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


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