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Classic review: If On a Winter's Night a Traveler

A sly literary puzzle masquerading as a novel.

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on June 17, 1981.] This is a novel about reading and writing that exemplifies what it is talking about as it goes along. Got that? The question comes to mind often – too often for readers without a taste for literary puzzles – as Italy's prizewinning Italo Calvino once more sends us a shimmering mirage of fantasy and the everyday.

"Invisible Cities," for example, made a place for itself reminiscent of Marianne Moore's definition of poetry as imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Here were imaginary cities of antiquity with real issues of today in them.

Now the recognizable is buried in the bizarre as Calvino seems to start and break off 10 books in the course of one – whose left-in- midair title, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, becomes part of a sly surprise at the end. The multiple parodistic echoes unfortunately dwell at times on such narrative genres as Arabian Nights eroticism and more recent sex-and-violence, of whose excesses no one needs to be reminded. The act of reading itself is sometimes rather ludicrously suggested in amorous terms. But a greater portion of the book(s) involves other styles and content and a tantalizing evocation of bookishness itself.


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