If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino, first published 1979, 254 pages, ISBN 978-1857151381
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!”
These are the first lines of Calvino’s entertaining novel. Welcome to the world of post-modern literature.
What is the modern writer to do? Every story, and every variation of every story, has been told. You already know the plot of virtually any movie before it even comes out. Even the final twists have all been taken care of. Umberto Eco, another of the post-modern greats, once asked the question, “How does a post-modern writer say ‘I love you’?” How, when the phrase itself is so cliched it has lost all the meaning which you wish to convey to your beloved? By saying it anyway.
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers part of the first paragraph… The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.
This is beautiful writing but disconcerting. Calvino tells you in his first paragraphs that you are reading the book that you are holding. The entire book is written in the second person. Except for every second chapter, written in the first. You, the Reader. I the story-teller.
And you, the Reader, are in trouble. You really want to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new book, If on a winter’s night a traveler, but you cannot. Every time – in every second chapter – you begin reading the introduction, just as you get to the most critical moment of the beginning, you lose the plot. Literally.
Books end abruptly. Get ripped from your hands. Get taken by government agents. No matter what you do, there is no way to complete a story. No way to reach redemption.
“But my book…” you complain, extending with an infant’s gesture an unarmed hand toward that authoritative barrier of glistening buttons and weapon muzzles.
“Confiscated, sir. This book cannot enter Ataguitania. It’s a banned book.”
So you, the Reader, begin a quest. To find out why this is happening. You are joined by the Other Reader, another you, but feminine. There is a moment of intimacy that leaves you excited and disoriented. What is the Other Reader’s involvement?
Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost. A direction can be recognised in it, a route to an end, since it tends toward a climax, and with this end, since it arranges rhythmic phases, metrical scansions, recurrence of motives. But is the climax really the end? Or is the race toward that end opposed by another drive which works in the opposite direction, swimming against the moments, recovering time?
Yes, there are hints of the Arabian Nights where, to stay alive, Scheherazade, tells stories without endings for 1001 nights to Shahryar, the king who threatens to murder her every day should he tire of her. But there is something else to.
Calvino takes us within the pages. Into the writer’s process of telling and retelling a story. He shows us the pages. He tells us the people are characters. You wouldn’t expect this to be a captivating way to tell a fantasy. Yet it is.
You are wrapped inside your own journey. Each of the new story beginnings are gripping. You want to know the ending. What is it that unites them?
(Don’t believe that the book is losing sight of you, Reader. The you that was shifted to the other Reader can, at any sentence, be addressed to you again. You are always a possible you. Who would dare sentence you to loss of the you, a catastrophe as terrible as the loss of the I. For a second-person discourse to become a novel, at least two you’s are required, distinct and concomitant, which stand out from the crowd of he’s, she’s and they’s.)
Eventually you wind up a library where you collect all the titles from all the various books you have collected in your journey. Here you hope to find the endings to these stories. You tell other readers present about your troubles.
“May I see?” the sixth reader asks, taking the list of titles. He removes his nearsighted glasses, puts them in their case, opens another case, takes out his farsighted glasses, and reads aloud:
“If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow, in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave – What story down there awaits its end? – he asks, anxious to hear the story.”
The sixth reader misinterprets, runs all the titles together, and you object. But…
There is an answer. And I’m not going to tell it to you.
The truth is that, even though all stories have been told there is still the intangible delight in reading a story, crafted, well-told, sculpted, loved, and released. Enjoy.