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.


The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

(Since my blogging pal, Cleo at Classical Carousel, is reading Dante, I thought it might be a good time to transfer over my post from the old blog on the Divine Comedy.)

Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which Dante himself, travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven is possibly one of the most important works of literature ever created and one of the richest to read. It is an allegory that consists of three parts: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso, each of which can be read separately, but adds up to a single spiritual journey in which Dante discusses the politics of his day, the theological concerns of his time, and his own spiritual rebirth. It is a work that requires multiple readings, as all of its levels and subtextual layers can never be penetrated in a single read, or a second read, or a third read for that matter. The importance of The Divine Comedy is inestimable.

As literature it is an allegory rich in symbolism. Virgil, the Roman poet known for his epic The Aeneid and representing Human Reason, leads Dante in his journey through hell and purgatory, only to be replaced by Beatrice, the woman whose beauty consumed Dante with a passion and appeared in his earlier love poetry, now representing Divine Revelation. The symbolism here suggests that Human Reason can only take us so far in our journey; eventually it must be replaced by faith. Along the way through the different levels, Virgil attempts his best to answer any questions Dante has about the tortured souls of hell and the contrite souls of purgatory, fulfilling his role as Human Reason. When Beatrice appears, unlike Virgil who has to be asked the question, she is able to foresee all of Dante’s questions before he even asks them and answers his philosophical questions about the nature of heaven and the universe, fulfilling her symbolic role as Divine Revelation. With each sphere of heaven they ascend, Beatrice grows more and more beautiful, more and more radiant, playing on Dante’s earlier obsession with her beauty in his poetry to suggest that her physical beauty that he once valued so much was nothing in comparison to the beauty of her soul, which continually grows more radiant the deeper into heaven they go. The symbolism is always geared to show the spiritual world is superior to the material one.

Each torture in hell is symbolic for the crime committed. For example, the lustful are trapped in a never-ending whirlwind that buffets them about back and forth, symbolizing the lack of control of their desires and emotions that swing back and forth. They lacked moderation in life and allowed their physical desires to control them, therefore they valued the physical world over the spiritual one, and they are controlled by the physical forces (the whirlwind). Two characters we meet in this circle of hell is Paolo and Francesca. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother and explains the two had an affair with each other after reading a work of medieval literature known as The Rhyme of Lancelot, which tells of an affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Her husband discovers them in bed and then murders them in a fit of rage. It was meant to be a work warning about the consequences of affairs; Lancelot and Guinevere dalliance leads to political turmoil and the eventual downfall of Camelot. Francesca, however, uses this work as a manual for stimulation rather than as literature with moral value. She completely misses the moral point of the story, perverting it for a different use. Even in the real world, she failed to improve her soul and instead focused on her physical desires. She blames the story for causing her to betray her husband and commit adultery, but never takes responsibility for her own actions. This refusal to take responsibility for their own actions continues throughout the different circles of hell. Dante suggests all the souls in hell are there because they refuse to repent, their values are skewed; none of them will even admit or believes that they did anything wrong. These souls want nothing to do with God and his offer of grace.

It is very easy to forget that Dante is not just there to observe. The poem begins with him lost in the woods (symbolizing his own spiritual confusion). He approaches a hill where a bright light is shining (symbolizing God), but his way is blocked by three monstrous animals, a leopard (symbolizing Malice and Fraud), a lion (symbolizing violence and ambition), and a she-wolf (symbolizing incontinence). The three animals blocking his way cause him deep despair, but then Virgil shows up to guide him on this journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven after being sent by Beatrice. All of this is a personal and spiritual journey for Dante. It is not just a matter of passively watching others in hell, purgatory, and heaven for others edification, but Dante must learn a lesson here as well.

In response to Francesca’s story in the circle for the lustful, Dante ends up fainting. He also seems sympathetic towards the two lovers in comparison to his reactions to the other occupants of hell. The reason he is so sympathetic is because the love poetry of his earlier career is implicated in these sins. He can relate to them and their feelings of lust. Dante is not innocent; he is taking this journey as an extreme corrective measure to put him back on the right path. Later in the poem when Beatrice arrives, she castigates him for wasting his life and intellect on unholy activities and useless philosophies. The reason he asks so many questions in hell, purgatory, and heaven is because he is supposed to be learning from these experiences so he can correct his own life.

The work is intensely political, while also transcending mere political affiliations. The work revels in the political landscape of the late Middle Ages, especially the political landscape of Italy, making footnotes essential to any good translation. In the various realms, we find famous literary characters like Achilles and Dido, we have famous historical figures like the Emperor Justinian in heaven, and we have many contemporaries of Dante’s parents (Italians who lived the generation before Dante). One problem constantly explored is the way the church is intertwined in state affairs; throughout Dante’s journey, we see the negative consequences of church officials interfering with politics. Many corrupt church officials are in hell. Multiple characters go on long rants that money and political power has led to the corruption of the Catholic Church. One of Dante’s main targets was the current Pope, Pope Boniface VIII whose meddling is responsible for the inter-city civil wars ravaging Italy. At the heart of these wars is the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, two political parties vying for control of the various city-states of Italy, as well as warring between each of the city-states. Dante is exiled from Florence by the White Guelphs for belonging to the wrong political party. It would have been easy for Dante to write a tendentious poem attacking only his political enemies, but what we find as we travel along the three realms is that both Guelphs and Ghibellines end up in hell, purgatory, and heaven based on their merit (not their party affiliation). This makes for a work that has a number of layers (political, religious, literary) and can be appreciated in a number of different ways (historically or aesthetically).

I found The Inferno to be the strongest and most interesting of three parts. It relies the most on visual spectacle; in a sense, it is the most visually dramatic and entertaining. The Purgatorio is also very visual, relying on episodes in the Bible and history via the art forms of the time to serve as corrective measures for repentance and purification. The Paradiso is the hardest of the three to approach and I struggled to stay interested. Unlike the earlier two parts, The Paradiso cantos generally consist of a description of its denizens appearing as a radiant light, then having an erudite discussion with Dante about some aspect of faith, in particular a resident often attempts to answer some stickier points of the philosophy of religion, such as the relationship between free will and fate (or omnipotence). Often then the Paradiso offers great insight into the philosophical religious questions of Scholasticism, the real meaty intellectual questions of his day, but can feel overly complicated and abstruse, requiring a deep knowledge of theology, medieval philosophy, and Scholasticism to fully appreciate and understand it. One problem is some of these questions in a less religious age like our own seem tedious and unimportant. Even people who have some religious belief will probably find these philosophical debates on the fine points of various faith issues boring and irritating. On the other hand, the shifts from the physicality of hell and purgatory fits the allegorical mode perfectly. Hell is the most physical because the occupants have lost sight of the spiritual and focused their energies on the material world, while heaven is the least physical in its imagery and its narrative focus is dedicated to intellectual discussions of faith because there the physical world no longer matters and its priorities is the spiritual, the true self, which is represented symbolically in these discussions.