In one sentence: A strange, meta-narrative that delves deeply into the experience of reading.
This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
"'The novel I would most like to read at this moment,' Ludmilla explains, ‘should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves…'" (89). This is interesting because Ludmilla is basically saying she would like to read the novel we are actually reading.
We see another example of this self-description with "Looks down in the gathering shadow", where the author of the story states: "I'm producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told" (105).
Page 151 (Chapter Seven) contains a rather impressive passage where a sexual encounter between the Reader and the Other Reader is described as them "reading" each other. "And you, too, O Reader, are meanwhile an object of reading: the Other Reader now is reviewing your body as if skimming the index, and at some moments she consults it as if gripped by sudden and specific curiosities, then she lingers, questioning it an waiting till a silent answer reaches her, as if every partial inspection interested her only in the light of a wider spatial reconnaissance" (151).
The passage concludes on the next page: "If one wanted to depict the whole thing graphically, ever episode, with its climax, would require a three-dimensional model, perhaps four-dimensional, or rather, no model: every experience is unrepeatable. What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space" (152).
We return to another meta-summary of the actual book in chapter 8 when we meet the old writer who keeps a diary: "I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can't go beyond the beginning… He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged… I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader… I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeit-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary… But I wouldn't want the young lady Reader, in escaping the Counterfeiter, to end up in the arms of the Reader. I will see to it that the Reader sets out on the trail of the Counterfeiter, hiding in some very distant country, so the Writer can remain all alone with the young lady, the Other Reader. To be sure, without a female character, the Reader's journey would love liveliness: he must encounter some other woman on his way. Perhaps the Other Reader could have a sister…" (193) After which, not surprisingly, events play out just as the old writer has predicted.
In Chapter 10, page 234 we read an author lamenting: "'In reading, something happens over which I have no power.'" Could it be that this novel was a sort of literary experiment by Calvino to see if he could "control" what the reader is experiencing by making the reader a character in the book?
The sentence produced by the titles of all the "books" reader in this novel: "If on a winter's night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave – What story down there awaits its end? – he ask, anxious to hear the story" (252) is particularly wonderful because they ultimately define, quite adequately, the major themes, not only of the novel we have just read, but the very experience of reading a new book in general. Anyone who enjoys reading effectively has the spirit of mystery, eagerness, and anxiety whenever they look to read.
My favorite quote from this book "'The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two face: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death'" (253) is improved even more by the context which follows it: "You stop for a moment to reflect on these words. Then, in a flash, you decide you want to marry Ludmilla" (253).
The ending, in which we the reader and the Reader declare that we are about to finish the book we are reading is perfect. How else could such a novel end? I definitely recommend If on a winter's night a traveler, especially to those who enjoy the more philosophical, meta-narrative reading adventures that you can find in something like the short stories of Borges. If nothing else, it should be noted that this book was good enough and thought provoking enough to break me out of the 9+ months of not writing up my thoughts after finishing a novel. If that isn't a good sign I don't know what is.