If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
Dissapointment in If on a winter’s night a traveller
The traditional structure and approach to literature is challenged in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. For this idiosyncratic narrative, the main character is referred to as the reader, and the novel is told in the second person. Every other chapter is the first chapter of a different book, but each comes to an abrupt stop as the book is lost, misprinted or otherwise un-continued; through this desperate attempt to finish the stories, the reader, is taken around the world with The Other Reader, another character. In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Calvino creates a web of constant desire and disappointment that drags The Reader deeper into the predominant plot to chase down the perfect book and way to read.
Calvino creates a universal desire for a perfect, unattainable book through the offhand comments of characters through the novel. In the readers interactions with Professor Uzzi-Tuzzi Ludmilla, the other reader, says books are definite, however the professor comments on page 72 that a perfect book can “only be thought, imagined”. By directly countering Ludmilla’s idea that books are defined ideas, he suggests that within reading there is some void, and that reading is more than what is on the page. He also suggests that each book is measured against this “imagined” perfect novel, a novel that is unattainable. In one of the final scenes of the novel, a reader at the library states on page 256 that all books “carry an echo, immediately lost” of his desire book and that despite all of his readings at the grand library “none is the story” (page 257). He too has an ideal or perfect novel in mind, and his reading is fueled by this dissatisfaction with all he’s read and desire for his unattainable novel. Each is an echo to be measured against the original perfect. A book publisher, Cavedanga also comments on his desire for the ideal book as he longs for the “chicken coop of his boyhood” (102), Cavedanga’s daily interactions with the life and death of books have caused him to desire the carefree reading of his childhood again, in which the chicken coop served as his reading spot. He measures his current reading against his past, innocent reading, and seeks to find the same feeling he had as a child that is unattainable due to his work analyzing books. Ludmilla, the other reader, gives many offhand comments on her perfect book she’s searching for including that the book she desires has “to pile stories on stories (92). As the reader’s ultimate desire is to please her, the romantic interest, the book becomes a chase to find Ludmilla’s perfect book. The entire novel builds up to finding the very book she desires, as each one not “the one”. Through these offhand comments, Calvino creates each characters ideas of the perfect book and the motivations for their reading, the passion for reading is met with each characters disappointment as their expectations aren’t met.
Calvino’s syntax further draws out anticipation and enhances expectation throughout the novel. Short sentences such as on page 3 when the narrator says “Relax. Concentrate.” Relieves tension and the sense of urgency. Through the pauses and one word sentences the reading is slowed and read without any urgency. This contrasts directly with alternating synthatic tension, creating a chase as there is relaxation then tension. Incredibly long sentances, such as one found on page 142 discussing the role of books in a household tease along ideas. In the sentence, the possible roles of books are listed, each plausible but not necessary correct. The paragraph length teases along with the anticipation of an answer, a final conclusion and resolution. This alternating sythatic tension and loose sentances create a chase and relief, the desire and dissatisfaction so prominent throughout the novel. The longest idea of the book is the chapter titles, coming together to form one sentence measuring 70 words ending in the phrase “anxious to hear the story” (258). The sentence itself is about how the end of a novel is like death, but the more important part of this sentence being finished is that is one of the only resolutions of the entire novel. In a way, the chapter titles served as the longest unfinished idea in the whole book, and by tying them all together in the final chapter, Calvino finally satisfies the implied reader’s desperate chase. By ending in “anxious to hear the story” Calvino also effective summarizes the whole idea of the book, the constant chase of ideas and the anxiety to hear the end. The alternating lose and tense sentences as well as the chapter titles being one extended sentence further enhance the desire for resolution and the sensation of the chase.
The broken, jarring structure of the novel further enhances the anticipation for a conventional ending and resolution of ideas. The narrator steps back to explain their reasoning, stating that a reader “may feel… cheated” (109) of a proper story. The stories structure of every other chapter being an entirely new book sets up a million paths, but never reaches a conclusion. These repeated unfinished ideas entice the main character and the other reader along their chase for resolutions. The structure is purposefully jarring, in that each story breaks off at the moment of climax or enticement and never returns to finish the idea. Each story is also written in a new style, some like a thriller or mystery, others like a traditional Japanese story. This frustration with incomplete story arcs and ideas leads to a frustration with the narrator and author and the very novel itself. The narrator breaks up the reading within the stories as well, jarring the natural flow of each chapter with phrases such as “watch out” on page 12, warning the reader that the story is sucking them in. As a result, each chapter doesn’t necessarily read as a story, instead as a narrator describing the story, breaking up the natural flow and what is typically expected of both a narrator and reading experience, creating more frustration. The final line on the final page directly contrasts this lack of resolution and the jarring structure, as the reader says to his new wife, Ludmilla, “I’ve almost finished” on page 260, referring to his reading of the novel “If on a Winters Night a Traveler”. Through this, satisfaction and resolution is finally achieved, as so many stories have built up to this final conclusion. It is the final moment of satisfaction and resolution in a book filled with disappointment and desire. The overarching story comes together as the reader and the other reader become reader and reader and the chase has come to a close. This unique, jarring structure plays against the conventional expectations for reading and purposefully takes them away.
Disappointment in If on a Winters Night a Traveler comments on the true motivations for reading, that people who read come seeking conventional experiences and perfect resolutions. By taking this away, Calvino questions whether resolutions are needed in literature, as life doesn’t have perfect resolutions and art should reflect life. Thus, this disappointment and questioning of the typical reading experience truly mirrors life, as life is not conventional. Calvino’s unique approach to writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler brings into question why society reads and what reading means to society, interrogating the universal desire for the perfect book and the perfect resolution to life.
Calvino, Endings, and Women: A Look at If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
In Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, we see how Calvino attempts to compare the reading of a novel to a man pursuing a woman. In this text, the reader takes on the role of a male protagonist attempting to read a book. Along the way, the protagonist meets a female reader, whom he begins to pursue throughout the rest of the novel. This pursuit mirrors the interactions between us, as the reader, and the text. As we read, we are drawn in by narrative beginnings. While this interpretation may at first seem sexist or misrepresentative of female readers, further analysis will reveal the validity of this claim. In this novel, Calvino’s main goal is to examine the reader’s experience. By portraying this as a romantic encounter, we can draw important conclusions about the reader’s experience. While it may appear that Calvino only values the masculine experience of the reader, this comparison will prove to enrich the understanding of the relationship between the text and the reader as we discover how Calvino’s novel is more in line with female pleasure.
In Earl G. Ingersoll’s book Waiting for the End: Gender and Ending in the Contemporary Novel, Ingersoll himself examines the lack of endings in Calvino’s novel and how this affects the reader. Traditional narrative has taught readers to read for the plot, or to find pleasure in the climax and satisfying ending of a story. Calvino challenges this notion in If on a winter’s night a traveller by eliminating endings from the stories. Calvino repeatedly hooks the readers attention with tantalizing beginnings of stories, only to stop them abruptly at the most compelling part of the story. Calvino’s intent is to cause the reader to question their experience with the text. He wants the reader to value the text for the reading experience itself rather than expecting a certain ending. For many years, the value of narrative has been in the plot—in a good ending. If the story doesn’t have a good rising action, climax, and ending, then it isn’t a good story. Sigmund Freud was a proponent of this line of thinking. He postulated that every human being has a pleasure and death drive. These drives push humans to desire pleasure and to desire their own end. Peter Brooks wrote in his essay “Freud’s Masterplot” about this theory; even in narrative, the characters desire a good ending—an honorable death. Calvino and others within postmodern literature have begun to question this notion. Instead of pursuing the end, these postmodern thinkers claim to find pleasure within the process. According to Ingersoll, “Calvino is positing a ‘pleasure of the text’ itself, transcending the traditional notion of a plot whose ending offers a transformation of meaning” (235). This concept will make more sense as we continue examining If on a winter’s night a traveller. In the text, Calvino explores how different readers interact with the text in their reading experience. He wants the reader to be conscious of what they are experiencing while reading; he wants the reader to value the text for more than just the ending.
Ingersoll further describes Calvino’s writing style as “a fascination with the reading process and the ways in which that process impacts the author’s consciousness in writing narrative” (235). Calvino is aware that the author has the power to manipulate his or her reader by what the author chooses to write, and he writes with the intention of making the reader aware of this. By doing so, Calvino is able to challenge the traditional narrative tendencies. For example, in Traveller there are no real endings. Certain aspects of the storyline may stop, but they don’t end. None of the ten books that Reader and Other Reader read are ever finished. Even the entire novel itself is stripped of an ending. The final line of the book tells us that we/Reader are “almost finished [reading] If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino” (Calvino 260). Therefore, we can never really get to the ending because the last line says we are “almost” done. By questioning the traditional notion of an ending within narrative, Calvino is pushing his postmodern ideology that the pleasure of narrative is in the text itself. By comparing this experience to a romantic relationship, we can see Calvino’s point more clearly. There are two types of romantic pursuits: those which are only interested in one thing and those who desire a genuine relationship with another human being.
In regards to literature, it can be argued that those who read for plot are merely interested in that one thing—a good ending; then it’s on to the next book. In contrast, those who read for the pleasure of the text truly value the narrative for what it is, even if the plot does not produce a satisfying ending. Susan Winnett explores this idea further in her essay titled “Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure.” In this essay, Winnett argues that for centuries authors have been writing narrative with male pleasure in mind. This is why the narrative structure of rising conflict, climax, and resolution or ending has been so strongly emphasized. She presents the idea that writing with female pleasure in mind would create an entirely different style of narrative. She does not intend to create a style which replaces the traditional style of literature, but she is presenting a compelling case for a new aspect of literature. She directly compares the pleasure of reading to the romantic pleasure experienced between a man and woman. This comparison is stunningly revealing in examining what Calvino has done in his narrative. Winnett begins her essay with this statement: “Considering the last decade’s preoccupations with sexual difference and the pleasure of the text, it is surprising that theories concerned with the relation of narrative and pleasure have largely neglected to raise the issue of the difference between women’s and men’s reading pleasures” (505). This is something that most people, women included, probably have never even thought of in regards to reading. Winnett continues by explaining how male pleasure is more closely related to the traditional plot narrative, while female pleasure is not. Male pleasure tends to finish in conquering or ending, while female pleasure continues into forward movement, new life, or sharing pleasure with the other.
Winnett explores the phenomenon of male and female orgasm as a comparison to the pleasure experienced in reading a good story. Winnett quotes Peter Brooks from his essay “Freud’s Masterplot” (mentioned earlier) in describing this experience: “the trajectory of the male arousal [follows this pattern]: ‘awakening, an arousal, the birth of appentency, ambition, desire or intention’ on the one hand and ‘significant discharge’…and satisfaction…on the other” (506). This pattern of arousal is mimicked in the traditional narrative plot structure: beginning, rising action, middle, climax, falling action, and resolution. The desire for the end is here matched with the pleasure drive. Winnett presents that this concept is inherently masculine and therefore misrepresentative of a large range of the reading audience. She states, “Brook’s articulation of what are ultimately the oedipal dynamics that structure and determine traditional fictional narratives and psychoanalytic paradigms is brilliant, and it reminds us, in case we have forgotten, what men want, how they go about trying to get it, and the stories they tell about this pursuit” (506). Calvino explores these ideas in Traveller as Reader/We read the ten different novels within the text. Each of these stories involves the main character pursuing a woman, in one way or another. In each of these stories, some more graphic than others, the male protagonist is trying to pursue the woman in the story romantically. A few of these stories involve actual physical intimacy, while others show the male protagonist pursuing the woman until the story shifts right at the most exciting moment. These stories could be shown as proof that the novel is sexist since Calvino seems to portray women only as objects of male affection, but looking at this literary choice from this new angle can show a completely different analysis.
Perhaps Calvino is contrasting his own narrative to the narratives found within each of the inner stories. Each of the inner stories are structured like the beginning of a traditional plot, leaving off only the satisfying ending. In contrast, the subplot of Reader’s pursuit of Other Reader (Ludmilla), which seems to be the only unifying storyline of the entire novel, is not objectifying in the least. Ludmilla is mysterious and respectable, if anything, and Reader’s pursuit of her company is characterized by a desire to actually get to know her. Their story doesn’t end with consummation of arousal or conquering of the female by the male. As the seventh reader in the library stated, their story continues in life rather than in death. The seventh reader says, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death” (259). Calvino’s story continues in life as Reader and Reader marry and continue in their normalcy of reading in bed. Unlike the traditional novel, which desires to end, Calvino’s narrative desires to continue. In light of the male versus female dichotomy, the notion of continuity into life aligns with the female as she is the one who continues human life, literally through giving birth to new human life. Winnett continues her analysis by examining the experiences of birth and breast feeding for a woman. A mother giving birth or breast feeding may seem to follow similar dynamic patterns as the male experience, but it is inherently different. While the male experience ends in death or release, the female experience of birth and breast feeding ends in continuing life.
In addition, the female experience is reliant on the other. A woman’s pregnancy is reliant on an other; the birthing itself is reliant on the other; and the pleasure of breast feeding is reliant on the dependency of an other. Winnett’s argument runs thus: “Most important for our narratological purposes, however, both childbirth and breast feeding force us to think forward rather than backward; whatever finality birth possesses as a physical experience pales in comparison with the exciting, frightening sense of the beginning of a new life” (509). Even though this process is painful, the new life is worth it. It seems there is pleasure in sharing the experience with the other. This is evident in Traveller as Reader finds pleasure in reading the books with Other Reader in mind: “Your mind is occupied by two simultaneous concerns: the interior one, with your reading, and the other, with Ludmilla, who is late for your appointment. You concentrate your on your reading, trying to shift your concern for her to the book, as if hoping to see her come toward you from the pages. But you’re no longer able to read, the novel has stalled on the page before your eyes, as if only Ludmilla’s arrival could set the chain of events in motion again” (140). Reader’s world has been multiplied by Other Reader’s presence. Life has been increased by the presence of the Other.
Winnett’s conclusion is that it is time to reevaluate the traditional narrative structure which has “told us in advance where it is that we should take our pleasures and what must inevitably come of them” (516). Calvino’s Traveller is one step closer to accomplishing this as Calvino creates beginnings upon beginnings; his novel has exponential possibilities rather than one inevitable conclusion. Calvino leaves room for the reader (us) to choose how we interpret the text; he provides the beginnings to the stories and to the story between Reader and Reader, but the end of the story is left unanswered. As the story with the mirrors represents, the possibilities are endless. It isn’t that Calvino wants to leave us without answers, but he wants us to exist in the continual realm of life. As Winnett postulated, Calvino’s novel is representative of “the continuity of life” which aligns itself more with the female pleasure of new life and the other, rather than the inevitable and certain end or conquering nature of the male pleasure (Calvino 259). Rather than viewing Calvino’s novel as sexist by preferring a male protagonist or by objectifying women, we now know that Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is more in line with feminine pleasure than male pleasure. Whether Calvino intentionally did this or not, merely by challenging the traditional narrative structure, he succeeded in creating a novel which questions the inherently masculine goal of ‘a happy ending’.
It is now clear that Calvino does not willingly give his readers the satisfaction of closure. Instead, he creates an infinitely complex narrative which explores and comments on the reader’s experience and their relationship to the text and author. He creates exponential beginnings, with no end in sight. By doing so, Calvino has created a new way to look at literature. Anyone who reads If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller will have the literary experience changed forever, therefore creating a new space (or new life) within the literary mind. By comparing the reading experience to a romantic relationship, Italo Calvino has successfully unravelled the way we view narrative, which is a really good thing for both male and female readers.
Calvino, Italo. If on a winter’s night a traveller. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1979. Print.Ingersoll, Earl G. Waiting for the End: Gender and Ending in the Contemporary Novel. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. Print.Shmoop Editorial Team. “If on a winter’s night a traveler Theme of Gender.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 11 March 2015.Witten, Susan. “Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure.” PMLA 103.5 (1990): 505-518. Web. 13 March 2015.
Boundaries of Style: Author, Writer, Reader, and Narrator
So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary, he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognize him as himself. Here, however, he seems to have absolutely no connection with all the rest he has written, at least as far as you can recall. Are you disappointed? Let’s see. Perhaps at first you feel a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won’t work. But then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author, it’s the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is. — Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, pg. 9Contemporary philosophers habitually turn to the “short paper” as the form for a wide variety of arguments. These analyses are generally devoid of personal style; they strive for the clearest explanations with language de-saturated of all but the most essential words, and clearest ideas. Martha Nussbaum is a contemporary philosopher who argues against the use of such flaccid style – a style so lacking in character, it has been called the “style-free style.” She asserts that style and form make distinct contributions to the content of a work, and are telling parts of the work as a whole. She advocates on behalf of an “organic unity” between style and content. Whereas dry prose may be suitable for logically difficult arguments, rich style can convey the sorts of emotions that mere words cannot. In this way, literary style – the way in which an author chooses to order and orient his words — is not only a window into the author’s mind; it is a specialized tool, uniquely capable of expressing those nuances of an argument that cannot be condensed into logical analysis. An example of the unique contributive and expressive powers of literary style is the novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, which uses a playful, meta-fictional style to question the boundaries between author, writer, narrator, and reader. Style makes a unique statement because it demonstrates the choices an author makes, and suggests something more powerful than words alone; it conveys the sentiment and intention with which those words are chosen. Each individual author makes different choices, and so each has a distinctive style. As readers we are capable of describing differences in style, and in noticing those differences we become affected by the style of a work. The impact that style has on a work is similar to the impact that intonation has on a sentence. For example, there are probably hundreds of ways of saying, Everything is fine. We are capable of differentiating between these various intonations, and we understand that each one carries a different meaning. Nussbaum suggests that the same is true for style: “…any style makes, itself, a statement…about what is important and what is not, about what faculties of the reader are important for knowing and what are not.” In this way, the style that an author chooses to employ illustrates his priorities in writing and conveys the intention behind his words. In, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Calvino utilizes a meta-fictional style to challenge traditional notions of what it means to be an author, reader, writer, and narrator. His directed narration not only confuses events, but it causes the reader to question his experience as a reader. Calvino writes: “You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it at all.” Here, Calvino the author and Calvino the narrator speak to the reader, directing the reader about how to approach what the historical writer, Calvino, wrote. All of these voices converge to provide the reader with specific instructions on how to approach the work. This is the meta-fictional style at work; it is a style that enables a critique of the work it is a part of. Calvino’s style reveals what he values in a reader: the ability to be self-critical, and question assumptions. Later, Calvino pushes the reader to consider how this unexpected development makes him feel: “Are you disappointed? Let’s see…” Though readers are usually left to consider developments of plot from their own perspectives, Calvino is interested in how the narrator can direct his reader’s thoughts. His novel is an example of a work where choice of style is inextricably linked to message. Calvino’s novel demands this style, and would not be possible without it. Nussbaum would likely argue, as she does when describing philosophical considerations of love, that a traditionally dry style would not be capable of expressing the nuances of Calvino’s inquiry. As such, the style Calvino chooses for his novel is uniquely capable of expressing the ideas he puts forth. Nussbaum argues further that style makes an invaluable contribution to a work’s content by conveying a dimension of the author that the reader cannot glean from plot alone. An author’s style is a gateway for the reader to discover the intention behind the words on a page. Nussbaum suggests that “the terms of a novelist’s art” – in other words, the style of a work – “can state what James calls ‘the [author’s] projected morality’ more adequately than any other available terms.” While content alone can usually communicate a work’s thematic importance, style reveals the author’s essence and shows readers what he thinks is important, and why. Additionally, style is capable of making distinctly unique contributions to a work. Nussbaum suggests that one way style does this is by committing itself in practice to what it tells us in argument, “alternating between emotive and reflective material in just the way that Marcel holds to be appropriate for truth.” Just as it is often said, “practice what you preach,” a style that reflects the terms of an argument or viewpoint is uniquely capable of strengthening it. The particular style of Calvino’s novel is so essential that it to change it would undermine the entire work. It is impossible to conceive of a novel that questions the very notions of time, plot, narrator, and author without a style that so directly challenges the reader’s preconceptions. Calvino practices what he preaches, uniting style and message to push the reader past what he is accustomed to confronting in a work of literature. With his style, Calvino demands that his reader be self-referential throughout the entire novel. He sets this up at the end of his first chapter, suggesting that the style of the novel may leave the reader “a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won’t work.” Calvino is an understanding author/narrator, so much so that he tries to direct the reader’s thoughts to his own work. This happens again later in the same passage, when the reader apparently realizes that he “prefer[s] it that way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is.” This method of encouraging the reader to be self-critical – Calvino’s style – is an integral part of the work. Calvino’s words tell us how we should approach his novel, but his style – always questioning how the reader reacts to the novel’s developments – reinforces his vision of the ideal reader, who is critical of preconceived notions of what a novel is or should be. If we accept Martha Nussbaum’s characterization of an author’s style as his “projected morality,” it becomes difficult to imagine how style could be anything other than an essential aspect of a novel. In our human interactions, we recognize that there is a limitation on what words, alone, can express. We therefore employ our own “style” to communicate what words cannot say – with a gesture of the hand, shrug of the shoulder, or inflection of the voice. The author does the same when he leaves the unique imprint of his style on his work. It is his way of reaching beyond the page, and making whatever stylistic additions to the words on the page that he needs in order to fully express his message. If we declare that style is irrelevant, it is as if we tied the author’s hands behind his back, and as him to speak in monotone.
Metafiction: Calvino’s Narrative Style in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (hereafter Winter’s Night), authored by Italo Calvino, has often been critically analyzed by scholars for its unique narrative style and the role it has played in establishing metafiction as a definitive genre at the forefront of the Postmodernist era. Metafiction is fiction that possesses self-awareness of the relationship between the act of writing that has borne it and the readership that consumes it. It attempts to eliminate the illusionary aspect to storytelling, and in doing so, it achieves the awareness where it can engage in discourse about the process of its creation with the reader. This effectively embeds the reader as another entity within its story. Calvino uses metafiction to break the fourth wall that exists between the story and the reader and analyze the act of reading itself. He comments on the format of storytelling within them and the kind of stories they should contain according to the accepted norm.
Metafiction, in its quest to achieve self-consciousness, carries an ironic paradox within its journey throughout its making. Nella Cotrupi addresses this singular aspect of metafiction in her journal article that analyses Calvino’s novel and the meta-narrative within. In her writing, Cotrupi expresses, “The very procedure of story making is transformed into the subject matter of the fiction as the combinatorial impulse turns for inspiration to the processes of fabulation and its products,” (Cotrupi 281). Here she attempts to highlight the symbiotic interaction between the story’s awareness in its own fictional existence on one hand, while on the other employ the models of story writing narratives to further its plot. The inevitable irony within the genre rises in its unmasking and analytical approach to the act of writing yet utilizing the creative means for the progression of fiction. It retains sufficient engagement to the production of the story to convey its fictional phenomenon to the reader (281). Thus, it reinforces a paradoxical quality of the aesthetics of fiction rendering and the self-critical narrative that is obviously reflected throughout the course of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.
Calvino’s innovative approach to this genre goes further beyond just analyzing its process, but by inviting the reader’s focus to the readership over its writing style. He creates the contrast between the Male Reader and the Female Reader, Ludmilla. He also attempts to demonstrate the difference between the good kind of reading and the flawed. Madeline Sorapure harshly critiques the approach of the Male Reader to the text, citing it as a classic, goal oriented critical reader who stubbornly opposes entering the text and wants to commit, as she quotes in her article, “subsume…[the novel’s] disruptive and affecting elements into a neat, ordered whole, and thus to neutralize them, bring them to rest, make them insignificant and forgettable” (Sorapure 707). By contrast, Sorapure considers Ludmilla “the epitome of an interested reader”, who unlike her male counterpart immerses herself rather than trying to remain suspended above the text. Ludmilla remains attentive to the events in the text and according to Sorapure, “does not merely wait for the conflicts at work in the text to be resolved and brought into order” (707). The opposing approaches to reading within Winter’s Night echo the traditional ways of thinking that the primary consumers of texts carry while interpreting fiction.
Accordingly, Calvino masterfully writes not only the Reader, but also the reader – Calvino’s audience – into his story, bonding them together within the journey. Although the protagonist, the Reader, is defined in its interests and its specific gender, according to Melissa Watts, is also “a fill-in-the-blank character” (Watts 712). The space that is created is for the reader to fill in for the protagonist role with themselves. Often, Calvino compounds this by having the narratives of the fragmented stories within Winter’s Night address the readers in the second person. This eventually further blurs the distinction between the worlds. The position of the reader and the Reader overlap in these occasions that is brilliantly brought together by their mutual reading experience of the intertextual fragments of the novels. Jerry Varsava notes that Calvino “satirizes the reader’s search for stable, originating voice in fiction” (Varsava 14). The clearest evidence to this in Winter’s Night can be found from the parts of a novel, that when put together, do not make a coherent narrative. The onus falls on the reader to contemplate multiple texts intertwined without effective understanding of their origin or the end. Even as the plot of Ermes Marana takes the satire to convoluted heights, it forces the readers to admit that the search for any sense of stability is impossible (Watts 709). This futile search for stability and its failure arises out of the troubled position the reader is ushered into within the text, which is so fragmented and disoriented, that it tends to disarm and render them vulnerable to Calvino’s manipulations, enabling him to steer the direction of reading according to his choice and whims.
Alike the various kinds of readers within Winter’s Night, Calvino also features a multitude of writers within the text. Calvino makes a mockery of the characters like Ermes Marana, Silas Flannery and various other writers whose novels’ incipits – the ten fragmented stories that the Reader remains in pursuit of – are featured within Winter’s Night. Interestingly, he also embeds himself within the universe as the fictitious Calvino, who has also written the If on a Winter’s Night that the Reader picks up the first out of all the novels. Fictional Calvino emerges as one of the first characters introduced at the beginning, where he addresses the Reader, and later he is mentioned at the end, when the Reader is almost at the end of Winter’s Night. This symmetry in itself suggests that Calvino does not simply assume a role of a silent author himself, hiding behind his characters to maneuver the plot and the readers. Rather, Calvino takes an active role and truly becomes a character in the novel itself. While Ermes Marana emerges as a fraud and plagiarist as the Reader progresses, it is Silas Flannery who is presented almost as an alter-ego to Calvino himself. Flannery contemplates on the pain of writing beginnings and suffering a ‘writer’s block’, caused by his self-conscious awareness of the reader. Flannery states, “How well I would write if I were not here!…If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes . . . Who would move this hand? The anonymous throng? The spirit of the times? The collective unconsciousness?” (Calvino 171). This quote speaks of a longing to write something that cannot be written and to “tell” that cannot yet be told. It expresses a reflection of Calvino’s own rejection of writing in a similar style more than once and his zeal of producing unique stories that do not hold any similarities to the ones that came before. Flannery even muses over writing a book containing only the beginnings: “I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning the expectation still not focused on an object. But how could such a book be constructed? Would it break off after the first paragraph? Would the preliminaries be prolonged indefinitely? Would it set the beginning of one tale inside another, as in the Arabian Nights?” (177). This echoes the pattern that Calvino follows in this novel – a novel with only ‘incipit’. However, Calvino distances himself from Flannery in his approach to the reader’s authority. While Flannery would give more importance to the beginnings over its endings, leaving the authority to the readers to discern their own meanings, Calvino, who analyses the various kinds of flawed readers with misdirected approaches to reading, clearly does not agree with him. Although allowing the reader the freedom to form their own thoughts, Calvino however, does not give them true authority.
Calvino, in spite of the constantly metamorphosing plot, liberates the reader from the unconscious burden of having to categorize every story into a structure or a theory. The research scholars’ dissection of the text in parts and their attempt to categorize it under a particular agenda is mocked at by Lotaria, Ludmilla’s sister, who clearly considers her own method of interpretation superior to theirs. “Now she is inviting you to a seminar at the university, where books are analyzed according to all Codes, Conscious and Unconscious, and in which all Taboos are eliminated, the ones imposed by the dominant Sex, Class, and Culture” (Calvino 45). Calvino proceeds to satirize Lotaria and her feminist group’s strategies of interpreting the text: “[a]t this point they throw open the discussion. Events, characters, settings, impressions are thrust aside, to make room for the general concepts. The polymorphic- perverse sexuality…The laws of a market economy…The homologies of the signifying structures…Deviations and institutions… Castration…Only you have remained suspended there, you and Ludmilla, while nobody else thinks of continuing the reading” (91). Clearly, this passge is presented to be a parody of traditional methods of analyzing a text. However, Calvino also manages to draw importance on the plurality of the text. Lotaria stubbornly considers it sufficient to only use a particular section of a book to glean the message the author tries to convey rather than reading the entire book. She reads samples of text with pre-existing ideas of what she should find within it. This portrays quite a rigid and narrow manner of reading. The text should never be reduced to a single layer or theme. Rather, it needs to be considered in its entirety, to engage within its multi-layered structure and meaning before one forms any conclusions.
Calvino’s multi-faceted writing in this text opens up the possibility of infinite continuation of the story without true closure for the reader. The Reader’s desire for absolute resolution is echoed by Calvino’s readers, trapped by their gradual identification with the role of Reader. Even when the titles of the incipits the Reader has pursued so passionately come together to bely a surprising discovery, the Reader is left dissatisfied to find no definite end. The other readers who help him in the end tell him, “This is why my reading has no end: I read and I reread, each time seeking the confirmation of a new discovery among the folds of the sentences” (255). The Reader is then given a choice of choosing their own beginning and end by one of the readers: “Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died. The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death” (259). The Reader finds his resolution in the “continuity of life” by marrying Ludmilla, and creating the end he could not find in the novel. While the novel itself ends with the Reader saying, “I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino” (260), this does not bring any sense of satisfaction to the reader. In a way neither the Reader manages to finish the text, nor do Calvino’s readers. This inevitably creates an open-ended closure that does not resolve nor explain the tensions created by the snippets of stories within the novel. Yet, a story need not have a definitive ending to be considered as a work of literature or a novel, as the audience comes to conclude. Calvino writes them into the novel with the sole purpose of inspiring his readers to depart from the traditional definitions of what constitutes meaningful stories. Metafictional narratives like in Winter’s Night consist of multiple stories that have vague beginnings and endings, but flow into each other in a way that might make it difficult to understand where one ends and another begins. Calvino’s message seems deeper and much more simple than his complex novel would suggest. Not everything in life has to be taken apart and made sense of. Not all events in one’s life would reach some kind of satisfying and explicable closure, but life still moves onward.
No character or their actions within the text is perfect. The side of the society that churns out books is as flawed as the readership that receives it. Calvino’s ultimate goal by using metafiction, underneath the satirical outlook on society, is to break the wall that exists between the reader and the story thereby drawing them out their wholesome comfort zones. This is a deliberate attempt to teach them that the reading experience itself does not need to be accurate and complete. Not all tensions may come to satisfying resolutions for the readers. Therefore, the reader does not need to condense every story to fit an existing structure or a theory for it to be a satisfying and stimulating experience. Thus, the simplest way of reading is often by immersing oneself into the text and keeping an open mind throughout its journey.
Varsava, Jerry A. “Calvino’s Combinative Aesthetics: Theory and Practice.” Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 6, no. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 11, Periodicals Archive Online; Periodicals Index Online.
Cotrupi, C. Nella. “Hypermetafiction: Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.’” Style, vol. 25, no. 2, 1991, pp. 280–290. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42945908.
Watts, M. (1991). “Reinscribing a dead author in ‘if on a winter’s night a traveler'”. Modern Fiction Studies, 37(4), 705.
Sorapure, M. “Being in the Midst: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler”. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 31 no. 4, 1985, pp. 702-710. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.0.1167
Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981.