61 pages 2 hours read

Italo Calvino

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1979

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Summary and Study Guide


If on a winter’s night a traveler is a 1979 postmodernist novel by Italo Calvino. The dual narrative is composed of two parallel strands: numbered chapters in which the narrator directly describes to the audience the process of reading the book, and titled chapters constructed from hypothetical first chapters of various books that the audience is reading. The innovative novel has been praised by critics and hailed as highly influential.

This guide uses the 1998 Vintage edition, translated from Italian by William Weaver.

Content Warning: The novel and this guide refer to death by suicide and describe sexual situations, sometimes explicitly.

Plot Summary

If on a winter’s night a traveler opens with an introduction in which the narrator tells the Reader to relax, concentrate, and let the real world fade away. The text then launches into a story in which a man at a railway station is about to hand off a large piece of luggage to a stranger. However, the story abruptly ends, and the narrator claims it must be a printing mistake because the story is simply repeated over and over for some 30 pages. The Reader takes the novel back to the bookstore. There, the manager tells the Reader that an error occurred during the binding and that some of the novel’s pages were accidentally mixed with a Polish novel by Tazio Bazakbal called Outside the town of Malbork. This, it seems, is the book that the Reader was reading all along.

The Reader decides to buy a new book and also picks up a copy of Outside the town of Malbork; however, he finds that it isn’t the same as the story he started before. The new book tells the story of a boy leaving a farm. None of the names in the book are Polish, so the Reader researches the region Cimmeria, where the story is set. He finds that Cimmeria was an independent, short-lived nation that rose up between World War I and World War II. The Reader realizes that this copy must have been made in error as well, as it contains two blank pages for every printed page. While at the bookstore, the Reader meets Ludmilla, an attractive woman who is there for the same reason. Ludmilla accompanies the Reader to the Department of Bothno-Ugaric Languages and Literature at a nearby university to see if they can find more information. There, they meet Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, who specializes in dead languages. In addition, the Reader meets Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria. The Reader and Ludmilla learn that the novel they’ve been reading is actually Leaning from the steep slope, a Cimmerian novel by Ukko Ahti. The story is about a man who uses his meager pension to buy a grapnel for a woman he admires. Ahti died by suicide before he finished the work.

Several books later, none of which have a real ending, the Reader goes to the publisher, Mr. Cavedagna. Cavedagna tells the Reader that Ermes Marana, a translator, has swapped content, titles, and authors in several books, creating chaos. Marana’s letters lead the Reader to a man who suggests that Marana might be in Ataguitania. The Reader travels there in search of Marana. While still in the airport, the Reader peruses On a carpet of leaves, but the book is confiscated by a police officer, who claims that the book is banned. The Reader meets a woman named Corinna, who invites him into her car and gives him another book, Around an empty grave by Calixto Bandera. A police officer intercepts the car, but Corinna explains that the police are fake. The Reader begins to suspect that Corinna is actually Lotaria.

Lotaria shows the Reader a machine that reads and analyzes books. It produces a copy of Around an empty grave, which the Reader begins to read. The Reader has tea with the Director General of Police State Archives, Arkadian Porphyrich of Ircania. The two discuss Marana’s movement, the Apocryphal Power conspiracy. Arkadian mentions a book similar to the one the Reader was most recently attempting to finish. The book is called What story down there awaits its end?. The Reader meets the book’s author, who gives the Reader the manuscript, but some of the pages blow away. The police arrest the author. In the manuscript, a man is going to meet a woman named Franziska. He begins erasing everything in the world: first women, then people, and then everything else until he’s alone on an empty planet. He encounters Franziska, who is surrounded by men he can’t erase. A crack opens between him and Franziska. The text ends.

The Reader has kept a list of the books he encounters, hoping to find copies in a library. A man at the library gives him the title of another book called He asks, anxious to hear the story. The Reader adds this title to the list. As the man and the Reader look at the list, they discover that all the titles make up the beginning of a novel. The man tells the Reader that books don’t need an ending but assures him that they usually end in marriage or death. The Reader decides that in his ending, he’ll marry Ludmilla. The novel ends with Ludmilla and the Reader in bed together. The Reader asks her to wait a minute before turning out the light, as he’s just about to finish If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.