Note: The title comes from the second sentence of the first chapter of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler.
"Whatever it may be, this is a novel where, once you have got into it, you want to go forward, without stopping (Calvino 76)."
I began this blog nearly a full year ago. My first essays consisted of some shaky (although well-intentioned) analyses of Italo Calvino's Six Memos For the Next Millennium and Invisible Cities (click here for that effort...there are a few errors on the novel's meaning, but for the most part, my literary theory heart was in the right place). Just recently, I finished Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, which is generally tied with Invisible Cities when his most influential works are discussed. Both novels have their vast differences, but both have writing, reading, and storytelling studies as their primary sources. I cannot believe that it has taken me this long to read If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and furthermore I cannot believe that it never appeared on any syllabus I had in college.
One of my biggest sources of irritation is the sheer number of books available on publishing and writing, specifically books geared towards people who never write (or read, for that matter), but just might (in the hopes of the publisher, who doesn't want the manual to be remaindered) have that "big bestseller" in them. Dozens of these books offer formulas and tips for writing bestsellers. While the great novels do have similarities, it's impossible to write a lasting work simply by punching in ideas into a sort of literary algorithm. These writing books should be replaced by If On a Winter's Night for two reasons. One, it contains intangible advice that cannot be found in any manual, and two, it would simply laugh in the face of anyone who takes them seriously.
The "plot" behind If On a Winter's Night is well known, so I won't spend much time on its tangible summary. Calvino introduces a second-person character ("You," the reader) who teams up with a young female reader, trying to solve a vast publishing mistake, one that quickly turns into a subtle love story (or, more appropriately, an attraction based on reading) and a literary conspiracy. Yes, this does sound like it could be the plot of a mindless bestseller. However, as Terrance at Blogsmos writes about the book:" If all you read is Clive Cussler adventures or Nora Roberts romances, this book will probably just frustrate the hell out of you." There are various "chapters" mixed in, each from different fictional novels, all in very different styles, each originating from publishing mishaps and lost, secret manuscripts that tie into what can be loosely identified as the actual story of the book. However, the beauty lies in the fact that there is no actual straightforward story. In the rare example of a book jacket description that is on the money, the back of my edition states: "Italy's most brilliant modern writer shows that the novel is capable of endless mutations."
I remember one of my teachers in college poking fun at the class for constantly mentioning Calvino's sheer enthusiasm in relation to Six Memos For the Next Millennium. This teacher mocked us, saying something along the lines of "Ohh, Calvino! He's so nice!" However, it happens to be one of Calvino's skills--few writers could have pulled off a serious, postmodern, intellectual novel about the benefits and trials of reading and writing, held together with the aforementioned enthusiasm. Calvino shows that it's possible to maintain intelligence and excitement in the same conversation. In the book, hardly three pages will go by without an amusing passage or a play on language:
"To open the gate for me there was the gravedigger I had already met at The Star of Sweden. 'I am looking for Mr. Kauderer,' I said to him.
He answered, 'Mr. Kauderer is not here. But since the cemetery is the home of those who are not here, come in (65)."
"Hold on a minute. Concentrate. Take all the information that has poured down on you at once and put it in order. A Polish novel. Then the book you began reading with such involvement wasn't the book you thought but was a Polish novel instead. That is the book you are now so anxious to procure. Don't let them fool you. Explain clearly the situation. 'No, actually I don't really give a damn about that Calvino any more. I started the Polish one and it's the Polish one I want to go on with. Do you have this Bazakbal book?'(28)
Another aspect of the book's brilliance is that the main discussions on writing and reading could go on for hundreds more pages. In one passage, Calvino offers a hypothetical look at a tormented writer and a productive writer. One would assume, based on the descriptions, that they would be very different. However, Calvino highlights the differences with similarities and contradictions, emotions and sketches that become interchangeable to the point that the two writers could easily be the same person. The passage below does not do this idea total justice, but it helps:
"She returns to the productive writer the tormented writer's novel in the productive writer's manner, and to the tormented writer the productive writer's novel in the tormented writer's manner. Both, seeing themselves counterfeited, have a violent reaction and rediscover their personal vein (175)."
If On a Winter's Night a Traveler closes with readers in a library, offering their various views on reading styles and what they personally pick up from a given book. This ending is nearly perfect, since throughout the book, both the reader and writer are shown as conflicted entities with endless dimensions, two groups of people who would not exist without the other. While I've mentioned the idea of contradictions, I'll close with one brief passage that, to me, seems to encapsulate a few of the book's arguments. In these few words, Calvino creates a possible summary, complete with the necessary contradictions. This is one of the few passages I've ever read that have stopped me in my tracks, so to speak.
"'With my spyglass I can observe a woman who is reading on a terrace in the valley,' I told her. 'I wonder if the books she reads are calming or upsetting.'
'How does the woman seem to you? Calm or upset?'
'Then she reads upsetting books (192-3).'"
Calvino, Italo. If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Copyright 1979 by Giulo Einaudi Editore, S.p.A, Torino.
English translation copyright 1981 by Harcourt, Inc.