Tag Archives: Italo Calvino


If on a winter’s night a traveler is tough.   Salman Rushdie said so.  In my search for some guidance about the book, I stumbled upon the website Shmoop.  The site’s tagline is “We speak student.”  Shmoop has character lists, quizes, and analysis–like many other sites.  What I had not seen before was a Tough-O-Meter: a calculator of literary difficulty.  Shmoop states:

We’ve got your back. With the Tough-O-Meter, you’ll know whether to bring extra layers or Swiss army knives as you summit the literary mountain. (10 = Toughest)

I loved it!  I was uncertain about its usefulness, but, boy was it entertaining.  I looked up several WEM novels and either gloated or dispaired about my literary “toughness”.

In case you were wondering, If on a winter’s night a traveler scores an eight.


PS–Shmoop also has a steaminess rating.  Consider yourself warned; our next book, Song of Solomon, is rated R.


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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in If on a winter's night a traveler


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Life and Death Results

“Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?  In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died.  The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

At our last wrap-up, Christina, Jeannette and I took the list WEM novels and placed the the titles we’ve read into two Calvino-inspired categories: Continuity of Life and Inevitablitly of Death.  I promised to share our results.

The Continuity of Life 

Don Quixote

Pilgrim’s Progress

Pride and Prejudice

Oliver Twist

Jane Eyre

The Scarlet Letter (Hester Prynne)

Crime and Punishment

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Red Badge of Courage

Seize the Day

One Hundred Years of Solitude

If on a winter’s night a traveler **



** experimental






The Inevitability of Death 

Gulliver’s Travels *

The Scarlet Letter (Arthur Dimsdale)

Moby Dick

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Madame Bovary

Anna Karenina

The Return of the Native

The Portrait of a Lady

Heart of Darkness

The House of Mirth

The Great Gatsby

Mrs. Dalloway

The Trial

Native Son

The Stranger


Invisible Man


* satire


Do you agree?  Disagree?

We’re always up for a good debate.

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Posted by on August 11, 2014 in If on a winter's night a traveler


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Matters of Life and Death

If on a winter's nightSusan Wise Bauer shares that Calvino’s classic If on a winter’s night a traveler contains eleven beginnings. (WEM, pg. 110)

Looking at my copy’s table of contents, I count ten titled chapters.  So how many beginnings are there?  ten or  eleven?

Should I count chapter [1]?  That felt more like a prologue?  Should I count chapter [12]? In twelve I have the beginning of the Reader and Ludmilla’s life together.  That could be a beginning, but that same chapter has the conclusion of the story’s illusive novel.  Chapter [2]?  There the Reader goes to the book store and the story within a story (many stories) takes off.  Ten beginnings?  Eleven?  Beginnings are just one of the confusing things about this novel.

Salman Rushdie called If on a winter’s night a traveler, “the most complicated book you… will ever read.”

It was complications that drove Christina, Jeannette, and me to do a different kind of wrap-up.  Sure we met over food like always, but when it came time to discuss the wrap-up questions, we were stumped.  How do you talk about point of view, setting, style, or character obstacles?  There are stories within stories within stories!

Instead we latched on to this quote from the book:

  “Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?  In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died.  The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces:  the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.  All stories?  We decided to see about that.  With WEM novel list in hand, we thought back over three year’s worth of reading and divided the books we’ve read into two categories: continuity of life and inevitability of death.  True, some books ended with the hero and heroine married (Jane Eyre).  In some books, they died (Anna Karenina).  Sometimes they married and later died (Madame Bovary).  Amazingly, we instantly agreed on the placement of about 97% of the titles.  After brief debates, we were able to place the remaining 3%, giving us 100% agreement on our results.

Think back.  Where would you put Don Quixote?  The Scarlet Letter?  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  1984?  Consider where you’d place each of the WEM novels we’ve read so far.  Start with Don Quixote and end with If on a winter’s night a traveler.

I’ll share the Classic Case of Madness results soon.  Put some thought into placing the novels.
Remember…tt’s a matter of life and death.





Posted by on August 6, 2014 in If on a winter's night a traveler


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The End of the Beginnings

If on a winter's night check-in

Beginning number 10

“What story down there awaits its end?”

If you could have any superpower, which one would you choose?  Invisibility?  Flight?  X-ray vision?

Oh, for the power to erase.
Cat fur off the dining room chairs.  Dirty dishes off the kitchen counter.

Ah, but would the power be used for good or for evil?

In Calvino’s beginning number ten the main character tidies up his surroundings.  With the jumbo pink eraser of his mind, he rubs out everything he does not wish to see: uniformed workers, hospitals, universities…  He erases until there’s nothing left but the surface of the earth and the wind which blows trash across the ground.  In the trash is a page from Calvino’s previous beginning “Around an empty grave”.  Although the main character eliminates everything and everyone, he would like to see his love interest Franziska.  When he finds her, she’s surrounded by Men from Section D that won’t be erased.  Franziska is clueless to the disappearing world around her.  The Men from Section D are completely aware, and they congratulate the main character on his clean sweep.  When eraser man wants to repair the damage he’s done, he’s unable to and a giant crack in the earth separates him from Franziska.  Is he able to leap to be with her?

There’s no surprise that this is where the beginning ends.  What do you think?  Is there a happy ending for eraser man and Franziska?  Or like One Hundred Years of Solitude, is this the end of the end?  Instead of swirling winds, the community is destroyed by the power of a character’s mind.  It would only be fitting in that it’s an author’s mind that creates/destroys a story.

[11]  Will a library save the Reader?

This quick answer is, “Nope.”
The Reader’s ten titles are all lost, or out for repairs, or checked out.  Not a single book is available.  While at the library, eight readers share their theories about reading.  Did you have a favorite?

Then there is the magical moment when the titles of the previous tales are linked together to make a sentence.  Jeannette wasn’t surprised; she’d already predicted this outcome, but I was.  I had to page back through the chapter headings to read for myself.

At this point, the Reader is weak with the disappointments of his previous reads.  The seventh library patron tells him…

“Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end?  In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died.  The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

[12] The Reader choses marriage over death.  Christina was reminded of Jane Eyres epilogue:  “Reader, I married him.”  The brief three paragraph chapter ends with The Reader finishing If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.  Reaching the end of the beginnings, I scrawled question upon question:

Is this just a tale of tales?
Is it a joke?
Did the Reader find the complete story?

What was your reaction to Calvino’s experiment?


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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in If on a winter's night a traveler


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Number nine? You’re up.

If on a winter's night check-in

“Around an empty grave”

If I could be a character in any of Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler“, the part of Nacho’s father would rank near the top of my list.  Score the part of the senior, and you get to give a dramatic death scene that includes the tragic moment where you finally are going to tell your son Nacho who his mother is, but then pass away before you can say her name

Playing the part of the mysterious stranger who follows Nacho would be pretty good too.  Riding my horse on the opposite side of the chasm, refusing to answer Nacho, and pointing my gun at him make for a dramatic scene.

Would it be more fun to play Anacleta Higueras or Doña Jazmina?


  • Agreeing to completing a secret mission gets the Reader out of prison.

(“official mission with secret aspects as well as secret mission with official aspects”)

  • Banned books and censorship are the focus of this chapter.
  • Marana’s work was inspired by Ludmilla–or rather the desire to prove to her that there is nothing behind the text of a novel.  But Marana was unable to do this and was allowed to escape the country.
  • The Reader would like to finish at least one tale and creates a plan to intercept the rest of “Around an empty grave” before Porphyrich can.
  • The Reader meets Anatolin who gives him a few pages at a time, but before the Reader receives the complete novel, Anatolin is arrested.

Whew… Almost finished.





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Eight is (not so) great

I can’t do it.  I can’t talk about beginning number eight: Calvino’s Japanese story.

We like to keep this blog PG as much as we can, but the amount of sex in “On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon” does not allow for that.  I will share that I marked one quote because it reminded me of Anna Karenina:

“…I made an unwise and involuntary movement of the mouth: I bared and clenched my teeth as if to bite.  Instinctively Makiko jumped back with an expression of sudden pain, as if she had really been given a bite at some sensitive spot.”

Remember Vronsky’s teeth?

The other thought I had was that the titled chapters of Calvino’s novel would make great names for jazz band pieces.  Don’t you agree?  “If on a winter’s night a traveler”, “Outside the town of Malbork”, “Leaning from the steep slope”— I can hear the brass section now.
Ooo  “Without fear of wind or vertigo” would have tons of percussion.  “Looks down in the gathering shadow” could be for a trio: piano, set, and upright bass.  If Modest Mussorgsky could write Pictures at an Exhibition based on Viktor Hartmann’s artwork , surely some jazz composer could do the same with Calvino’s classic.  The movement depicting “On the carpet of leaves…” may need to come with a parental advisory warning.

Chapter [9]
This chapter is a return to “cloak and dagger” with double agents and costume changes.  “On a carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon” is confiscated from the Reader.  Corinna (who looks like Lotaria, later turns out to be Gertrude, Ingrid, Alfonsina, Sheila, and Capt. Alexandra, but who really is Lortaria   ) gives him a replacement title that’s not a replacement because it’s a different story entirely.

“You have come all the way to Ataguitania to hunt a counterfeiter of novels, and you find yourself prisoner of a system in which every aspect of life is counterfeit, a fake.”

There’s imprisonment, censorship, and a reading machine: reminiscent of The Trial, 1984,  and Gulliver’s Travels.  In the end the book “has been crumbled, dissolved, can no longer be recomposed, like a sand dune blown away by the wind.”

Were you really surprised?




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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in If on a winter's night a traveler


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Lucky Seven

If on a winter's nightWill our Reader have literary luck in beginning number seven?

Nope.  He begins a book by Flannery but it’s a different title and different book.  Once again, the Reader thinks he knows what to expect but is fooled.  “In a network of lines that intersect” is about a successful kaleidoscope-collecting businessman who creates a cunning and complicated plan to avoid being kidnapped.  Meetings with false mistresses cover the meetings with his real mistress, Lorna, from his wife, Elfrida.  The decoy kidnappings do not protect the business man from being abducted.  By whom?

Chapter [8] from the diary of Silas Flannery

“How many years has it been since I could allow myself some disinterested reading?  How many years has it been since I could abandon myself to a book written by another, with no relation to what I must write myself?

Preach it Flannery.  I mean, Calvino.

“Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks or the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognizable as mine seem to me a cage that restricts my possibilities.”

Could it be that Flannery, I mean, Calvino would disapprove of the WEM wrap-up questions?

Flannery has a lot going on in this diary of his:

  • two authors that write the same novel
  • a cameo by Snoopy
  • lines from the opening of Crime and Punishment
  • fake Flannerys in Japanese
  • the Koran
  • aliens
  • electronically transcribed novels
  • a visit from the Reader
  • The book idea for “If on a winter’s night a traveler…”

Flannery’s words or Calvino’s?

“I have pondered my last conversation with that Reader.  Perhaps his reading is so intense that it consumes all the substance of the novel at the start, so nothing remains for the rest.  This happens to me in writing: for some time now, every novel I begin writing is exhausted shortly after the beginning, as if I had already said everything I have to say.”






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For the sixth time

If on a winter's night check-in

If on a winter’s night a traveler… beginning number six: “In a network of lines that enlace”.

In this beginning we have a slightly unstable professor who is obsessed with the telephone.  He runs for his health and his nerves.  The professor is compelled to answer the ringing telephone in a stranger’s home while he’s out jogging.  He learns of a crime that will be committed.  What will he do?

Did you read?  Do you know?

[7]  Setting: Ludmilla’s home
Point of View: Other Reader–Ludmilla  and Reader

After a perusal of Ludmilla’s home by the Reader, Irnerio enters, the man who makes art of books but doesn’t read.  It is revealed that Marana translates from a room at Ludmilla’s.  The Reader also learns that the Other Reader is an acquaintance of Silas Flannery’s.  While Ludmilla and the Reader are in bed the copy of “In a network of lines that enlace” disappears.  Irnerio is suspect.

Ludmilla is the perfect reader “always ready to follow [authors], in the fickle, carefree relations one can have with incorporeal persons.”   Marana wants to break that trust.

Up next?  Take seven.





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Beginning number four

th“Without fear of wind or vertigo”

Ack!  Military vehicles and propaganda slogans?  It’s 1984 all over again.  1984 with an ungrateful, dizzy woman, a revolt, an artillery soldier and a weird threesome relationship.

Anyone else have to look up what lazaretto means?

Our main character, Alex Zinnober must expose the identity of a spy.  Is it Irina?  At the end of the chapter Calvino twists the plot and has Alex find his own death sentence in the pocket of his friend.

Next!  One chapter is all we get.

Chapter [5]

Ludmilla and the Reader reject Lotaria’s in-depth analysis of “Vertigo”.  They (and I) “dream of putting behind you pages lacerated by intellectual analyses, you dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading, innocent, primitive…”

How?  By having the Reader go to the publisher to find the rest of “Vertigo”.

Two shout outs in this chapter: 1. Dostoyevsky: spelled just the way I like it.
2. scatological: you know true classic literature must contain this theme.

Mr. Cavedagna is likeable but too overwhelmed at the publishing house to be much help in the Reader’s quest for “Vertigo”.  There’s discussion of a fake translator, Ermes Marana: one who believes a shake of the dice determines if a story or author becomes classic.  “Who knows which books from our period will be saved, and who knows which authors’ names will be remembered?”  Let’s revisit these two questions at our wrap-up, shall we?

Cavedagna shares yet another tale with the Reader and we are ready for…

Take Five!







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The Third Beginning

If on a winter's nightI feel like I would have benefited from reading this book in one or two long sessions.  When I’m forced to set Calvino’s classic aside for a few days (or a week), I come back discombobulated.  What am I reading now?  How many beginnings have I read?

Three.  This is the third beginning.
“Leaning from the steep slope”

What does the main character of this begininng want?  To meet Miss Zwida.  What’s standing in his way?  He tells us in a most orderly fashion, laying out the obstacles one by one.

The main character takes a brief interest in Mr. Kauderer’s meteorological hobby when he realizes it will help him in his goal of meeting Miss Zwida.  Once again I’m reminded of The Trial when men in heavy coats show up saying things like “It’s not important”.

Artist Zwida knows a prisoner.  She insists she visits the prison to draw, but it’s difficult to make pretty pictures when you leave your pencil box at home.  She wants the main character to get her a grapnel with rope attached.  Ummm hmmmm.  That’s not suspicious at all.  She might as well have asked him to bake her a cake with a file inside.  Requsted a lovely gift of a dozen sheets tied together.

It seems that Kauderer is more than a weatherman; he’s a prison break plotter.  His plan was successful.  During a dark and stormy morning, the main character spies a convict who begs him to inform someone at the hotel of his escape.  This must be Miss Zwida’s prisoner.  “Do not betray me.”  And why not?

The end.

Chapter [4]

Prof. Uzzi-Tuzii shares that “Cimmerian books are all unfinished”.  Resolution?  Logical Exhaustion?  No need to decide for this story.

We’re not surprised by another book switch.  We’re familiar with Calvino’s trick.  This time the variation has Lotaria and her companions divvying up assignments to decode  every part of “Without fear of wind or vertigo”.  Their analysis is very 1984-ish.  When Lotaria begins to read aloud, the two Readers find themselves listening to another beginning. surprise-surprise.

Take four.




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