If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino (William Weaver, trans.)
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. 260 pages.
Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler abandons traditional storytelling in its first lines, entering the realm of metanovel:
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. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
And so, Reader, you’ve now been engaged in conversation with Italo Calvino. Your role as Reader is no longer a passive one; you are not listening in as someone narrates a story, vicariously enjoying the adventures of some other character. You are the actor, the hero, the Reader for whom what is written is written.
Calvino himself dips in and out of the story, at one point plotting If on a winter’s night a traveler as another author altogether:
I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. Bt it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning. . . . He returns to the bookshop to have the volumes exchanged. . . .
At times it feels as if you’ve been cornered at a party by that guy to whom it doesn’t occur you might not be interested. The conceit of the novel is occasionally tedious, and some of Calvino’s literary meditations stretch much longer than apparently necessary. Yet even when the conversation drags, Calvino’s love for words buoys your sagging interest. A novel about itself, If on a winter’s night a traveler alternately dwells on passing details and rushes through major points of action. You read ten first chapters to novels you’ll never finish, and your story, which ties them together, is itself a series of beginnings. In the end, you, Reader, do not regret the unresolved starts. As a fellow Reader reflects in this book, “those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”
On Amazon.com’s page for this book there is, below the produc information, a section titled “In This Book”:
In the story, a woman comes to visit an author. She plans to use his novels as material for her thesis. The author lends the woman some books, and later asks if she has read them. No, she replies, she hasn’t had accses to a computer. You see, Reader, she is in the habit of feeding novels into a computer program which spit back verbal analysis. There are lists of most used words, next-to-most used words, next-most-to-that used words, and so on. Based on that data, the woman bases her conclusions about the book:
“…it’s always a good idea to take a look at the list of words used only once, though no less important for that. Take this sequence, for example:
underarm, underbrush, undercover, underdog, underfed, underfoot, undergo, undergraduate, underground, undergrowth, underhand, underprivileged, undershirt, underwear, underweight. . .
“No, the book isn’t completely superficial, as it seemed. There must be something hidden; I can direct my research along those lines.”
Amazon’s “Inside This Book” info is not so drastic, and even its “Top 100 Words” concordance fails to impress, but the irony is palpable and the principle stands. As the author reflects,
The idea that Lotaria reads my books in this way creates some problems for me. Now, every time I write a word, I see it spun around by the electronic brain, ranked according to its frequency, next to other words whose identity I cannot know…
If I mentioned, say, the violence, the eroticism, or the treatment of racial issues in this book, you could likely build a theme out of at least one of them. But you would err in doing so. Context, as they say, is key.