Archive: November 19th, 2008

Italo Calvino: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

[Readings] (11.19.08, 3:35 pm)

Italo Calvino is an important figure in narrative. Calvino’s fiction can be described as modern or postmodern, in that it pushes some conventional boundaries of fiction. Despite this, unlike many other postmodern writers, Calvino is accessible and deeply enjoyable, without being any less profound. Because my work is on adaptation of fiction, and my particular approach is modeling of fictional worlds, it is important to see how my theories hold when pushed to some of the boundary cases of fiction and literature.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is important because of its reflexivity. When asked what it is about, the clearest answer is to say that it is a book about reading. Specifically, it is about the experience of reading, the pleasure of reading, and the relationship between reading and writing. At times, it reads like Calvino is poking a great deal of fun at Barthes’ Death of the Author. I normally think that writing is about building worlds, and to some extent, building dramatic structures, but to Calvino it comes down to experience and imagination.

The book spells out a great many scenarios. It is almost like a laboratory, to see as many takes on reading and writing that can be explored within its pages. The protagonist of the book is the Reader (who is explicitly male). There is imaginative speculation of the reader fatasizing about the Other Reader (who is explicitly female), who is reading the same book. The Reader imagines the experience of the Other Reader as she reads the same pages that he reads. Later on, narration shifts to the perspective of a writer who watches a woman reading from his balcony, and voyeuristically fantasizes that she is reading the book that he is writing.

These scenarios are important because they playfully illustrate the complex relationships between reading and writing, as human dimensions. It is important too because it exposes a broader model. Beyond the model of a story world itself, Calvino exposes the model between authorship and readership. Because the novel is written so reflexively (but playfully so) the nature of this model is made very visible, so that the real reader can think and reflect upon it. Play is a central element in Calvino’s novels, and gives the story a ludic quality, rather than a formally structured one.

The introduction by Peter Washington yields some important notes. “By Presenting possible worlds, he can remind us that there are alternatives to the present order of reality. Most important of all, he can practice the negative but essential virtue of encouraging his readers to take nothing on trust.” (p. xiii)

Calvino was inspired by texts outside the Leavisite “Great Tradition”: Cervantes, Sterne, Stevenson, the Decameron, and the Arabian Nights. It is worth noting that the novels of the great tradition can probably be seen as having an explicitly formal structure, specifically, one that could be expressed in rules with a clear objective. The form of the novel itself is not necessarily intrinsically gamelike, but novels frequently have a structures that resemble those commonly used in games (notably progression and bildungsroman, as well as Cambell’s hero’s journey). Works outside the “Great Tradition” tend to be nonlinear, multiform, self-referential, and so on. These have a format which is much less gamelike, because they lack that sort of formal structure. Instead, they are ludic, abstractly playful. Calvino’s writing is like this: it is inherently joyful and delightful and rich with play.

Over the course of the book, the protagonist is the Reader, but the Reader remains an ambiguous character. Presumably, the reader is initially the actual person reading the book, Calvino speculates on what the Reader’s habits and situation might be, but then the Reader becomes more active and more specific. The sections about the Reader are written in the second person, much like roleplaying narration.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorCalvino, Italo
TitleIf on a Winters Night a Traveller
Tagsfiction, media traditions, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Who Killed Amanda Palmer?

[Concerts] (11.19.08, 12:44 pm)

This past Sunday, Audrey and I went with a few friends to see Amanda Palmer. The show was fun and off the wall. The first opening act was Vermilion Lies, a very silly cabaret duo, almost vaudeville. After that was another band, The Builders and the Butchers, who were really great. They are somewhat Americana, (they remind me a lot of The Decemberists), and initially seemed somewhat out of place. Over their set, though, all their songs revealed an ominously morbid tone, which helped them fit right at home.

Opening acts have an interesting role in concerts. The opening act is primarily responsible for entertaining and riling up the audience so that they are enthused for the main show. As a result, there is an interesting aesthetic to the acts. They aren’t supposed to be the focus of the show, so there is a freedom to be eccentric and not perfect. Because they have to get the audience excited, opening acts tend to have a lot of participatory elements as well. Their lyrics tend to repeat and the audience is encouraged to sing along. In this way, the opening act is very dependent on the audience, but the main act is meant to stand on its own.

When the main act comes to stage, the performance shifts in nature. The audience moves from being participants to really being just the audience, and there is a pressure for the show to be more perfect and authentic. Amanda Palmer’s act was especially noteworthy in this regard because she was accompanied by The Danger Ensemble, who are an Australian performance troupe. They brought an entire theatrical dimension to her show, which converged and worked in a lot of ways.

The set itself had a bunch of songs from her new CD, as well as a few songs from the Dresden Dolls, as well as a few new surprises. I had been reading about her European tour and was sad not to see Zoe the Cellist, but we did have Lyndon Chester, who could play a mean fiddle. Watching Amanda play the keyboard was pretty remarkable in itself. She was never trained to read music, so she is self taught, and I could see all of that crazy obsessive emotion and energy pounding into the instrument. Without drums to support her, she practically played it percussively.

Audrey also got hugged by Mark of the Danger Ensemble during “We Have to Drive”. I’ve been looking photos, but haven’t been able to find one of her getting hugged yet. Just have to keep looking!

Edit: One omitted detail that I forgot about: There was an encore at the end of the show, where Amanda teamed up with both Vermillion Lies and The Builders and the Butchers to sing a couple of songs, a Bon Jovi cover (for donations to the Danger Ensemble) and then Leeds United. Afterwards, there was another encore, but it was a bit different this time. Amanda came back on stage alone with a ukelele, an out of tune ukelele, and sang Radiohead’s well known song, Creep.

This was a great moment because it totally subverted the idea of officiality in performance. Much of the audience had left at this point, leaving a large huddling mass near the center of the stage. We were all very much together, and we were all singing along. The instruments weren’t plugged into the speakers, there was no microphone, so it was just her and the audience together. All of us were necessary to make a sound, and we were all singing, not necessarily in tune, but we were all part of the song together.

I mentioned earlier that the main act of a concert usually works independently of the audience, but that notion was subverted in this last song. The voice of the audience was necessary for the song to have any volume, as was especially evident when she hit the high notes of the song and we couldn’t keep up. Briefly, the audience was quiet and it was just her singing alone. Vermillion Lies came back on and did some acapella rhythm for her, but that last moment was pretty incredible.

Also also: A couple got engaged during the “Ask Amanda” session. I can’t believe I forgot to mention that. It was very sweet.