Italo Calvino, 1979
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver, 1981
“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.” (3)
So begins the narrative of chapter 1 of If on a winter’s night a traveler. The opening lines and the entire chapter is written directly to the reader glancing upon the page as though the novel were a conversation with the reader, inviting the author and reader to dialogue about the enjoyment that is about to begin. After a few pages of this narrative directed toward the reader we turn the page to the next chapter and find that it is not titled chapter 2, but titled If on a winter’s night a traveler. With this transition it becomes clear that from here the novel takes an experimental turn. It is now written in the first person and although it carries the same air of conversational familiarity with the reader as did chapter 1, this is an actual story entirely separate from the reader-directed conversation that carried the prior chapter. Yet, despite this transition the narrative voice of this new chapter bridges the gap with a self-aware nod of acknowledgment of what had preceded before:
“Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it – a trap.” (12)
The story of this chapter titled If on a winter’s night a traveler is spoken from the voice of a traveler caught in a web of espionage. He is not clear of his mission, and we, the reader are not clear of his identity:
“I am not all the sort of person who attracts attention, I am an anonymous presence against an even more anonymous background … this is simply because I am called “I” and this is the only thing you know about me, but this alone is reason enough for you to invest part of yourself in the stranger “I”.” (14-15)
The telling of the chapter within this this book of the same name If on a winter’s night a traveler builds with intrigue and then suddenly as soon as the reader become caught in that intrigue the chapter abruptly ends. Turning the page we find ourselves in chapter 2 with the same voice that opened the book written directly to the reader. We find that the story of espionage and intrigue built up in the chapter titled, If on a winter’s night a traveler, is cut off, as it is told to the reader by the narrator that the subsequent pages are blank.
The narrator informs the reader that it is the reader’s intent to find the continuation of the pages from this book cut short due to an apparent printing error. The reader returns to the bookseller from where the abbreviated, misprinted copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler was purchased and at the bookseller the reader encounters another reader, a woman who also is looking for the next pages of If on a winter’s night a traveler. The bookseller apologetically provides each reader with a new copy of the book and the readers exchange numbers to share and discuss their common interest in this story.
“Who you are, Reader, your age, your status, profession, income: that would be indiscreet to ask. It’s your business, your own. What counts is the state of your spirit now, in the privacy of your home, as you try to re-establish perfect calm in order to sink again into the book; you stretch out your legs, you draw them back, you stretch them again. But something has changed since yesterday. Your reading is no longer solitary: you think of the Other Reader, who, at this same moment, is also opening the book; and there, the novel to be read is superimposed by a possible novel to be lived, the continuation of your story with her, or better still, the beginning of a possible story.” (32)
And from chapter 2, the reader turns the page to the next chapter and discovers an entirely new and unexpected book titled, Outside the town of Malbork, that is written with a distinct style and plot totally unlike the tale of espionage and intrigue explored in the chapter titled If on a winter’s night a traveler. From this diversion the reader turns again to chapter 3, being informed with disappointment that the pages of If on a winter’s night a traveler were mistakenly replaced by a totally different book. Despite this mix-up, the reader is somehow intrigued to continue on, reading the next pages of this book, which also is cut off abruptly due to an apparent printing error.
“Progress in reading is preceded by an act that transverses the material solidity of the book to allow you access to its incorporeal substance.” (42)
And so goes the pattern set up in the intriguingly fun and experimental structure of the larger novel actually titled If on a winter’s night a traveler. This book goes back and forth from numbered chapters that are spoken directly to the reader and then switches to the vaguely titled chapters written in distinct styles, each representing a portion of an unfinished or incomplete novel. The numbered chapters are a distinct story that progresses throughout the book, detailing the story of the reader seeking out the story written on the page and each of the unnumbered, individually titled, chapters are similar only in that they all share a common plot connection that includes a male protagonist and a supporting female role.
“Anyway, the conclusion to which all stories come is that the life a person has led is one and one alone, uniform and compact as a shrunken blanket where you can’t distinguish the fibers of the weave. And so if by chance I happen to dwell on some ordinary detail of an ordinary day … I can be sure that even in this tiny insignificant episode there is implicit everything I have experienced, all the past, the multiple pasts I have tried in vain to leave behind me.” (107)
The novel is essentially a romantic story between reader and story that seduces the reader with a narrative self-awareness that adeptly transitions from story to story. These successive transitions ultimately twist reality, sending the reader across the globe along a subversive subplot that explores false narrative, the disruptive force of censorship, and the narrative liberation of ideas that transcend individuality through exploration of universal themes.
The romantic seduction of narrative to reader is a successful experiment because throughout the text there is a sense of lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek, humor within the narrative digression that is amusing and engaging. I really had a lot of fun with this book, but I do recognize that there is an apparent limitation to the experiment. The reader addressed in the numbered chapters is set up as a male and the second reader encountered is female. Part of the plot of the numbered chapters is a love story, or rather pursuit of a love interest between the two. A female (or even gay) reader of Calvino’s book may not find herself (or himself) as engaged with the side-story love interest directed at the reader as would a male reader. This is a limitation that is apparent in much of literature written by male authors, since many of the characters in a male author’s world are male. This is of course the norm and many readers accept it as such, but in Calvino’s experimental book written directly to the you of the reader, it becomes very clear how limiting the you of a male dominated worldview can be for a non male reader.
As much as I enjoyed this book, it was eye opening to reflect on this limitation. No experiment can be perfect and I do feel that despite this limitation of authorial-to-reader gender worldview, If on a winter’s night a traveler is an impressively amusing book that successfully plays with the potential possibilities of narrative and story in a profoundly unique format.
“I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first.” (109)
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