Why Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is the next book you should read

Why Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is the next book you should read

A Reader ? you ? starts a novel. When the first chapter comes to an end, an irresistible desire to read propels you to continue and explore the mysteries unravelled by what seems to be a cautiously constructed thriller. But the second chapter doesn?t follow the first ; it isn?t there, because of a shortcoming while impressing the novel, and it isn?t to be found in the book you hold in your hands. The Reader decides to go on a chase of the second chapter ; but, whereas he thinks he has found it, he discovers that he caught not the rest of the novel, but another, new, and different, novel.

You?d think this is a vicious enough trick not to be played twice to the frustrated reader. Not twice ? Then, brace yourself before reading Italo Calvino?s If on a winter?s night a traveler : the novel is composed of ten incipits (that is, novels? first chapter or pages), and not a single proper second chapter. Well, I have to underline the fact that there is a proper narrative frame : that of the male Reader who, while desperately looking for the second chapter of the novel, meets Ludmila, a female Reader, and begins a long-term investigation after a world-literary-dominating conspiracy. Between two chapters relating the Reader?s ? that is, your ? investigation, are to be found ten different incipits.

And, as you probably know, an incipit is one the two parts of the book we read with most pleasure (the other being, I guess, the very end) : it?s the moment when you discover an entirely new universe, and when you have to grasp every single detail in order to build, as fast as possible, a decent representation of what you?re about to explore for pages and pages. Playing with this property of the incipit, Calvino has written a book that you could read in one stand : first, you want to discover the first novel and its hazy atmosphere ; then, you understand that you?re not going to have it ; then, you discover another intriguing first chapter, after what you discover that there?s a logical construction behind the fact that you couldn?t finish both chapters ; etc, etc, until you reach the end, and realise the whole night has gone through without you noticing anything.

But Calvino?s novel is much more than a simple page-turner ; it is also a broad reflexion on Literature itself.

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Italo Calvino is an Italian novelist and intellectual, born in 1923, who died in 1985. He is famous for his trilogy Our Ancestors (which includes The Cloven Viscount, 1952 ; The Baron in the Trees, 1957 ; The Nonexistent Knight, 1959), for having written Invisible Cities in 1972, but also for having been a great literary theoretician. Sometimes referred to as a modernist writer, Calvino especially explored different genres of literature, and I think he?s tried too hard to create something different, to evolve perpetually, to be sorted in as simple and as vague a category as that of the modernist writers.

Exploring the possibilities of literature is what he?s done to the extreme in If on a winter?s night a traveler. To quote what he has declared about the book during a conference in Buenos Aires in 1984 :

This is a novel treating of the pleasure of reading novels ; the hero is the Reader, who begins ten times to read a book which he can?t finish because of circumstances external to his will. Thus, I have had to write ten novels from imaginary authors, each in a way different from me, and all different between themselves : a novel entirely made of suspicions and confused feelings ; another based on incarnated and sanguine sensations ; an introspective and symbolic novel ; another, revolutionary and existential ; another, cynical and brutal ; another yet, ruled by obsessing idiosyncrasies ; another, logical and geometrical ; another, erotical and perverse ; another, telluric and primordial ; a last one, apocalyptic and allegorical. Rather than identifying myself with the author of each of these ten novels, I have tried to identify myself with the reader : to figure the reading pleasure of this or that genre, rather than the text, properly speaking. [?] But, most of all, I?ve tried to bring forward the fact that each book is begotten in the presence of other books, in relation and by opposition to other books.?

Well. What can we derive from that, and why is If on a winter?s night a traveler the next book you should read ?

By trying out ten different genres, and by melting them into one single novel rather than by publishing them in a short-stories collection, what Calvino does is that he puts them all ?in presence? of each other, ?in relation? and in ?opposition?. Thus, he can develop a reflexion on Literature in general. And here comes the gist of my development.

Italo Calvino, though a great intellectual, never was of the kind to develop pompous and longuish theories. He even derived from his reflexions on literature four keys to writing a good book : it has to be easy, fast, exact and multiple. No need for long theoretical chapters, a good story, with a good narrative scheme, is also able to convey a complex idea. Let us dive in the content and the form of the book, then, to extract its essence.

As I wrote earlier, the novel is almost entirely based upon the pleasure of reading ; by being always different ? multiple -, easy to read, and with a fair dose of humour, it is a proper page-turner. Though, Calvino has sown a few theoretical seeds, as for when he wonders about who is the ideal reader : is it someone who fits the desires of the writer, or someone whose desires the writer senses and struggles to match ? Calvino also explores the new possibilities offered by the digital humanities, wondering what the most used words of a text reveal about it : is it a pertinent way of doing researches in literature ? Another thread of reflexion : why does the reader keep on trying to read the novel ? And, upon discovering that his new book isn?t the novel he wanted, why does he still read it ?

As you might have noticed, all of this is but questions, and I didn?t provide many answers. Calvino doesn?t, either. As he doesn?t clearly formulates these interrogations, as they are parts, episodes of the novel, they do not require a direct answer. And what is a direct answer, but the author stating : this is the truth ? Calvino doesn?t try, in the novel, to define one unique literary theory ; what motivated the writing of the novel is, as he says, the ?pleasure of reading? ; and what motivated us to read, is, in the same way, the pleasure of reading. Calvino?s view on literature isn?t one that forbid, that delineates what is right and what is wrong, what is and what is not ; his take on literature seems to suggest that, as long as you read, and as long as you enjoy a book, you?re on the right path.

Though this deep and minutiously designed novel might be analysed with as much erudition as is necessary to grasp the meaning of Borges?s short stories, Calvino rather offers us a novel which is utterly pleasant to read, and which defines one clear objective : induce us to feel, again, once we?ve closed the book, the desire to read.

And, while we?re all going back to the monotone routine of work, that?s a feeling we should cherish. As such, to keep your mind excited about novelties, to keep on feeding your desire to read, Italo Calvino?s If on a winter?s night a traveler is definitely the next book you should read.


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