If on a winter’s night a traveler,
outside the town of Malbork,
leaning from the steep slope,
within fear of wind and vertigo,
looks down in the gathering shadow,
in a network of lines that enlace,
in a network of lines that intersect,
on a carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon,
around an empty grave –
What story down there awaits its end?
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a short miracle of a book written by Italo Calvino. I am thinking of rereading it again for perhaps the tenth time. It’s written so beautifully it feels like poetry. In fact, the chapter titles, as you can see above, seem to make a poem. But the real poetry is the evocative language and the deep, authentic love of language that Calvino reveals.
The novel begins in a railway station, the locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking throughout he befogged glass, he open the glass door of the bar, everything is misty inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smokes on the sentences. It is a rainy evening; the man enter the bark he unbuttons his damp overcoat; a cloud of steam enfold him; a whistle dies away along tracks that are glistening with rain, as far as the eye can see.
From Chapter One of If on a winter’s night a traveler