If on a winter's night a traveler

July 21, 2008
By Lee Jasperse, Sonoma, CA

Italo Calvino, arguably Italy's greatest modern novelist, explores the world of literature, writing, and reading in his ode to the novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Noted its second person point of view narration, the light novel engrosses the reader, drawing him into the story, making him a character in the plot. From the very first lines of the novel, Calvino has you, luring you in deeper towards the heart of the novel. "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."

The novel, composed of ten incipits flanked by a frame narrative in which the protagonist - the Reader - hunts for a linear conclusion to the novel he is reading, explores several themes central to Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism.

On intertextuality, French literary critic Roland Barthes once wrote, “A text is... a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations... The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.” Intertextuality is the weaving of sources, allusions, and influences. This theme of authorial originality and intertextuality is prevalent in If on a winter’s night a traveler, in which Calvino contends that all fiction is interconnected and is merely a trajectory off a central source or story. One character, Ermes (Hermes) Marana, tells of an “Indian seer who tells all the novels of the world,” who some believe to be the “universal source of narrative material, the primordial magma from which the individual manifestations of each writer develop” (125, 119). All fiction is born of this universal story teller; the author then molds the story into a novel, crafting it with his distinct stylistic techniques.

Calvino’s entire novel is an experiment with intertextuality. Each novel fragment is a pastiche -- an imitation of a popular form literature, such as mystery, thriller and romance. Calvino borrows plot and style from authors of each of these genres, inserting them his novel, making it intertextual, or based off of many texts. Perhaps the largest source Calvino drew from in creating his novel was One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights. Like in Calvino’s novel, there are many stories embedded within one central, or frame, story. Calvino humorously acknowledges his use of multiple texts in creating his novel within the novel itself. For instance, he references Arabian Nights several times - “That story of which I spoke - I, too, remember the beginning well, but I have forgotten all the rest. It must be a story of the Arabian Nights” (257).

The final pages of If on a winter’s night a traveler are a reflection on the universal and interrelated properties of fiction. Through dialogue between seven readers at a library, Calvino is able to reemphasize that literature is derivative, based on and impacted by other texts. In one epiphanic moment at the library, the Reader realizes that the titles of the books he has been reading, when combined, form a coherent incipit of a novel. The sixth reader at the library comments, “Once upon a time they all began like that, all novels. There was somebody who went along a lonely street and saw something that attracted his attention, something that seemed to conceal a mystery, or a premonition; then he asked for explanation and they told him a long story….” (258). Through this, Calvino is able to convey the message that all fiction is merely an assimilation or alteration of previously written texts. All novels have a common origin; however, mutation after mutation and recombination after recombination occurred, creating the heterogeneous, yet inherently connected, body of literature that has accrued through the ages.

The literary theory of post-structuralism argues that the readers response determines the meaning of a work, while the author's intended meaning is irrelevant, or at least second to the reader's inferred meaning. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Calvino explores the interpretation of novels and the subjectivity of meaning. He posits that a novel is capable of sparking limitless interpretations, and that the meaning of a novel is ultimately determined by the reader rather than the author. This is comically illustrated in a college study group in which the Reader observes the varied reactions by the college students to the same text. Interpretations of the meaning of the text ranged from “polymorphic-perverse sexuality” to the “laws of a market economy” to “castration” (91). Each person in the group interpreted the same novel differently based on their personal proclivities, experiences, and philosophies. A reader will always extract from a novel some unique meaning that resonates with them. Calvino reflects on this concept through the diary of Silas Flannery, the author’s fictionalized self. He reflects, once a text is written “it will continue to have a meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his mental circuits” (176).

The novel also touches on Existentialism, primarily the relationship between literature and the ominous void of meaninglessness. Novels offer a linear story, insightful meaning -- a pathway to truth and understanding -- in a chaotic and often incomprehensible world. The Reader reads novels for precisely this reason, to escape the labyrinthine structure of life. In the modern world, there is a gaping void, the meaningless, the irrational, the unknown, the unknowable. The “carefully circumscribed” field of literature, however, ideally lacks this “void.” Literature should be coherent, rich in meaning, and rational, free of the existential void prevalent in the unwritten world. However, in Calvino’s novel, each of the novels the Reader begins end abruptly, lacking closure of any kind, betraying the Reader. As Calvino states after a novel ends abruptly, “And so you see this novel so tightly interwoven with sensations suddenly riven by bottomless chasms, as if the claim to portray vital fulness revealed the void beneath” (430). The blank white pages that follow the unfinished stories the Reader tries to read are physical manifestations of the void of the unwritten world.

If on a winter's night a traveler is no Great Gatsby. Rather than cutting to the core emotions of human existence, the characters retain a mild sense of artificiality. While this is a slight drawback, each character represents a different type of reader. Central to all the characters is a relation to Ludmilla, the Reader's female counterpart, love interest, and ultimately - wife. As each character peels down like a petal, Ludmilla is revealed as Calvino's impression of an 'Ideal Reader.'

Ludmilla is a woman the Reader meets in the bookstore after complaining to the store manager about the misprinted book. She has “huge, swift eyes, complexion of good tone and good pigment, a richly waved hazel of hair” and is an avid reader, immensely knowledgeable on literary issues (29). Unlike each other character in the novel, she is never satisfied, her thirst for excellent literature is never quenched. In each chapter of the frame story, Ludmilla expresses her desire for a certain type of novel; the proceeding novel fragment is that book she desires. However, instead of satiating her want, this only spurs another desire. She enters each book she reads blank of expectations and open to any meaning the text may hold. For Ludmilla, reading means “stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it” (239). Ludmilla is the ideal reader, the perfect receptacle for the message conveyed by the text. She does not attempt to interpret the author’s meaning, instead listening intently for some transcendent meaning which is channeled through the author. In her opinion, Silas Flannery (a writer/Calvino's fictionalized self) is the perfect writer; he writes in ways only describable through analogies to the natural world, such as a pumpkin growing from a vine, slowly, progressively, unperturbed. Moreover, he writes in as if his novels “were already there before… As if they passed through [him], using [him] because [he knows] how to write” (190). He merely expresses the unexpressed, the vast unwritten world. To her, the identity of the author is unimportant. What matters is the authoring process and what truths are revealed in this process. The transcendent truth embedded in Flannery’s novels is precisely what speaks to Ludmilla like some voice from the beyond.

If on a winter's night a traveler is recommended to all lovers of literature, all ravenous readers. Calvino's voice, translated from the Italian by the inimitable William Weaver, is exquisite - occasionally hilarious, occasionally wistful, always elegant and euphonious. I guarantee you will never read the same after reading this book. You will forever be imprinted with Calvino's singular theories on reading.

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This article has 1 comment.

dzkilnd said...
on Sep. 13 2011 at 10:08 pm

Thank you for such a well thought out and relayed summary - interpretation. I'll end simply that, as you say, I'll never read the same after reading this book. You're right.

Thank you again,



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