Published in 1979, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler appeared near the end of Italo Calvino’s career, but you wouldn’t know it from the experimental design and structure of the novel. In fact, the novel—which is perhaps the closet to an accurate description of this literary work that almost spits in the face of traditional generic structure.
Protagonist? You, dear Reader, are the protagonist of this indulgence of the literary mind. Literally. Toss out conventional notions that novels can only be written from the perspective of first or third person. Calvino engages the rarely utilized device the perspective written from the “you” point of view to establish the Reader as the main character in his fantasia. The first-person narrator—yes, first person because, it must be repeated, the novel is a playful fantasia of everything that is known about the art of fiction—is likewise unnamed. Interestingly, the Reader—that is to say, you—have a female counterpart who is known as the Other Reader. But for some reason, the Other Reader is deserving of a name.
Ludmilla. And Ludmilla has a sister who is the exact opposite of her in every conceivable way. The Other Reader’s sister is named Lotaria (literary? Literal? Literate?) and she puts every last remaining ounce of her effort into building a machine that by all rights no writer should ever dare the fates by suggesting is possible. A machine that uses mathematical equations to make the actual reading of a novel in order to have read it an utterly obsolete and archaic task.
As is probably obvious by now, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a work by a writer steeped in the practice of metafiction and postmodernism to take the novel to places never before visited by the art of postmodern metafiction. Author Salman Rushdie perhaps described the work best when he referred to it as “the most outrageous fiction about fiction ever conceived.” This outrageousness has been enjoyed by at least two musicians enough to inspire them. Sting titled his 2009 album after the book, leaving off only the “a Traveler” part while Bill Ryder-Jones cut off everything but the “If” from the title of an album he has defined as the score for an imaginary film adapted from Calvino’s iconoclastic novel.