If On a Winter's Night a Traveler

Supreme Fiction, or Calvino Revisited

Just for fun I recently re-read Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979; trans. 1981), which I first read around 1983 and was enchanted by.  My memory of the novel has always been a reference point whenever anyone discusses fictional sleight-of-hand, as with Borges, or Cortázar, or Barth, or what-have-you.  Calvino’s version of fictions that fold in on themselves provides a send-up of the reader’s dependence on a text -- a text that is never simply a story -- while at the same time conjuring the extent to which people become the texts they read or write. One could say it’s a novel that treats the status of being 'a reader' as a certain kind of identity, as a defining characteristic, and Calvino is charming in his evocation of the oddly personal communality of that status.  What’s more, he’s willing to put that very relation -- his relation to his own readers -- at stake by treating us as hopelessly hooked on whatever he chooses to do with his narrative, which involves several tales within the tale, stories that actually comprise the opening pages of the novel we (or rather, 'you,' dear reader) are attempting to read, a novel initially called If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

In other words, we read with a second-person character who is reading a series of openings to novels we (and he) never get to finish because something always happens to the text.  These proferred novels are of a variety of types and are almost equally interesting, as far as they go, but they are also meant to be page-turners, things we won’t put down till we see how it all comes out.  And we won’t ever know.  The story of what keeps happening to interrupt our reading of this succession of novels is the story that 'you' are engaged in: involving the Other Reader (an attractive and arguably more knowledgeable female counterpart to the masculine 'you' of the story); the Other Reader’s sister; an Ian Fleming-like novelist; and a novelistic forger. It all ends with our happy couple -- you, the reader, and your female counterpart, the Other Reader -- settled in bed together as you finish If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

The closure of reading is where real life begins -- we step from the page to our own imaginative version of our lives.  Calvino perpetrates his fiction on the premise that the reader of fictions merely wants fictions to go on and on, if not one kind of story then another, if only to keep the mind engaged in play rather than in 'reality.'  And Calvino wisely brings his novel to a close before the proliferation of openings becomes tiring, and before the characters, who never become 'real' characters, begin to bore us with their lack of particularity.

Why I enjoyed the novel is because Calvino maintains its pace so well and builds up its comedy through a readerly frustration he expects us to enjoy, even as he takes us on a tour of various literary genres.  But I value the novel because it seems to me that at its heart is a clear-eyed appraisal of the ruse of fiction (or, if you will, 'creative writing'), of how it applies conventions to give us 'the reality effect' it aims for, and how, mutatis mutandis, all such details can easily be something else, if only we are reading a different kind of story with different conventions.

The reality is all in the mind's eye, so to speak, or, even more to the point, all in the terms, the language, the conventions of depiction that we trust to render what we find ourselves in the midst of.  Without an acceptance of artifice, we have only opposing subjective 'takes' -- otherwise known as opinions or anecdotes -- on what we suppose to be 'reality,' and Calvino archly sees that, ultimately, editorializing is a blow against the art, or artifice, itself; such literalism is a refusal to suspend disbelief in any world other than the one one knows to be the case.  A world that can only exist, in print, through the subterfuge of writing.

Calvino’s approach is a great joke -- but without malice -- on all those who want to 'lose' reality in a fiction (thus all the interruptions), but also on all those who can’t abide a fiction that doesn’t correspond to ‘reality’ (thus the infinite regress of stories which come to include the story of the readers themselves).  Bravo, Calvino!