks for A New Reader

Chapter III has three diagrams and more new signifiers:



The Intrigued Female Reader savours The Art of the Novel
The Art of the Novel implies a character such as The Intellectual Female Reader
The Intellectual Female Reader analyses The Novel’s Ideology
Ideology doesn’t accept a character such as The Intrigued Female Reader
Ludmilla understands her sister Lotharia
Ideology
tears poetry to pieces

The Male Reader looks for The Mysterious Book
The Mysterious
book is The Hyper-reader’s area
The Hyper-reader gives an unfinished book to the reader
The unfinished book is not the one The Male Reader was looking for
The Hyper-reader doesn't read the same books as The Male Reader
The mystery of a book is not in its end but its beginning

The Hyper-reader finds written words sublime
The Non-reader only sees written words as silence
The sublime finds its fulfilment in silence
The Hyper-reader finds his fulfilment in The Non-reader
It is not enough not to read to achieve the sublime
Not every Hyper-reader succeeds in interpreting silence


There's an explanation for every diagram and every chapter, with many knew signifiers added into the mix - The Forger, The Professor, The Professional Reader, The Book's Apocrypha, The Pleasure of Reading, The Fatigue of Writing, The Author (who has a nightmare that his book will be written by a computer), The Tormented Author, The Productive Author, Real Books, Power, Censorship.
On that note, I’m going to cut the rest of the explanations and skip to Chapter XII which, like Chapter I, has only one square:



The Male Reader is finishing the book
The Female Reader has exited the book
The Female Reader turns out the light
The Male Reader approaches her in the dark
The Male Reader and The Female Reader lie down together
Life continues and The Book ends there.

In a little super-added note at the end, Calvino reminds us that each partial story is written with a selection of Oulipian constraints (eg lipograms), but he doesn't tell us what they are. Get out your books and start looking!
............................................................................
(My original review wasn’t too far off the mark - I had figured the entire exercise was about the male reader getting what he wanted in the end:)
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Comments Showing 1-50 of 89 (89 new)


message 1: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca I love it when you do these parody reviews.

(oh - I hope that's what it was!)


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I scream when I wake up and discover I'm a man.


message 3: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Scribble wrote: "I love it when you do these parody reviews.
(oh - I hope that's what it was!)"


Ian wrote: "I scream..."

I try parodies, Scribble, when I can think of nothing intelligent to say!

Poor Ian, your dreams must be so clever!


message 4: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye In my dreams, I wake up and there's a man in my bed. And the man turns out to be me.


message 5: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Ian wrote: "In my dreams, I wake up and there's a man in my bed. And the man turns out to be me."

Ok, Ian, I note that you are clever in your waking hours too.


message 6: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Blush...


message 7: by Lit Bug (last edited Oct 24, 2013 02:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lit Bug Chuckling still... I was baffled the first time. Second time around, really enjoyed it... Your review sounds more like you'd rate it two or max three stars...


message 8: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Lit Bug wrote: "Chuckling still... I was baffled the first time. Second time around, really enjoyed it... Your review sounds more like you'd rate it two or max three stars..."

I really admired Calvino's prose and it is because he writes each story so well, especially the early ones, that we become frustrated at the fragmented nature of the whole saga. That is clever.
I made the comment about the male focus of this book because I felt that women were only present in the stories as objects of desire. I felt as if Calvino was writing not only from a male point of view but exclusively for a male audience. That is what I remember feeling, right or wrong.


message 9: by Lit Bug (last edited Oct 24, 2013 05:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lit Bug Fionnuala wrote: "Lit Bug wrote: "Chuckling still... I was baffled the first time. Second time around, really enjoyed it... Your review sounds more like you'd rate it two or max three stars..."

I really admired Cal..."


Then it means I missed the point of your parody, and I do realize now that there were no females – I was too swept up in that clever piece to notice it. Since I read it just a month ago, I'll read it again from this new POV maybe some more months later. Great observation.


message 10: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Lit Bug wrote: ".Then it means I missed the point of your parody, and I do realize now that there were no females – I was too swept up in that clever piece to notice it."

Well, in my parody, the reader is a woman....


Lit Bug Fionnuala wrote: "Lit Bug wrote: ".Then it means I missed the point of your parody, and I do realize now that there were no females – I was too swept up in that clever piece to notice it."

Well, in my parody, the r..."


I did get that, thankfully...


message 12: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Apropos, here on gr, we don't necessarily always know if readers of our reviews are male or female.
It's very unlike a conversation in the 'real' world in that sense..


Lit Bug Yeah, but I don't mind that since it constantly teases our notions of gender. I like that aspect that nobody can pin you down to a specific identity. You get a blank page to start with, unlike in real life where your fate is determined the moment you're born. Especially in the non-Western societies.


message 14: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Lit Bug wrote: "Yeah, but I don't mind that since it constantly teases our notions of gender. I like that aspect that nobody can pin you down to a specific identity. You get a blank page to start with, unlike in r..."

Some of us use that blank page we've been handed better than others. If I had to start all over again on gr, I might not sign off so unambiguously. It would be interesting to see how that might influence discussions...


Lit Bug I enjoyed my blank page immensely while it lasted ;) And observed some very interesting things.


message 16: by Riku (new) - rated it 5 stars

Riku Sayuj Wow! Thanks for this explanation (especially that image). I need a copy of this one!


Kalliope Fio, can you give more information on the edition?

The book Tapestry, which I want to revisit, is Oulipian, supposedly.


message 18: by Fionnuala (last edited Jan 04, 2014 04:29AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Kalliope wrote: "Fio, can you give more information on the edition?

The book Tapestry, which I want to revisit, is Oulipian, supposedly."


My edition of La Bibliothèque Oulipienne is from 1987 in two volumes published by Éditions Ramsay, 9 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris, ISBN 2-85956-644-9


Garima Awesome! Is it from Oulipo Laboratory, Fio?


message 20: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Garima wrote: "Awesome! Is it from Oulipo Laboratory, Fio?"

That must be the English translation of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne, Garima. The contributors seem to be the same.


message 21: by Tony (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tony Now you're just showing off. I'm kidding, of course. This is brilliant and humbling.


message 22: by Fionnuala (last edited Jan 04, 2014 11:22AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala I've had the Oulipo books on my bookshelves for years, and carted them many miles, but I've never looked at them properly apart from the few pages by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.
To think that Italo Calvino was hiding on my shelves all this time, keeping the secret of his Winter's Night hidden between The Faber Book Of Nursery Verse and How Fiction Works!


message 23: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Ha ha ha, that resembles typical structuralist narratology schemata, Fionnula! Love it!


message 24: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Traveller wrote: "Ha ha ha, that resembles typical structuralist narratology schemata, Fionnula! Love it!"

I love your command of structuralist narratology, Trav!


message 25: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Fi, sorry to trouble you. I had previously read and liked your review. However, is the whole of the update new, or is it what I would have read before?


message 26: by Fionnuala (last edited Apr 06, 2017 02:13AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Ian wrote: "Fi, sorry to trouble you. I had previously read and liked your review. However, is the whole of the update new, or is it what I would have read before?"

No problem, Ian. The 2011 review is at the top, labelled 'original review' - it was very short. Thanks for reading it again.

Can you imagine Calvino mapping this exchange:
The female reader reads the author's book.
The female reader writes a slightly intriguing review.
The male reader reads the female reader's review.
The male reader 'likes' the female reader's review.
The female reader writes a more considered review.
The male reader rereads the female reader's review.
The male reader is confused.


message 27: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye The male reader is no longer confused.
The male reader is about to go for a walk.
The male reader looks forward to his return.
The male reader will re-read the female reader's review upon his return.
The male reader is very excited at the prospect.


Cheryl wow, your reviews continue to be amazing Fionnuala. I read this book so many years ago, and loved it, but now I want to re-read it with both your original and revised reviews in hand. Reading this was a great start to the weekend, thanks!


message 29: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Fionnuala wrote: "Can you imagine Calvino mapping this exchange:."

*Giggles* You're a born structuralist/analyst, Fionnula! There's a few jobs I could recommend you for...


message 30: by Fionnuala (last edited Jan 04, 2014 12:55PM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Traveller wrote: "*Giggles* You're a born structuralist/analyst, Fionnula! There's a few jobs I could recommend you for..."

After spending the day going through the explanations for Calvino's 42 semiotic squares, I've certainly had a crash course, Trav!


message 31: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Cheryl wrote: "wow, your reviews continue to be amazing Fionnuala. I read this book so many years ago, and loved it, but now I want to re-read it with both your original and revised reviews in hand. Reading this..."

I think I'll have to reread it too, Cheryl - there was clearly a whole lot of structuralist narratology I missed first time around ;-)


message 32: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Who would have thought that a romance or love story could be so structured! (But still beautiful!)


Henry Martin And there I was thinking it made sense to me before. Ha.


message 34: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Ian wrote: "Who would have thought that a romance or love story could be so structured! (But still beautiful!)"

I don't think it's a love story - even if the man does get the girl in the end.


message 35: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Henry wrote: "And there I was thinking it made sense to me before. Ha."

Sorry to have muddled your understanding of this book, Henry..


Henry Martin Fionnuala wrote: "Sorry to have muddled your understanding of this book, Henry..
"


Not at all. Learning something new every day...

Thanks for your review. It will give me something else to look into.


message 37: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Fionnuala wrote: "I don't think it's a love story - even if the man does get the girl in the end."

Haha. I think a Reader can view it as a consummate story about how Ludmilla manages to postpone the consummation of the Reader's desire for her. A desire or lust that's unconsummated is like a book that's never finished? But this is just one male's interpretation.


message 38: by Fionnuala (last edited Jan 05, 2014 11:28AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Ian wrote: "Fionnuala wrote: "I don't think it's a love story - even if the man does get the girl in the end."

Haha. I think a Reader can view it as a consummate story about how Ludmilla manages to postpone t..."


Chapitre XI
Le lecteur épie Un autre lecteur
L'autre lecteur lit Un autre livre
L'autre livre est en réalité ce livre-ci
Ce livre-ci s'adresse à toi, lecteur

Toi, lecteur, tu aurais dû lire un autre livre
Toi, livre, tu aurais dû être lu par un autre lecteur.


message 39: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye These are just my speculations based on the book itself. It's good that there are many diverse speculations:

"Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost."

Page 156, Chapter 7

There's also an explanation of his graphic ideas beneath this passage.

My speculation is that, in breaking from a linear narrative, Calvino was making the act of writing and reading much more like "lovers' reading of each other's bodies". Divergent, irritating, lost, but turn the page, convergent, if you're lucky.

But it's only a speculation.

I have to get on a plane to Tasmania with my lover.


message 40: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Ian wrote: "...My speculation is that, in breaking from a linear narrative, Calvino was making the act of writing and reading much more like "lovers' reading of each other's bodies". Divergent, irritating, lost, but turn the page, convergent, if you're lucky."

Another speculation: if on a winter's night a traveller gets lucky, he's probably in Tasmania, where, convergence or not, at least it's summer...


Jareed Wow! totally redefined my already wonderful experience of this book, Thanks Fio. I wish the illustrative caveats could also be found in English copies.


message 42: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Jareed wrote: "Wow! totally redefined my already wonderful experience of this book, Thanks Fio. I wish the illustrative caveats could also be found in English copies."

I don't think you'll find them in French copies either, Jareed - he perhaps didn't intend to 'disclose' them except within the Oulipian framework. I use the word 'disclose' because of having just read Murnane's The Plains where 'disclosure' is significant. Murnane's strategy in The Plains reminds me a little of what Calvino is doing here.


Jareed Fionnuala wrote: "Jareed wrote: "Wow! totally redefined my already wonderful experience of this book, Thanks Fio. I wish the illustrative caveats could also be found in English copies."

I don't think you'll find th..."


Thank you for pointing those out. Both from this review and that response of yours, I have a lot to learn further.


Catterson Patterson Where did you find this book?? I can't find it anywhere, none of my teachers have even heard of it! The diagrams you've provided already help me understand the book so much more than I did before!


message 45: by Fionnuala (last edited Apr 06, 2017 03:07AM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Catterson wrote: "Where did you find this book?? I can't find it anywhere, none of my teachers have even heard of it! The diagrams you've provided already help me understand the book so much more than I did before!"

Glad the review helped, Catterson.
Calvino was a member of the Oulipo group set up by Raymond Queneau and a group of like-minded writer/mathematicians in France in the nineteen sixties. Their lexical puzzles were initially published in a series of pamphlets but a collected edition in two volumes came out in 1987 - La Bibliothèque Oulipienne - that's the one I have. Calvino's essay and diagrams explaining the structure of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is in volume II.
Here's a link to my review of Volume I - Calvino has a piece in that volume too.
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...


message 46: by Matt (new) - rated it 4 stars

Matt Ian wrote: "The male reader is no longer confused...."

Another male reader, whose review of another *belsh* — excuse me — book that has some striking similarity to this book but is, in fact, totally different from this book, was lured to this review by a comment made by the female reader of this book who happens to like the review of the other book made by the other male reader, so that the other male reader can't help but like the review of this book too.


message 47: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Matt wrote: "Another male reader, whose review of another *belsh* — excuse me — book that has some striking similarity to this book but is, in fact, totally different from this book, was lured to this review by a comment made by the female reader of this book who happens to like the review of the other book made by the other male reader, so that the other male reader can't help but like the review of this book too. "

The female reader likes this ver(binden)y semiotically-constructed response.


message 48: by Matt (new) - rated it 4 stars

Matt Fionnuala wrote: "semiotically-constructed response"

Thanks, but that's as far as it can get, for me anyway. I'm already sailing at the borderline of my comprehension.
This is the problem with these kind of books within books or in this case books about books within books. There comes a point when nobody don't know nothing about nothing anymore.


message 49: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Matt wrote: "..There comes a point when nobody don't know nothing about nothing anymore. ."

I know - my comment was already semi-idiotic. Blame Calvino!


Seemita Stunning review! This read like a mini-novella in itself!! A fresh and terse perspective which seems to be Calvino's partner in crime! Wonder if any popular fiction writer has deployed the same structure in his/ her work. But thank you for this revelation, Fionnuala! :)


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