Analysis: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

 

First log post with explanation of what this train wreck is

A note before I begin. My teacher personally didn’t like this book. In fact, he quit halfway, so there are some pointed references to that.

10/07/2016

Log 2 – Italo Calvino – If on a winter’s night a traveler

You are about to begin reading Lauren Zhang’s new log on Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Best not think about the multitude of logs that still await you. Or perhaps this is your last one, in which case, dispel any expectations you have of The Last Log. Enter as if you are about to begin reading a new book, with an empty slate and still in suspense. Will this log be intellectually stimulating? Will it be boring? Will it fail in its attempts to be clever?

You begin to wonder if this sounds similar to something you’ve already read perhaps. Yes, you recall another Italo Calvino log done with the same book years earlier. Its seems like laziness on this log writer’s part, to approach the analysis in a similar way, emulating Calvino’s style. Could he(or she or they) not come up with something more original? But it will be different still. Imagine it as two different translations of a text. And furthermore, reading a log on an author for the first time is entirely different from reading the same log a second time, or a second log the first time, or a second log a second time.

Calvino’s reflection on the difference of reading a book multiple times is similar, in that the passage of time is the cause of the phenomenon. It is impossible to read a book the nth time and experience the first, second, third, etc. read-throughs at once. And yet, if you had experienced say, the second read through, at the point of time when you had read the book the first time, it would be a different experience. The you that read the book the first time is not the same you that read the book the second. And that’s not even mentioning the time that’s elapsed between the publishing and your reading(the publishing of your version of the book as well, because then you will have had a different font, title, synopsis, reviews). It’s not a point Calvino dwells on for very long, but it does highlight the unique experience of reading. Even something as seemingly timeless as reading is strongly influenced by time’s passage. And with Calvino’s claim that “we can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years”(8), it seems that to even have a chance at a certain group of possible experiences when reading  a book, you must have been fortunate enough to be born in the right century. Now, time not only influences your perceptions before beginning the reading, but the pool of possible perceptions itself, that you could draw from before, during and after. Returning to some point above I must have left at some point, Calvino’s musings on time also emphasize that the reader is the most important in the process, as he says himself, “if one wanted to depict the whole thing graphically, every episode would require a three-dimensional model…or, rather, no model: every experience is unrepeatable”(156). The interpretation of the book is ultimately decided by the reader’s perception–their state of mind, their reading philosophy(are you a Ludmilla(30) or any of the seven readers at the end(254)?), their biases going in. I was unable to experience this book in its “true newness”(6) like the Reader does his version of If on a winter’s night a traveler, because I had asked for some opinions on it before going in and read the synopsis, catching on to some of Calvino’s tricks in a less organic way. Had I not logged this book, or had I logged it without any regard to other opinions, or logged it for Log 3, the first read through would have been different. Likewise, had I not given up and restarted. The idea is that every read through of a book is unique, and there are infinite possible read-throughs we will unfortunately never experience. Calvino at one time points out the parallels between lovemaking and reading and “what makes [them] resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space. In reading, as in love, time in the real world doesn’t stop, but somehow you’ve gained more. As you open the novel, the timer starts in that world, and by the end, you’ve experienced double the time—the journey of the novel and what it feels like to sit around for a couple hours.

Calvino goes into detail(or more like eventually gives up and just lists) about the “Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other  Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written…”(5) in the bookshop. Before you begin reading any book, though in the case of the Reader it is If on a winter’s night a traveler, you cannot help but think of it in terms of one of these categories(and if not one of the listed one, a category you’ve definitely created, consciously or not). Thus you never enter without some bias; which is something authors accept often and that is why their works are interpreted and experienced differently by different people. What’s interesting about Calvino’s novel in regards to reader biases is that the use of “you” carries a different feeling than the first or third person pronouns and causes preexisting biases to react a different way. There is a forcefulness, as if you must step into the protagonist’s shoes, a forcefulness that almost makes you less willing to fully commit to that immersion. By using “you”, Calvino almost pretends that the Reader can be a completely blank slate, for you to fill with your own biases and opinions, unlike a “I” or a “he” who is a whole person with their own set of unique traits. As the story progresses and you(the Reader) begin to act and think more, you aren’t exactly the same you that occupies the Reader. As our image of the Reader is built, he becomes less and less of a blank slate, because with more of him revealed, there is less for us to occupy. Our relatability to him is stronger when we know less about him. Perhaps there is a time when the Reader thinks or acts in a way not entirely in harmony with your own thoughts, such as an instance where the Reader “can’t stifle a feeling of jealousy”(49). The Reader feels jealousy, but you may not necessarily feel the same. Rather than being drawn into the story more, you are drawn in at the maximum depth from the very beginning and you are slowly pushed back out, until you reach the immersion of any other story where you follow another person’s thoughts and actions. The you at first seems to simultaneously give you enormous and minimal control of the story. You are doing everything and moving the plot forward, but you can’t decide what you do, Calvino does. That feeling of control diminishes as your connection with the you that occupies the reader diminishes. By the end, you become an ordinary passive reader.

It is interesting that the novel’s plot is propelled forward solely by the Reader, and also me as the Reader. The novel’s plot is essentially the Reader seeking the end to his book, and only finding a new unfinished one each time, just as I as the Reader enable these plot event sot unfold with each turn of the page, only to find the same unfinished stories. The Reader is forced to pause his reading and return to real life to find the rest of the story. And I am forced to pause my reading to follow his story in his shoes, then pause my reading of that to continue with my real life. Every time I stop reading, I am pausing a pause in the narrative. And that reflects another way a read-through is unique–would this have been different if I had read it in one go? I may not have been able to make this observation.

Speaking of ifs and may haves though, Calvino’s language in the second-person perspective in the first chapter is engages with the reader a lot more than the following chapters. For one, it contains the only instance where there are options of actions offered: He tells us that “Perhaps you started leafing through the book already in the shop. Or were you unable to…” and then later “Or perhaps the bookseller didn’t wrap the volume…”(7) It reflects a very open ended feeling you have at the start of the book. Anything could happen at this point. See a clever thing that could have been done here was to include this at the beginning of the log, so that this analysis of the fact that possibility is implicitly discussed in the part of the novel where there is a lot of possibilities possible happens in the a place in the log where possibilities of things to discuss or forget to discuss are all open as well. It’s like Calvino uses language to recreate feelings(or just explicitly state them usually) you would have at certain points in the book(such as the beginning). He does the same at the end, when Ludmilla asks the Reader “’Aren’t you tired of reading?”, because at this point, especially after almost getting the feeling that the point of the novel was almost just to create a situation in which a series of book titles would end up on in a list and form a sentence that would have some impact because of the events that lead to the creation of that book title list. It feels a little like cheating, that the satisfaction of resolution could be delivered without any real resolution at all. The niggling mystery of the uncapitalized titles with all their prepositional phrases is resolved and the Reader get Ludmilla to fall in love with him, yet the mystery of Marana is left open. We’ll never find out his motivations or any more details about this whole book conspiracy business or how the Reader seems to have found the rest of If on a winter’s night a traveler. Two of the first three conflicts(yes we shall count the mystery of the book titles and chapter titles as a conflict) are resolved(the unresolved one being the mystery of the rest of If on a winter’s night a traveler, though given that the Reader is reading said missing part, we can assume it is resolved; we just never get to see how), but the slew of paths introduced are left open, unfinished stories themselves. In fact, the meta-ness of the last line distracts you from questioning the logic immediately, and you are briefly fulfilled. And that same rise and fall of satisfaction is exactly what goes on at the end of any story—satisfaction at the conflict resolution, then later desire to know more of the loose ends(assuming this is a book you’ve enjoyed). Calvino has just exaggerated these loose ends and other aspects of this satisfaction roller coaster, and the result is a reading that is almost doubled in its…readingness, if that is possible. The experience of reading the book is two-fold, as if you are at once two people reading the same book, feeling the exact same emotions, just doubled. They are no more intense, but they come from two sources.

You notice that perhaps the it seems that the writer is attempting to transition into another concept, something that seemingly has no relation to the previous topic. But such is the nature of logs, and you read on.

Perhaps you don’t need to know about the author this log is about; you are a reader like Ludmilla or The Reader, who would rather enjoy a book written by an author who is only known through the words on the page of his books. Or book. Following that logic, no one can ever author multiple books, for each book paints a slightly different picture of its writer. And the author would almost definitely be a slightly different person with each book they publish, because, well, people change. Even if they do nothing but write all day, the act of writing and thinking and developing a novel should lead to some change in itself. And so every single book in existence has a different author. The books the Reader goes through are all touched by Marana, and since he never discovers if the books are truly written by the authors they claim either, it is easy to see how Marana becomes a different author depending on the book he writes(or “translates”). He may be Italo Calvino or Silas Flannery, but we cannot tell since we only judge him based on the words he writes(at first, before we start getting into his life story and all that). But Italo Calvino is not the author of this log, so there’s no reason we shouldn’t dwell on his life a little. Italo Calvino was born in 1923, and growing up under anti-fascist parents in Italy, fought in World War II in the Italian Resistance and later joined the Communist party.  He majoreed in English in college and published his first novel, which was very well received, based on his war experiences. After going through a period of writing fantasy, most of which reflected his political views, Calvino left the Italian Communist party. He would continue to write for periodicals and write his own novels. His second to last work then, was If on a winter’s night a traveler. How suiting it was, that after many tumultuous experiences in politically charged atmospheres, the man should gravitate towards metafiction. A seasoned author he had to have been to discern the nuances of the reading experience.

And yet we really don’t need all that information to read Calvino’s novel. If anything, it may harm a more pure experience of it, as we unconsciously try to search for meaning where there is none to be found. If we went in knowing Calvino’s backstory, we’d end up trying to discern his motivations, see where his past came in and influenced his story and writing, and that would end up distracting us from true immersion–approaching a novel with some analysis in mind. For example, now knowing Calvino’s involvement with politics, I begin to wonder at his choice of Cimmera and Cimbria, two countries with a tumultuous(fictional) history of political upheaval and revolutions, as the countries of origin for Outside the town of Malbork and Learning from the steep slope(Cimmerian) and Without fear of wind or vertigo(Cimbrian). I wonder at the choice of a military and authoritarian theme in Without fear of wind or vertigo. And I wonder why the Reader’s journey takes him to Ataguitania, a military state where the secret police and revolutionaries are double, triple, quadruple agents.

In general, you begin to wonder at the references, since surely, if there is not clear resolution to the plot, then there must be some deeper meaning to be drawn from Calvino’s convoluting and intertwining stories. The main character in In a network of lines that enlace is a university professor, while the Reader spends a great deal of time at a university and that is where the plot begins to thicken. The Reader ends up in a library in Ataguitania during the most climatic part of his journey, and returns to one to end it. Where else does the Reader go–the bookshop, the publishing house, Silas Flannery muses about the Arabian Nights(177) and then it is again mentioned in the last chapter as one of the library readers tells a story(257), and so, so, so many more, that you would mostly likely catch on the second time around. There is also a good deal of self-reference, or what seems to be self-reference. The book reading machine introduced in Marana’s excerpts(128) is brought up by Loriata again(187) in her conversation with Flannery. Why? We never really find out, but we have that little moment of, oh, how…nice. Nice that the author should include that little bit. There’s just a little part of us that enjoys feeling clever about noticing that detail, and deciding that the author put it there on purpose just for our type of person. Though this particular bit has a bit more meaning, as it relates to the truth and falseness in books. Twice, Ludmilla uses the same phrasing to describe her favorite type of novel to the Reader and Silas Flannery–“the novels that attract me most”. Marana’s escape from Ircadia(or was it Ataguitania? You decide it doesn’t matter, because in the plot lines that enlace and intersect, it’s just one detail. Does it really matter what the name is? There seems to be no clear reason for Calvino’s naming conventions. Arkadian Porphyrich, really?) was a fake escape that Porphyrich let happen. It seems a little more than coincidental that the man in Leaning from the steep slope should have a prison escape be the plot’s driving force. What becomes clear is that there is just so many of these sorts of self-references, parallels, “coincidences” that it becomes almost tiresome. The rule of Chekhov’s gun doesn’t seem to be at play because these details are usually unimportant to the overall story(for example, the Trotskyite splinter groups in New Zealand and that specialist in the macroeconomy of oligopolises(28) never return, despite their strangely specific introduction)?

But that’s not Calvino’s point at all. Through Ludmilla he channels most of his philosophy, that the force driving the best writing was “only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves”(92). And we can assume that what Ludmilla thinks is probably Calvino’s opinion because the Reader is obsessed with her and discovering her true thoughts on reading. Since this Reader could not have been created without Calvino stepping into his shoes while writing him, it would make sense that the object of his affection would be that which embodied what he wanted his writing to be(for this novel at least). There may be justifiable sense in looking for deeper meaning behind these stories, but much better would be to dwell on their lack of meaning or meaningful connections, because just that can answer other questions presented, such as the truth and falsehood of books. Calvino touches on this very often, in Silas Flannery’s diary(the only truth you can write is something in the instant – a direct translation of what is happening concerning present thoughts and actions. As soon as the thoughts begin to wander to the past or anticipate the future, falsehood has crept in(180)) and in Cavedagna’s “brow”(The “true” authors had “the same reality as their characters, as the places mentioned in the books, who existed and didn’t exist at the same time. The author was an invisible point from which the books came…an underground tunnel that put otherworld in communication with the chicken coop of his boyhood”(101). And yet again we get a glimpse of a new story thread that could be pursued.) What the author has written on the page, and only what he has written on the page is a true reflection of the author of those words then. Even the author in the present day cannot perfectly explain or recall his exact state of mind in conveying his message. And so there is merit, Calvino implies, in simply reading what is written on the page, not trying to dig in deeper, because the conclusion you reach is a falsehood. It’s just your projection of the author’s motivations—a translation of a translation. In presenting the conflict between the two schools of thought arising from Marana’s original philosophy, Calvino offers no answers, and leave that up to the reader, since this book is basically just a circus of indulgence for any reader. Ultimately we decide whether to take meaning from it or not, to write Calvino’s presentation of so many possible stories that are only briefly brushed upon(both the novels the Reader finds and the backstories of people he meets, as well as backstory of the background characters in the novels) off as a demonstration of the futility of searching for absolute truth or to continue finding a way to connect them, finding the truth of the novel. Personally, I’ve decided to accept the voids in the story and dwell in them, interpreting Calvino’s message based on the presence of those voids themselves. Returning to the truth and falsehood of literature, even though Marana is portrayed villainously, somewhat, for starting this school of thought, trying to disseminate “fake” literature, we can’t really tell what makes fake literature bad, or how to even tell if it is fake literature. Presumably the first few books the Reader reads are “fake” since they are Marana translations; yet he continues to search for their end, to the very end. We(or you, this is getting confusing you think) occupy the Reader and we don’t question this continued search for that fake literature. Slias Flannery was also curious to see the “extension of myself that blossoms from the terrain of another civilization”, and so if even the original author sees merit and truth in this fake literature, apparently it is not as bad as it seems. Or the order has just done a bad job at creating fake literature and somehow ended up genuine on accident. Calvino presents both light and shadow branches of Marana’s philosophy as viable options; again he leaves it very open to interpretation to emphasize the importance of us as the reader. Despite our passivity in the events, we play the most important role, and this is just another way he shows it.

You notice the log writer yet again attempts to use a metafiction style writing to transition. And this time there is a reason besides just transitioning, though you wonder if the writer will stop doing this soon because it may be becoming repetitive. One of Calvino’s reasons for the meta is simple, the indulgence of the reader. A reader takes special delight in the clever ways a self-conscious comment can be worked in and there are no shortage ofthose. For example, there is a pesronification of the fiction that makes it seem much more lively, as the characters in Wihout fear of wind or vertigo stroll across a bridge and “the story must work hard to keep up with us, to report a dialogue constructed on the void…for the story, the bridge is not finished: beneath every word there is nothingness”(83). Here lies another self-reference, to an earlier comment about reading and lovemaking, and the “space” it creates. Here there is inherently space already created by the mere existence of the story, and the development of the plot only fill sup that space. The rest is occupied by nothingness, because you can’t have nothing if there is no space where there is a potential to be something.

When the Reader first saw Cavedagna, he “defined [him] as ‘a little man, shrunken and bent,’ not because he is more of a little man, more shrunken, more bent than so many others, or because the words ‘little man, shrunken and bent’ are part of his way of expressing himself, but because he seems to have …..come from a world in which they still read books where you encounter ‘little men, shrunken and bent’”(98). And so Calvino reveals a funny thing about reading, that the world the author creates presumably must have books written in the style of the very book that created the world. With this, Calvino also makes a self-conscious observation about the world of this novel, where everyone seems to be unable to write an novel without being meta in some way as well.

Before we look into that, real quick, I would also point out this idea that the first line of every novel refers to something that has already happened outside the book(153), that would be except here because with the pronoun you, it is not as if they are describing something you have already done, because you know you, whereas you would not know “him” or “I’. “The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one piece of living that has a meaning separate from the rest…must bear in mind that each of the two brings with himself a texture of events, environments, other people, and that from the meeting, in turn, other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story.” Interestingly, that is the very concept of Middlesex, where each generation of the family is formed from the complex colliding histories of each side(though they avoided most of that somehow, with the incest that curiously resulted in them having a lot of shared “texture of events, environments, other people”). It is also another reason Calvino gives us all these loose ends, to reflect the idea that this novel is but an intersection of many story lines. It just happens to have more than the average book because it has ten times the amount, with ten books inside(they need not even be full books. Even the first bit of a story promises a multitude of storyline paths).

And now we return to the idea that the supposed non-self-aware authors are fairly self aware. Right off the bat, the women in If on a winter’s night a traveler smiles then stops “because she has changed her mind, or because this is the only way she smiles”(22) a reference to how the protagonist doesn’t know, and the Reader doesn’t know either. And again when it “is the first time I mention the suit case, even though I never stop thinking about it”. The protagonist is aware that nothing is known to the reader until mentioned. In Leaning from the steep slope, the author goes on his own monologue on the nature of reading. How lucky readers are, simply reading the language and piecing together a world, where as he has to translate the raw events and emotions of the world into paper and words. The author reads between the lines of his life as if his current situation will foreshadow what is to come. Though he writes a diary, he is aware of being fictional character that is burdened with having meaningful actions and observations that will surely affect his plot arc later. And once more in the Japanese novel, where the protagonist observes that writing casts “halo” around specific parts of the world created by a book(203). Outside that, you must learn to read the unwritten. And this affirms the view of the nothingness floating just below the words(from the story following the characters across the bridge).

At this point, you’ve noticed a lot of convoluted phrasing and thought threads this log writer has generated, and surely they could be the result of post-midnight writing, but they are also a reflection of Calvino’s style—indeed, extremely clever and original. Going with the theme of literary self-awareness, Calvino includes a lot of book, writing, and word imagery. For example, for Cavedagna, “the true authors” were “only a name on a jacket, a word that was part of the title”(183).

Calvino’s language as we follow the Reader changes too, starting out a lot more playful. He would easily drift into vivid, seemingly unrelated metaphors–“like the song of the last bird of an extinct species or the strident roar of a just-invented jet plane that shatters in the sky on its first test flight”(68). He would as questions and make snarky comments. “You are the sort of reader who is sensitive to such refinements; you are quick to catch the author’s intentions and nothing escapes you,” he tell us, for it is unlikely that anyone would address themselves in that kind of borderline condescending tone. His questions are often like taking a step back from the immersion and hearing Calvino’s voice is breaking through the cracks. “But do you imagine it can go on in this way, this story? No, not that of the novel! Yours! How long are you going to let yourself be dragged passively by the plot?…Your function was quickly reduced to that of one who records situations decided by others…finds himself involved in event s that elude his control…if you continue lending yourself to this game, it means that you, too, are an accomplice of the general mystification”(218). It’s like you are are observing the Reader being scolded by the author, because there is a little thought in the back of the head that says you can’t have avoided being “dragged passively” because that is what a reader does; the Reader is not a reader except when he gets into reading the novels, during which we are readers who reading about someone reading. It’s as if the voice urges the Reader to do something about his actions for the good of himself and the part of us that occupies him. In general, Calvino uses very flowing sentences with lots of after thoughts in quick succession(“…who submits to whims, finds himself…”(218)).

Something about the sheer amount of repetition in Calvino’s style is almost off putting however. There are tiny self-references everywhere, punctured by long musings on the nature of reading. The constant roller coaster of immersion and an abrupt end to each unfinished novel diminishes their value. You become jaded and as the story gets more complicated and fanciful, it becomes clear you’ll never get answers. By the last novel, Calvino doesn’t even bother with a transition it seems. He already knows we know what the Reader will do, but it is a little extra breathing room than we’re used to, as if the you pronoun is showing the first signs of releasing us from its grasp as we near the end of the book. Within that growing distance, we also don’t get to see how the Reader escaped apprehension and made it back home.

The storyline of the Reader goes from attending a university lecture, to flying to Sweden, then an oppressive military state, being arrested by triple-quadruple agents that were oddly enough(or should we even be surprised at this point) foreshadowed by Without fear of wind or vertigo before finally escaping. And when the conspiracy groups and orders are introduced, the Reader’s humble search for the rest of his books(and Ludmilla’s affection) slowly grows into fantasy. I am reminded of some Lemony Snicket conspiracy groups(though he came second) and Terry Pratchett in Ircania and Ataguitanian. The etymology of Director General Arkadian Porphyrich suggests something to do with a region of Greece and blood-related disorders(basically, vampires). And with a name like Director General, we get into the kind of vague authority conveyed by similar titles in Brave New World and 1984. It’s almost as if the Reader has entered a book himself, and some things parallel the start of the book, with the listing of “the countries where all books are systematically confiscated; the countries where only books published or approved by the State may circulate…” Essentially, the scene is very similar to the bookshop scene near the beginning. There is also a very Pratchett-esque idea that “repression must allow an occasional breathing space…otherwise, if nothing more remains be repressed, the whole system rusts”(236).

And a final thing to note is the strange fact that I read a translation of this book. And so my experience reading it is not exactly the truest and most pure. I am reading through the filter of another translator, which adds a whole other layer to the reader-author relationship(now a reader-translator-author love triangle).

You settle back a little as your eyes light upon the word “Bibliography” below(and quietly ignore the wikipedia citation). Another log done. And you reflect on your own experience reading the book a bit(or perhaps you don’t, at this point it’s all over and you are surfacing from your immersion anyway), knowing that the words “Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino”, will probably never pass before your eyes.

 

Bibliography

Calvino, Italo, and William Weaver. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. New York: Harcourt Brace

Jovanovich, 1981. Print.

“Italo Calvino.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Aug. 2016. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.

 

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