It’s hard to talk about If on a winter’s night a traveler, because there’s a lot I want to say, but I’m not sure I can put a lot of it into words. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it. If you’ve read the book (other reader?) you might empathize with me; regardless, read my thoughts here with that in mind.
If on a winter’s night a traveler is the most meta thing I’ve ever seen. I go on Reddit a lot and I’ve also watched Community, so that should give you an inkling of an idea of how meta this book is. Multiply that inkling by 10 and you should be somewhere in the ballpark. If on a winter’s night a traveler is a book for book readers. The main character is you, the reader, and the narrative explores your literary journey, involving ten books, another reader, a love interest (the other reader), an “apocryphal conspiracy” (people making books fake), corrupt governments, and much, much more. This confusing story is told in chapters that alternate between your (I will use “you” to describe the “you” in the book from now on, that is the reader of the book) story, told in the second-person, and the beginnings of various novels which you find along the way, told in the first-person (for the most part). For example, the first chapter is about you going into a bookstore and buying a book; the second is that book, or at least the beginning of it.
The “novel” chapters are not just random inserts - their narratives parallel your narrative. For example (and to steal a bit from Wikipedia), the chapter entitled "If on a winter’s night a traveler" has elements of a detective novel. There’s also a bit where the narrator flirts with a mysterious divorced female. In the next chapter, some detective elements emerge in your narrative, and you flirt awkwardly with Ludmilla, who used to be involved with Marana. This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but these subtle parallels can be seen throughout the text. As your narrative escalates to involve conspiracies and foreign governments, the novels escalate towards mirrors and murders. Here’s another example. In "On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon", the narrator pines after Makiko, but winds up having sex with her mom, Madame Miyagi. In the chapter that follows, a character that reminds you of Lotaria (Ludmilla’s sister) throws herself at you, and you consent. These are not super strong parallels, and as far as I can tell they aren’t meant to be informative with respect to your narrative. Instead, they tie the chapters together, creating a sense that your readings are influenced by your current situation.
I’ll now provide a brief narrative summary up to around the 6th chapter. It should give a decent idea of how this novel is written, and hopefully clear up any confusion. There are spoilers!!!, but only super general stuff.
You go into a bookstore, and buy If on a winter’s night a traveler. However, you find that your copy is defective, so you go back to the bookstore to exchange it. At the bookstore, you are informed that there was a mixup at the publishing house, and that you did not read If on a winter’s night a traveler; the pages got mixed up, and you actually read the beginning of Outside the town of Malbork. While you’re there, you meet another reader who ran into the same problem. Both of you now want to finish reading Outside the town of Malbork instead of If on a winter’s night a traveler. So, after exchanging contact info, you go home and start this new book. But it is totally different than the book you had previously been reading. You do some research, and discover the book seems to be of Cimmerian origin; then you and Ludmilla, the other reader, contact a professor well-versed in Cimmerian literature. You tell him about Outside the town of malbork, and he says “hey! I know that book!” He starts reciting Leaning from the steep slope for you, and it is totally different. This goes on and on, escalating in scope until you are meeting with Director Generals from foreign nations to procure the next novel.
Finally, here are some quotes. These will touch on a lot of interesting things that I didn’t find space/time to mention above, such as: reading styles and preferences; reading as a bond between two readers; the existence of a mysterious “other reader”; the extreme meta-ness of this book (I mentioned this, but examples make it much clearer).
Meta Quotes (wow this book is so meta)
Marana's Strategy to Stall the Sultana
“And so Marana proposes to the Sultan a stratagem prompted by the literary tradition of the Orient: he will break off this translation at the moment of greatest suspense and will start translating another novel, inserting it into the first through some rudimentary expedient; for example, a character in the first novel opens a book and starts reading. The second novel will also break off to yield a third, which will not proceed very far before opening into a fourth, and so on...” (125).
Addressing the Other Reader
“What are you like, Other Reader? It is time for this book in the second person to address itself no longer to a general male you, perhaps brother and double of a hypocrite I, but directly to you who appeared already in the second chapter as the Third Person necessary for the novel to be a novel, for something to happen between that male Second Person and the female Third, for something to take form, develop, or deteriorate according to the phases of human events. Or, rather, to follow the mental models through which we live our human events. Or, rather, to follow the mental models through which we attribute to human events the meanings that allow them to be lived.
This book so far has been careful to leave open to the Reader who is reading the possibility of identifying himself with the Reader who is read: this is why he was not given a name, which would automatically have made him the equivalent of a Third Person, of a character (whereas to you, as Third Person, a name had to be given, Ludmilla), and so he has been kept a pronoun, in the abstract condition of pronouns, suitable for any attribute and any action. Let us see, Other Reader, if the book can succeed in drawing a true portrait of you, beginning with the frame and enclosing you from every side, establishing the outlines of your form” (141-142).
About the Beginnings of Novels (Silas Flannery)
“The romantic fascination produced in the pure state by the first sentences of the first chapter of many novels is soon lost in the continuation of the story: it is the promise of a time of reading that extends before us and can comprise all possible developments. I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object. But how could such a book be constructed? Would it break off after the first paragraph? Would the preliminaries be prolonged indefinitely? Would it set the beginning of one tale inside another, as in the Arabian Nights?” (177).
About Writing If on a winter's night a traveler (Silas Flannery)
“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 counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary...” (198).
Ludmilla Quotes (mainly about what Ludmilla wants to read and how she reads)
“‘A bit too unfocused, his way of telling a story, too much so for me. I rather enjoy that sense of bewilderment a novel gives you when you start reading it, but if the first effect is fog, I’m afraid the moment the fog lifts my pleasure in reading will be lost, too.’
‘I prefer novels,’ she adds, ‘that bring me immediately into a world where everything is precise, concrete, specific. I feel a special satisfaction in knowing that things are made in that certain fashion and not otherwise, even the most commonplace things that in real life seem indifferent to me’” (30).
“‘The novels I prefer,’ she says, ‘are those that make you feel uneasy from the very first page...’” (126).
“‘I like books,’ she says, ‘where all the mysteries and the anguish pass through a precise and cold mind, without shadows, like the mind of a chessplayer’” (157).
“‘The novels that attract me most,’ Ludmilla said, ‘are those that create an illusion of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure, cruel, and perverse as possible’” (192).
“‘My sister always says she loves novels where you feel an elemental strength, primordial, telluric. That’s exactly what she says: telluric’” (216).
"I want to read blank right now" #1
“‘The book I would like to read now is a novel in which you sense the story arriving like still-vague thunder, the historical story along with the individual’s story, a novel that gives the sense of living through an upheaval that still has no name, has not yet taken shape...’” (73).
"I want to read blank right now" #2
“‘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...’” (92).
"I want to read blank right now" #3
“‘The book I’m looking for,’ says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, ‘is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world’” (243).
Ludmilla <3 Pumpkins #1
“‘She [Ludmilla] said that when Marana convinces her that the difference between the true and the false is only a prejudice of ours, she feels the need to see someone who makes books the way a pumpkin vine makes pumpkins - that’s how she put it...’” (152).
Ludmila <3 Pumpkins #2
“This ideal model - to say it in her words - is the author who produces books ‘as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins.’ She also used other metaphors of natural processes that follow their course unperturbed - the wind that shapes the mountain, the wrack of the tides, the annual circles in the bole of trees - but these were metaphors of literary creation in general, whereas the image of the pumpkin referred directly to me” (189).
Pumpkin Metaphor Expressed
“‘No, you see... The novels of Silas Flannery are something so well characterized... it seems they were already there before, before you wrote them, in all their details... It’s as if they passed through you, using you because you know how to write, since, after all, there has to be somebody to write them... I wish I could watch you while you’re writing, to see if it really is like that...’
I feel a stab of pain. For this girl I am nothing but an impersonal graphic energy, ready to shift from the unexpressed into writing an imaginary world that exists independently of me” (190).
Ludmilla & Authors
“Little by little you will manage to understand something more about the origins of the translator’s machinations: the secret spring that set them in motion was his jealousy of the invisible rival who came constantly between him and Ludmilla, the silent voice that speaks to her through books, this ghost with a thousand faces and faceless, all the more elusive since for Ludmilla authors are never incarnated in individuals of flesh and blood, they exist for her only in published pages, the living and the dead both are there always ready to communicate with her, to amaze her, and Ludmilla is always ready to follow them, in the fickle, carefree relations one can have with incorporeal persons. How is it possible to defeat not the authors but the functions of the author, the idea that behind each book there is someone who guarantees a truth in that world of ghosts and inventions by the mere fact of having invested in it his own truth, of having identified himself with that construction of words?” (159).
About What Reading Means to Ludmilla
“‘For this woman,’ Arkadian Porphyrich continues, seeing how intently you are drinking in his words, ‘reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say’” (239).
Generally Interesting Quotes
About Browsing Books in a Bookstore, and Categorizing these Books into Humorous and Relatable Types
“In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too” (5).
“Just as the author, since he has no intention of telling about himself, decided to call the character ‘I’ as if to conceal him, not having to name him or describe him, because any other name or attribute would define him more than this stark pronoun; still, by the very fact of writing ‘I’ the author feels driven to put into this ‘I’ a bit of himself, of what he feels or imagines he feels. Nothing could be easier for him than to identify himself with me; for the moment my external behavior is that of a traveler who has missed a connection, a situation that is part of everyone’s experience. But a situation that takes place at the opening of a novel always refers you to something else that has happened or is about to happen, and it is this something else that makes it risky to identify with me, risky for you the reader and for him the author; and the more gray and ordinary and undistinguished and commonplace the beginning of this novel is, the more you and the author feel a hint of danger looming over that fraction of ‘I’ that you have heedlessly invested in the ‘I’ of a character whose inner history you know nothing about...” (15).
"What is Reading" for 42, Alex
“‘Reading’, he says, ‘is always this: there is a thing that is there, a thing made of writing, a solid, material object, which cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead...’
‘Or that is not present because it does not yet exist, something desired, feared, possible or impossible,’ Ludmilla says. ‘Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be...’” (73).
About the Boundary Between Readers and Publishers (About Knowing Too Much) (Ludmilla)
“‘There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want. This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers. Of course, readers are also growing more numerous, but it would seem that those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books and nothing else. I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for a few minutes’” (93).
About Authors (Marana)
“‘What does the name of an author on the jacket matter? Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved, and who knows which authors’ names will be remembered? Some books will remain famous but will be considered anonymous works, as for us the epic of Gilgamesh; other authors’ names will still be well known, but none of their works will survive, as was the case with Socrates; or perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer’” (101).
About Reading in Solitude, and Reading Together
“And yet the sight of the books in Ludmilla’s house proves reassuring for you. Reading is solitude. To you Ludmilla appears protected by the valves of the open book like an oyster in its shell. The shadow of another man, probable, indeed certain, is if not erased, thrust off to one side. One reads alone, even in another’s presence. But what, then, are you looking for here? Would you like to penetrate her shell, insinuating yourself among the pages of the books she is reading? Or does the relationship between one Reader and the Other Reader remain that of two separate shells, which can communicate only through partial confrontations of two exclusive experiences?” (147).
About Being Jealous of Your(other)self (Silas Flannery)
“And a keen jealousy invades me, not of other people, but of that me made of ink and periods and commas, who wrote the novels I will write no more, the author who continues to enter the privacy of this young woman, while I, I here and now, with the physical energy I feel surging, much more reliable than the creative impulse, I am separated from her by the immense distance of a keyboard and a white page on the roller” (191).
About This Book Inspiring The Departed (Corinna)
“‘My case is different. I’m an infiltrator, a real revolutionary infiltrated into the ranks of the false revolutionaries. But to avoid being discovered, I have to pretend to be a counterrevolutionary infiltrated among the true revolutionaries. And, in fact, I am, inasmuch as I take orders from the police; but not from the real ones, because I report to the revolutionaries infiltrated among the counterrevolutionary infiltrators’” (214).
About Reading 3 Lines of a Book and Thinking About Those 3 Lines For 3 Days (Reader in Library)
“‘Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful for me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust’” (254).