In Sylvie and Bruno, Lewis Carroll states that ‘everything, recorded in books, must have once been in some mind’. In its successor, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, one of the characters gives the following forecast: ‘The day must come – if the world lasts long enough – when every possible tune will have been composed – every possible pun perpetrated ... and, worse than that, every possible book written! For the number of words is finite.’ ‘It’ll make very little difference to the authors,’ another suggests. ‘Instead of saying “what book shall I write?” an author will ask himself “which book shall I write?” A mere verbal distinction!’ In 1979, Italo Calvino addressed that ‘mere verbal distinction’ in a novel that presents this state of affairs not as a disincentive to writing but as an incitement to write all books at once, or at least ten different books, or at least their first pages. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller requires that the reader, addressed by the author in the second person, proceed through a literary labyrinth and assume responsibility for making sense of the chaos. It is the perfect example of Calvino working within the constraints required by the members of Oulipo, or the Workshop of Potential Literature, to which he belonged, along with the likes of Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.
I had met Calvino eight years earlier, in Paris, where he was living with his Argentinian wife and Italian daughter in a 1960s block of flats on the Square de Châtillon, near the Porte d’Orléans. I had just turned twenty-three and had come armed with a letter of introduction