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.