If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You, the reader, purchases Italo Calvino’s newest book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Reader soon discovers a problem; the book only has the beginning of the story and then breaks off right at a moment of suspense. The Reader returns to the bookstore to exchange his defective copy. There the reader meets the Other Reader, a girl named Ludmilla, a veracious reader who remembers the details of most of the books she has ever read and who has also come to return a defective copy of Italo Calvino’s new work. The Reader and the Other Reader exchange phone numbers and agree to discuss the book after they both finish. Unfortunately the replacement copy turns out to be a different story, which also ends shortly after the beginning at a moment of great suspense. The Reader calls up the Other Reader to discover she has the same problem. As they try to solve the mystery, they encounter yet more stories that begin, but never end. They journey into the corridors of universities where professors defend their esoteric subjects and obscure books, where feminist study groups rip apart books in discussions while only having read a fraction of the book, where chaotic publishing houses face an onslaught of writers and other shady literary figures, where internationally renowned authors struggle to overcome writer’s block, and even to South America where revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries infiltrate each other’s organizations and falseness pervades everything in society, all while hunting down a mysterious translator named Ermes Marana who wants to fill the world with fake bastardized copies of books and who has some kind of past relationship with Ludmilla. While trying to solve the mystery, the Reader tries to understand his new budding relationship with Ludmilla in the hopes of beginning a romantic relationship with her.

Like other books in the Postmodern tradition such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, there is a conspiracy-type of mystery at the heart of the novel, and the attempt to unravel this mystery not only creates a strong sense of confusion and chaos, but also raises questions about our identity and the character’s identities. As a metafiction, it is a fictional story that directly comments on the nature of reading and authorship. The novel employs the unusual second person perspective in order to address the reader directly and force the actual reader to identify with the Reader-character in the story. This is a metafictional trick to make us aware of the fact that the fictional reader is both like us and not like us at the same time.

The Reader as character is an Everyman figure who stands in for readers in general. This Every Reader represents the general desire of the average reader: to get to the end and solve the mystery underlying the main problem of the story. Traditional reading involves a story beginning with some sort of problem that causes the character to attempt to solve it, reaching an ending in which they either fix the problem, are changed by it, or both. Like the Reader character we, too, experience the frustration of ten separate stories that have beginnings, but no ends. Calvino tempts us to feel disappointed along with the reader since we never get to hear how these stories finish. However, unlike the Reader-Character we can see the real story is the frame narrative around the individual unfinished tales. The problem of the novel that draws the actual reader in is the Reader-character’s attempt to solve the mystery of the unfinished novels and his pursuit of Ludmilla as a love interest. These unfinished stories are themselves a means to an end, a trope that allows us to experience the real story. Instead of thinking of them as unfinished stories, we should instead treat them as clues in a mystery. The real story then is about how the reader character tries to solve the mystery of the unfinished novel and whether he can build a relationship with Ludmilla.

The identification with the Every Reader, emphasized through the second person perspective, is a fictional trick that urges us to consider the boundaries between fiction and reality. The perspective of the novel might encourage us to identify with the reader, but we are also not like this character. It is only a character, not us. The Every Reader captures a generalized version of a reader—in other words, it might capture what we want out of reading—but at the same time it lacks all our individualities as flesh-and-blood people. I have a daughter and I think I’m a pretty good father, I have a wife who I love, and I have a job as a librarian in a school. The Reader Character has none of these specific qualities or background. This reader character is not really me. So it is important to remember then that although the narrative tries to get us to identify with the Every Reader, this figure in the text is still a character at the end of the day; it only captures the real us to a point. By doing this the novel is warning against identifying too closely with a character in any book and forgetting they are products of the imagination. They might seem real, but they are just words on a page. We might see aspects of ourselves in them, but they are still very different from us and often in very different social circumstances. We might see people similar to ones we know, but if you think about it more they almost certainly are differences between the real person and the character on the page that reminds you of them. This point is addressed further in the relationship between the two readers. The reader is constantly trying to figure out Ludmilla. Is she interested in him? Why is she always late for their meetings? When we actually think about it, the reader character barely knows Ludmilla. He struggles to understand her and wonders if she is truly interested in him. Here, the novel is addressing the difficult question about how well we ever know anybody. How much do we truly understand the inner workings of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our friends? How much as readers do we understand what motivates Ludmilla? If the reader doesn’t know much about her and we only see the world through his eyes, how can we know much about her?

The novel offers other views about the purpose of reading. Ludmilla is the ideal reader. Ludmilla wants a pure and organic reading experience. She doesn’t want to know how books are made, revised, cut, changed, etc. She doesn’t desire books to comment on the deeper social world. She wants the final product, the book itself, to read for reading’s sake.

“For this woman . . . 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).”

Reading for Ludmilla is a losing of one’s identity. We temporarily explore other worlds, other people’s experiences, other people who are not necessarily like us, and who have had different experiences from us. Reading for her seems to be about experiencing the world anew through the imagination. If there is deeper meaning to be found in literature it is the way it erases us as individuals and our petty concerns, and lets us experience the lives, worlds, and problems of others. The point for Ludmilla is the experience itself.

Some readers turn to books not to lose their identity and preconceptions, but to confirm and reaffirm their identity and political commitments. This is the case with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, who is presented as a typical left-wing university student. She states at various points in the novel that the purpose of books is not so much to read them as to analyze them for clandestine social impulses and political points. She doesn’t enjoy reading books, but rather the point for her is dissecting and discussing books. She reads books already knowing what she is looking for and then finds it.
Our third model is Ermes Marana, the main antagonist who is behind the forgeries that forms the core problem of the novel. He also has ideas about the nature of books and readers.

“As for him, he wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood (239).”

Unlike Ludmilla who views books as an escape into imagination, which may have the potential to change the way we view the world through new experiences different from our own lives and Lotaria who views books as social products to be critiqued and dissected, and thus are reflections of a certain social order that exists in the world, Ermes Marana believes that fiction is artifice. The world is meaningless, but stories give the illusion of meaning. His character who assumes multiple identities, fake credentials, and travels throughout the world on false pretenses embodies this understanding of reality. We never really learn who this man is in any definitive form. In a way, the character Ermes Marana is nothing but a series of artifices and false personas. Reading for him is about creating a variety of false meanings about the world to cover its meaninglessness. Is reading about the experience of exploring ideas, places, people, and worlds different and unknown to us that helps us open our mind to new experiences in the real world? Is reading about the pleasure of getting to the end of the story and feeling the comfort at the resolution of a problem? Is reading about challenging the status quo and an important political tool for change? Or is reading an act in which people fool themselves into creating false meaning and identity for their lives in a meaningless world? One might also see a hidden metaphor for life itself. Life is a series of stories and different people have different readings of other people’s lives. Ideal stories might always have an ending that resolves everything, but real life often doesn’t work that way and different narratives in our life don’t always have conclusions. Life often is a series of bumps and half-finished narratives, which we then replace with different narratives that matter more to us.

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5 thoughts on “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

    • It was definitely a strange book. Metafiction novels are always interesting, but I always find myself hankering for a more traditional realist novel after reading one. I don’t re-read much, but lately I’ve been having the urge to re-read some works.

      Do you have a post up on Calvino’s book?

      • Nope, I read it years ago before I was blogging. I’ll eventually get to a reread and post then. Thanks for asking though. Gotta love the author’s name too.

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