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Meta-Playing with Beginnings: The Art of Reading in Calvino’s "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler"

Italo Calvino experimented with literature and twisted its conventions to portray the complex link between life and the written word. In his vision, that meant the “hypernovel,” or as he explained it, “the idea of infinite contemporary universes in which all possibilities are realized in all possible combinations.” This was the premise for his 1979 novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, where meta-commentary and frame-breaking with the use of embedded stories converge harmoniously to deliver a unique literary piece, fiction about fiction that reifies reading as an art form which shapes life and vice versa.

Calvino’s narrative combinatorial experiment (henceforth Winter’s Night) is structured in twelve numbered chapters that interpolate with other ten juxtaposed fragments of novels, all written by different authors from different parts of the world. The numbered chapters play the role of framing the novel fragments, hence the action is split between two distinct planes—external and internal. In the first plane (the framings and master narrative), the main agents are an unnamed male Reader, a female reader named Ludmilla, an Irish novelist, and a mysterious literary con artist; in the second one (the novelistic segments and secondary narratives), the actions of both planes intertwine. The overarching story follows (“you”) the Reader as he seeks to find literary satisfaction, going from unfinished, defective novels to more unfinished, defective novels. In the end, his quest concludes with the consumption of the love he has for Ludmilla and by finishing the first book he started.

From the very beginning, Calvino establishes the grounds of his literary discourse by centering readers and reading in it: “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” (3). Meta-commentary first arises with the use of second-person narration to immerse readers in the peculiar story that has yet to begin. Thus, it appears that Calvino addresses them directly— later assuming every felicitous position they might find themselves in while reading Winter’s Night—, but he is in fact in dialogue with the narratee; the illusion of identity anticipates Calvino’s narrative games. Second-person focalization is further employed throughout the master narrative because it leaves “open to the Reader who is reading the possibility of identifying with the Reader who is read” (141), ultimately distilling a sense of agency and power in both of them (Finlan 6). While subverting the expectations of a conventional beginning, Calvino intelligently secures the reader’s undivided attention to stay connected with the story as he drops more metalingual and literary breadcrumbs into the narrative.

Another powerful impetus for meta-commentary lies in the nature of the self-reflective and -referential novel, which must bare the mechanics of its literary production, at times in overt fashion. Consequently, the readers are reminded of the book’s artificiality through references to missing pages, disordered pages, and pages stuck together. This situates them in a neutral zone created by the awareness of narrativity. It also happens in the introduction of the first nested story when readers are confronted with both internal and external actions simultaneously: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph” (10). Since Calvino’s discourse implies fiction and life as a creative unity, then the acting participants (the readers) must understand their position at the same time as they experience it to demonstrate the point; it is the natural process of reading explicated through it. Together, both strategies of meta-commentary used in Winter’s Night foreground Calvino’s narrative discourse and support the hypernovel’s literary games.

Fiction needs both author and reader to exist, and Calvino uses this inherent dichotomy to define two literary games. One is diegetic: the assertion of narrative control between Author (omniscient narrator) and Reader (protagonist; il Lettore). Because the game exists through a dichotomy, il Lettore’s nature is also bound by duality: as Charles Dameron remarks, he is “a protagonist who oscillates between being a generalized, passive reader of the story and a specific, active character in the story” (23). The tension between his two sides instigates the tension between him and the narrator, of which the latter is acutely aware; he lets il Lettore have agency but only in the confines of his narrative voice. While nothing happens without the narrator’s existence to tell it, the same applies if the Reader ceases to fulfill his role: “Your function was quickly reduced to that of one who records situations decided by others, who submits to whims, finds himself involved in events that elude his control. Then what use is your role as protagonist to you?” (152). However powerful the narrator is, there is no story without the Reader. Therefore, he has to understand his position as much as the narrator does so the story can continue; their ‘battle’ is a natural outcome of the literary act. Calvino’s second narrative game further accentuates this interpretation.

The last literary game deals with the living figures of fiction: the author Calvino and the actual reader. This master game is created by the artifacts of postmodernist writing that blend the distinct but organically same entities of diegetic and non-diegetic author and reader. As a result, the readers initially assume the position of protagonist only to discover that it was, in fact, a playful hoax; the identities are clarified when the main character is endowed with the uppercase R. The male Reader is, then, the surrogate through which actual readers participate in the narrative, at this point left in the position of observants to the action but “nevertheless bound to the Reader by the magic of the second-person pronoun” (Fink 98). On the other end of the dichotomy, the author Calvino multiplies images of himself in the story (Silas Flannery, Ermes Marana) to put readers on ‘equal ground’ in the literary game, making it “difficult to determine the single voice of the author” (Finlan 13). This is because, for Calvino, the author writes the story, but the readers make it thrive, and yet both roles must still be fulfilled. Even though Calvino believes that he is “a more sadistic lover than ever” (Du Plessix Gray 23), he will remain the author who tests the readers’ commitment to the story, which is the de facto game they embark on when reading. Therefore, love is the connective tissue between Calvino and the actual readers, between the narrator, il Lettore, and Ludmilla.

In Calvino’s master game, the readers risk frustration while the author risks oblivion, hence he has to establish a balance between risk and security “like a careful gambler” with “appetizing chunks of a good story line” (Fink 97). As a result, the ten unfinished stories the Reader and Ludmilla look for are sprinkled throughout the main narrative, mirroring certain aspects of their journey and, inevitably, the reader’s journey. While presenting ten different genres from ten different cultural backgrounds, they all share a similarity in the coy nature of the act of love, tethering reading with desire: they are beginnings of stories, all falling shy of climaxing or ending. This notion of an erotics of reading culminates near the middle of the hypernovel when il Lettore and Ludmilla consummate their relationship as a means to resolve the unfinished reading experience: “Lovers’ reading of each other’s bodies … What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open” (156). The novelistic incipits fuel the characters’ desire for each other just as much as they fuel the readers’ need to untangle the hypernovel and keep reading until the end.

Near the finale, Il Lettore finds himself in a library where he is about to receive the full manuscripts he has been looking for all this time. However, once again, unrelated but similar incidents make the books unavailable. Surprisingly, one of the people there addresses him and, essentially, elucidates the quest’s mystery to both Reader and reader: “Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died” (180). Subsequently, il Lettore and Ludmilla get married, and the hypernovel ends with fiction and reality blurring once more as both diegetic and non-diegetic readers finish at the same time If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. Certainly, the embedded stories refuse to end their mystery and appeal but, in doing so, the ten incipits provide Calvino with his ideal hypernovel. Their fragmentary nature shows the continuous reading journey as paramount to its negligible conclusion. Silas Flannery (“the tortured writer”) confirms this in his diary: “I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning … But how could such a book be constructed? Would it break off after the first paragraph? … Would it set the beginning of one tale inside another, as in the Arabian Nights?” (177). The questions are attributed to Winter’s Night, and the meta-play continues when Silas imagines “a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted … ” (197).

The act of reading is prevalent in all aspects of Winter’s Night; it is that which gives fiction its multifaceted purpose and beauty. Since all the characters in the story portray an array of readers (i.e. ideal, academic, translator, etc.), there are just as many readings of the text; each reader infuses it with different meanings. Moreover, these readers could also reread the same text and still produce new meanings from it, something a character affirms at the end of the novel: “Every time I seek to relive the emotion of a previous reading, I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before” (177). Thus, the hypernovel shows that reading creates fiction and also transforms it into many other combinatorial experiences, all equally valid. As il Lettore makes that final attempt at finding all of his unfinished novels, the act is made stupendous by the reveal that their titles combined form the beginning of yet another story. The action of looking for ‘true’ stories is utterly pointless since the Reader’s search could continue ad infinitum. Calvino chooses to end the story with the marriage scenario because it acts like Scheherazade’s never-ending tale, choosing not to kill the participants (diegetic readers, author) but letting fictionality as a whole live and continue to morph. The novel Winter’s Night might be over with the last line, but its discourse of mimesis veers into perenniality through the complexities of the hypernovel, ultimately transforming the act of reading into an absolute art form.

Life and fiction appear firmly connected, and Calvino included many facets of them in his hypernovel. Himself a foreign author, he knew that one way a story is shaped is through language. He wrote Winter’s Night in Italian, and its English translation—while still being a way to appreciate the novel—leaves a margin of error that could never be fully extricated from his discourse. One such margin of error comes from the simple word storia, which appears countless times in the novel, sometimes in the same paragraph. It can be translated to story, history, and even love, but the inherent ambiguity that accompanies the translation (which has to decide on one ramification of the word) adds to the linguistic play. These choices (or readings) shape the text and vice versa.

As a whole, Winter’s Night shows that readers read because of the ephemeral and elusive contact with something lacking in the real world. As Calvino writes, a story is “what does not exist and cannot exist except when written, but whose absence is obscurely felt by that which exists, in its own incompleteness” (172). Then, it is only through stories that life (or history) becomes complete and why both will endlessly influence each other; their tight connection almost makes them the same thing. This is, ultimately, Calvino’s message with his hypernovel, fiction about fiction that creates more fiction and, thus, transforms people’s lives through the art of reading.

The master author Italo Calvino might have been the most playful of literary tricksters, but he was also an author who wanted to create something that could encompass all that is important, all that defines fiction and life. His novelistic carnival, then, conveys the art of reading with postmodern techniques such as meta-commentary (second-person focalization, constant referrals to the text’s artificiality) and embedded stories (incipits underlining the loving relationship between author and reader) to explicate the never-ending circular act between stories and life. While his character version, Silas Flannery, questioned the mere conception of such a novel, what would ultimately come of that feat is none other than a “trap-novel” by the name of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.


“I don't believe chance can play a role in my literature.” - I. Calvino

My Rating: ★★★★☆

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