In the realm of experimental fiction, there are two kinds of books: Clever Books and Books That Are Too Clever For Their Own Good. And Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller comes very close to being a Book That Is Too Clever For Its Own Good.
I first decided I wanted to read this book when I read a quote from the novel in Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. It’s a fabulous description of a character entering a bookshop. In Calvino’s hands this simple action is transformed into a kind of military assault:
“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 … Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages, […]
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.”
This quote so intrigued me that I vowed I would read it as soon as I could. I had no idea, however, just what kind of book it would actually be.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is narrated in the second person. This in itself was a bit of a challenge; I’ve never read a long piece written in the second person, and I wasn’t sure how I would react to it. It was much more enjoyable than I had anticipated; the narration gives the reader the sense that they are merging with the main character of the novel, who is identified only as The Reader by Calvino.
The book centres around the idea that when The Reader buys a copy of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and takes it home, he finds that the book is defective; that, due to a printer’s error the book cuts out after only a few pages. He returns to the bookshop to find the rest of the book, only to be presented with a series of stories which are all different from the original and none of which, for various reasons, he is able to finish.
Every second chapter is the beginning of one of these stories. In the remaining chapters The Reader is led through a series of increasingly bizarre situations as he tries to track down the rest of the original book. By halfway through he would be happy to find the ending of even one of the stories that he has begun reading. Right up until the end of the novel, however, he is disappointed.
Several people have commented that they became frustrated with the incomplete stories. I must admit that I found the chapters themselves more interesting than the stories, perhaps because I approached the novel already knowing that the stories were going to be cut short. At least The Reader’s tale had some continuity. The myriad of stories which are cut off before they really begin don’t necessarily make for an altogether enjoyable reading experience. However, if you persist, it’s well worth the effort. The language is beautiful, the storytelling is unique, and there are a wealth of interpretations to be drawn from the text.
I was most interested in the way that the book explores the postmodern consciousness. In the first chapter we are told,
“Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time…”
As for The Reader, he is “… the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything” (Chapter I). Then there is the character of The Other Reader, who is never entirely satisfied with any of the stories that are offered to her. Every book is just slightly off-centre for her, missing some slight but indefinable element that changes every time she tries to define ‘The novel I would most like to read at the moment’.
In the countless imaginary writers that Calvino dreams up, there is also a questioning of the role of the author in modern fiction. For Cavedagna, the put-upon publisher, the “…true authors remain those who for him were only a name on a jacket, a word that was part of the title, authors who had the same reality as their characters … who existed and didn’t exist at the same time…” (Chapter V). Calvino sets up an interesting world where he invents a series of writers, and ‘Italo Calvino’ is just one such writer; he becomes submerged in the story just as the other, imaginary writers do. The role of the author is not so stable in this book, where the ‘real’ author of the book is hidden beneath the identities of various fictional ones. As we are told later on,
“this is the moment (in the history of Western culture) when self-realisation on paper is sought not so much by isolated individuals as by collectives … The figure of the author has become plural and moves always in a group, because nobody can be delegated to represent anybody…”
Then there is the disturbing intrusion of technology in the book. There are frequent references to computers ‘reading’ and reproducing books: “We have machines capable of reading, analyzing, judging any written text” (Chapter IX). There is a scene where the reader encounters a woman hooked up to a machine; she is in charge of reading the novels produced. The machine measures her responses to decide if a “product is viable and can be launched on the market” (Chapter VI). It’s an unsettling prediction of the way technology might begin dictating our reading habits. If a machine can reproduce books without needing human (including authorial) intervention, what does that say about the state of literature in the modern world? The implications of this scenario are disturbing.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller has many rewarding aspects. It illustrates the postmodern consciousness very well, with its fragmented structure and chilling exploration of technology and its influence on modern readers. It’s also a very Clever Book. I was about halfway through when I discovered the twist which is revealed at the very end, which for the sake of not spoiling I’ll nickname The Thing He Does With the Chapters, even though this might in itself be enough to give it away. I was probably more excited than I’ve been for a long time; I actually muttered, ‘No way!’ out loud and wondered whether I was Clever for figuring it out so soon or Not Clever for only figuring it out halfway through. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of interesting things Calvino examines in this novel. For my first reading, however, I was obsessed with figuring out what he is trying to say about the postmodern world. I think it’s summarised best in this little quotation. Perhaps it is the feeling of “…confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is” (Chapter One).
Rating: 5 Stars