[This is the second part of my two-part article on Italo Calvino, my report on his novella, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Readers who haven’t read Part 1 are urged to go back and read it as it contains some background on this remarkable writer. It may help illuminate some of what I have to say about the book.
[“I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world,” said Calvino shortly before his death. “I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars. My goal in writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel entirely based on fantasy, was to find in this way a truth that I would have not been able to find otherwise.” I, for one, feel grateful that he pursued this instinct. Like his Neo-realist writing after World War II, however, Calvino’s fantasies are not undirected flights by any means. An unnamed interviewer asked him : “The struggle between the man trying to be organized amidst randomness seems to be a theme that pervades much of your work. I’m thinking especially of If on a Winter’s Night and the Reader, who keeps trying to find the next chapter of the book he’s reading.”
[Now, here’s my own opinion.]
(13 December 1988)
If, as English playwright and essayist Sir Richard Steele wrote at the turn of the eighteenth century, reading is the mind’s exercise, then Italo Calvino’s works are at least mental aerobics and his If on a winter’s night a traveler (translated by William Weaver; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981) may be an entire decathlon for the mind. Calvino’s 1981 novel is, among other things, about reading as action. For the Italian writer, who’s made the tale his vehicle and the fantastic his countryside, reading’s not at all a passive occupation, but a very active one, requiring great energy and attention and considerable effort on the part of the reader. While the writer and even the publisher often struggle to make a book, according to Calvino, it’s the reader who must do the most work—and on whom the act of reading has the profoundest effect.
The specific action to which Calvino most often likens reading is traveling. Books are worlds or universes, and reading’s a voyage into each new creation and from one to the next. “I prefer novels,” one of his characters explains, “that bring me immediately into a world where everything is precise, concrete, specific” (30). Later, another character describes his experience being read to: “Now, around you, there is no longer the room of the department, the shelves, the professor: you have entered the novel . . .” (69).
Calvino demonstrates his notion of reading as journeying by creating a novel that’s actually the beginnings of ten separate books by ten different fictional authors. Between each of these incipits, as he calls them, we follow the ordeal of the Reader, whose name, like the identities of each story’s narrator, we never learn, as he tracks down the rest of each novel he’s begun but can’t finish. As each of the novels evokes various far-flung worlds—a small European town, an East European city, a Japanese estate, a Latin American village, and so on—so does the Reader travel from bookstore to university to publisher to author to translator, “circling the world from book to book” (253). His travels take him to Switzerland, Central America, and several imaginary places where books and reading are controlled by the state and fought for by underground organizations. He encounters radical supporters of such strange associations as the Organization of Apocryphal Power (OAP) and the Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works (OEPHLW). He’s even attacked by a young gang who believes he holds the text of a book unknowingly dictated to its author by extraterrestrials. The trail of unfinished novels has been laid, the Reader learns, by a mysterious translator, Ermes Marana, who’s flooding the world with incomplete works with false titles attributed to the wrong authors. As soon as the Reader thinks he’s found the continuation of his last interrupted story, he not only discovers that it’s a different book from the one he’s left off, but that the one he was reading isn’t the one he thought he was reading at all. Thus, he’s led on a treasure hunt into the world of reading, writing, and publishing.
But the Reader, who’s addressed in the second person throughout to make it clear that each of us is Calvino’s “reader,” also journeys into life as a result of his reading. When he discovers that the first novel he’s bought, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, has been bound together with only the same first sixteen pages repeated, the Reader returns to the bookstore to replace the defective copy. [To avoid confusion from here on, the full title If on a winter’s night a traveler will refer only to the fragment within the larger novel; the whole work will be referred to by the abbreviated title, If on a winter’s night. ~rick] There he meets the Other Reader who’s come for the same reason. Together, between the interrupted readings, the Reader and the Other Reader, whose name is Ludmilla, search for the completions. The Reader’s voyage into reading literally changes his life as he and Ludmilla grow closer as a result of the search. “This hunt excites you,” the Reader realizes, “because you’re pursuing it with her, because the two of you can experience it together” (93).
It’s inevitable that the Reader and Ludmilla make love since Calvino equates reading with this other act as well: “What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space” (156). It’s a different kind of voyage, and when the Reader and Ludmilla take it they experience it as a reading: “Ludmilla, now you are being read. Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading . . . . And you, O Reader, are meanwhile an object of reading: the Other Reader now is revealing your body as if skimming the index . . .” (155).
In fact, Calvino acknowledges the relationship of reading and lovemaking in his own life. In an interview with author Francine du Plessix Gray in the New York Times Book Review he says, “. . . I want to constantly add to the image that my reader has of me. That is like being a good lover, that is definitely an erotic relationship.” The relationship’s not always kind; it may even be sadistic, according to Calvino. When the narrator of Looks down in the gathering shadow, one of the fragments, shoots his enemy Jojo dead, he has interrupted the man’s lovemaking with Bernadette who becomes the narrator’s accomplice. The interrupted lovemaking, like the ten interrupted novels, must be picked up at the point where they left off. Bernadette finds her completion with the narrator, though the Reader does not find his; the sexual climax is reached, but the narrative climax never is. Calvino admits, “In this new novel I may be a more sadistic lover than ever.”
Having followed the tortuous path of his reading-inspired adventure, the Reader finally returns to his native city. In the library, trying again to locate the ten unfinished books, he joins a discussion of reading with other readers. One asserts, “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” (259). Unable to finish the novels he’s started—all the library copies are unavailable, too—the Reader understands how his own story must end: “You decide you want to marry Ludmilla” (259). The act of reading, having affected the Reader’s life at each turn, now effects its ultimate life change, still in terms of reading: “Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader. A great double bed receives your parallel readings” (260).
Like readers, the worlds created by reading aren’t passive, either. Books and the worlds they create are living entities, too. Describing Cavedagna, the publisher whose works have led the Reader on his chase into life, Calvino notes that “he sees books being born and die every day” (101). Ludmilla’s ideal books, for instance, are produced “as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins” (189): naturally, growing as if from their own source. The illusion for her that these worlds are sui generis must not be disturbed by contact with the book-makers, the authors or publishers. Authors, to be sure, have no existence for Ludmilla outside the books themselves. When she meets one, she explains, “You are two separate persons, whose relationships cannot interact. . . . I have no doubt that you are concretely this person and not another . . . but the one who interested me was the other, the Silas Flannery who exists in the works of Silas Flannery, independently of you, here. . .” (191-92).
Still, though the worlds of the books and the real worlds of the Reader and Ludmilla may be separate but parallel, they do occasionally meet, at least in Calvino’s cosmos. First, each of the novels the two encounter share common elements which bind them together. Each is the start of an adventure, tinged with danger and malevolence, and in each the narrator or main character, a man, pursues a woman for whom he undergoes some violence or threat of violence. According to Calvino, “The existence of a mysterious, unnamed danger . . . exists in all my favorite American and British novelists. . . .”
In If on a winter’s night a traveler, the first incipit, a man sits in the café of a railroad station. Gradually he learns of a vague conspiracy by “the organization,” possibly involving a spy whose place he seems to have taken. He’s approached by the mysterious Madame Marne, but before he can learn anything about her or the conspiracy, he’s ordered out of town under threat of arrest.
In On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, an erotic Japanese novel, the narrator’s trapped by unexplained circumstances in the estate and employ of Mr. Okeda. Attracted to both Mr. Okeda’s wife and daughter, the narrator’s caught by Mr. Okeda making love to the wife while observed by the daughter. The incident, rather than provoking Mr. Okeda to immediate violence, places the narrator deeper in the master’s power with less hope of escape.
Similar twists occur in each of the ten stories begun by the Reader and Ludmilla. Tying them to the lives of the two searchers, Calvino has fashioned like circumstances for his Reader. With each step in pursuit of the lost novels, guided by Ludmilla at each juncture, the Reader becomes increasingly involved in more and more fantastic adventures. Rescued from arrest for importing a banned book into one totalitarian state, he’s protected by an underground that’s itself a conspiracy inside a conspiracy inside a conspiracy. Imprisoned in another dictatorship where the books he seeks are banned, he’s enlisted to perform a secret mission in an opposing dictatorship where books are also controlled. Books, it seems, are living things, and reading can be quite dangerous.
To make the connection between the stories and the Reader’s life the more clear, Calvino’s included in many of the novels he begins direct references to the act of reading. If on a winter’s night begins, for instance, this way:
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.
Throughout this section, Calvino refers to “you, reader,” this time with a small ‘r’ to differentiate him or her from the Reader of the larger novel. The interconnection of this story and the life of the small-r reader is constantly being reinforced by self-conscious references such as:
Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it—a trap. Or perhaps the author still has not made up his mind, just as you, reader, for the matter, are not sure what you would most like to read . . . (12).
. . . then a kind of weariness settles on her, perhaps only the shadow of their weariness (or my weariness, or yours) (19).
. . . it isn’t clear whether I really say it or would like to say it or whether the author interprets in this way the half sentence I am muttering (21).
Several of the other novels include similar, though less striking references to the act of reading and reminders that what we are reading is, in fact, a written story. In the second novel, Outside the town of Malbork, Calvino even invokes the translator:
Here everything is very concrete, substantial, depicted with sure expertise, or at least the impression given to you, Reader, is one of expertise, though there are some foods you don’t know, mentioned by name, which the translator has decided to leave in the original . . . (34).
Here again, Calvino reminds us of our status as Reader, which he now spells with a capital ‘R’ to further blend the lives of the Reader, the narrator, and us:
. . . perhaps I am thinking this only now, or it is only you, Reader, who are thinking it, not I . . . (38).
He also reminds us again that we are reading, not living this experience:
The page you’re reading should convey this violent contact of dull and painful blows . . . (39).
In In a network of lines that enlace, another fragment, Calvino makes the same point, keeping us alert to the fact that, though reading is an act, it’s not the same act as that which we’re reading:
The first sensation this book should convey is what I feel when I hear the telephone ring: I say “should” because I doubt that written words can give even a partial idea of it . . . (132).
Calvino explains this tactic in the Times interview: “My principal idea was to write a book in which the reader would not be reading the text of a novel but a description of the act of reading per se.” Taken together with this technique, the interstitial chapters, particularly the early ones before the Reader’s adventure gets underway, show how Calvino sets up this description. The opening chapter begins this way:
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 (3).
The rest of the opening is a step-by-step depiction of the process of getting ready to read, from choosing and buying the book to finding the right place and posture to read it to getting in the right frame of mind. Eventually, Calvino projects the final moments as the Reader sinks into the story:
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. . . . Here, however, he seems to have absolutely no connection with all the rest he has written, at least as far as you can recall. . . . 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 (9).
Even after the first disappointment, discovering that If on a winter’s night a traveler is incomplete and, in fact, actually a Polish novel called Outside the town of Malbork, Calvino describes pleasure in starting the new book, which the Reader hopes will be the rest of Outside the town of Malbork. This book’s been bound with uncut pages, and Calvino describes the sensual joys of slitting them: “The pleasures derived from the use of a paper knife are tactile, auditory, visual, and especially mental” (42). Even the frustration of finding that this new book, not the novel it was supposed to be either, is also defective, doesn’t negate the physical, emotional, and intellectual pleasures of reading.
In fact, the innate stimulation of the act of reading—coupled as it is in the Reader’s mind with Ludmilla—drives the Reader into the experience of life and the world of books. Reading itself is erotic, believes Calvino. His wife reports he told her, “Literature was the only aphrodisiac . . . .” “Reading is a possession,” responds Calvino, “a march toward a possession. It has many degrees of eroticism. It can be a caress or a complete intercourse.” In If on a winter’s night, Calvino leads the Reader—and the readers—on just such a march toward possession. Of course, he never promises that we’ll reach our destination; as he’s already told us, Calvino can be a sadistic lover.
While exploring reading as an action, Calvino touches extensively on the work of the writer and less substantially on the function of the publisher. Cavedagna, the publisher, is only a conduit for books to the readers. The writer of one of the novels, Silas Flannery, however, expounds on writing at some length, but the process of creating the book is oriented toward the reader and geared toward what happens to the book when the reader gets hold of it. Chapter 8 of If on a winter’s night, subtitled “From the diary of Silas Flannery,” begins with a scene Flannery sees out his window:
In a deck chair, on the terrace of a chalet in the valley, there is a young woman reading. Every day, before starting work, I pause a moment to look at her with the spyglass. In this thin, transparent air I feel able to perceive in her unmoving form the signs of that invisible movement that reading is, the flow of gaze and breath, but, even more, the journey of the words through the person, their course or their arrest, their spurts, delays, pauses, the attention concentrating or straying, the returns, that journey that seems uniform and on the contrary is always shifting and uneven (169).
In describing how the woman reads, Flannery reinforces the idea that reading is action, indeed more than action, a life force:
. . . I say to myself that the result of the unnatural effort to which I subject myself, writing, must be the respiration of this reader, the operation of reading turned into a natural process, the current that brings the sentences to graze the filter of her attention, to stop for a moment before being absorbed by the circuits of her mind and disappearing, transformed into her interior ghosts, into what in her is most personal and incommunicable (169-70).
Flannery is obsessed with the reader and what she’s reading:
At times I convince myself that the woman is reading my true book, the one I should have written long ago, but will never succeed in writing . . . (170).
He’s so obsessed, in fact, that he concocts an elaborate scenario in which two writers, one tormented and one productive, are each convinced that the absorbed woman in the deck chair is reading the other’s work. Both writers set out to write a novel in the style of their rival in order to please the reader. Flannery imagines several conclusions to the episode, each one a different failure in the eyes of the reader on the terrace.
Calvino’s apotheosis of the act of reading is, to be sure, a game, not a lecture or even an essay. His device, in what he calls “a hypernovel, a novel developed to the 10th degree,” is to “play cat and mouse with the reader.” The novel’s fundamental scheme is that the reader “realizes with a shock that he’s not in control, that it is always I, Calvino, who is in total control of the situation.” Whenever we—not to mention the Reader—think we know where we’re going next, we end up someplace unexpected.
In the last full chapter, for instance, the Reader’s returned home and goes to the library to find the books he’s been trying to read. All the books are listed in the library’s collection. but each is unavailable for various reasons—one’s at the bindery, another checked out, another stolen, and so on. While he’s waiting in vain, he observes other patrons reading, each in a different and idiosyncratic way. The reader gets into a discussion with seven men about reading. As if in commentary on If on a winter’s night, one reader remarks, “The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, . . . even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust” (254). Another responds, “. . . At every reading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. . . . I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before” (255). When another reader admits, “At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that perhaps does not exist” (256), it’s almost ironic, for the ten titles of Calvino’s fragments, plus an eleventh title added to the list by one of the readers, form the opening sentence of yet another book:
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 a 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.
Though Calvino’s exploration of reading sometimes gets convoluted and dense, the pleasure of the game he’s set up and the extraordinary diversity of the novel fragments he’s created for us make the winding, twisting, endlessly surprising path well worth following to its inevitable, but unforeseeable end.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
[In that same interview I cited earlier, Calvino affirmed:
It is true that in the past, say over the past ten years, the architecture of my books has had a very important place, perhaps too important. But only when I feel I have achieved a rigorous structure do I believe I have something that stands on its own two feet, a complete work. . . . It can be said about If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler that it could not have existed without a very precise, very articulated structure. I believe I have succeeded in this, which gives me a great satisfaction. Of course, all this kind of effort should not concern the reader at all. The important thing is to enjoy reading my book, independently of the work I have put into it.
[It’s undeniable that If on a winter’s night a traveler is tightly structured, even tough it seems haphazard when a reader first gets into it. What defies my comprehension, since I’m not a writer of fiction, is how Calvino managed to keep all the apparently random events of the novel straight in his own mind. I’ve been known to use an outline to keep the elements of a complex piece organized—but I can’t even conceive of an outline for If on a winter’s night a traveler. Such a rigid and formal form could never contain such a free-flowing and seemingly formless piece of writing as this book. And yet, it’s not hard to follow—or even to enter. Indeed, it pulled me in almost from the very start. As frustrating as the reading interruptus was, it was equally enticing to see what Calvino could come up with next. ]