Italo Calvino opens up his masterpiece, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (HBJ, 260 pages), in the second person, addressing and engaging the reader in a very direct way; a powerful, uncompromising way: Here you are – the reader; and here I am – the protagonist; the author is somewhere else, as impertinent to the story as is his publisher. It is what it is, and you, the reader, are here with me, sucked into the depths of my mind, where you’ll trip over threads that are seemingly random, unrelated and without ends, yet serve a purpose that you may or may not grasp unless you persist until the closing lines fade away as you turn the last page over and walk away, pensive, wondering whether you can make any sense of this work at all.
You are thrust into the story without any regard for your emotional state. Calvino grabs you and drags you through towns, scenes, countries, and minds—playing a game of marbles with your emotions. Here now, gone on the next page, the stories unfold, hang suspended in the air for a while, then end abruptly while your frustration spirals out of control, only to confirm that the main thread, the second person you is still a part of the story, the only part that brings any lucidity to the seemingly random order of events. But the events are not random, oh no. The stories are calculated; each revealing a bit more about the plot you are a part of, and each advancing the ever-thickening mystery that surrounds Ludmilla. For it is she that you desire, and your desire to continue reading for reading’s sake alone is only a farce, because from the beginning you wanted to be with her, to partake in reading while sharing a bed together.
Calvino, however, knows no mercy. I should have known by now that his novels are not an easy read. His novels are complicated, extraordinary puzzles that produce more questions than answers. His prose, however, wraps you in silky-smooth sentences that scream comfort while your inner peace drains out of you, leaving a mess of emotions that you, alone, must piece together when the book ends.
When I read Invisible Cities, I struggled to describe what it was that I was reading. The same rings true here. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is impossible to assess. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of eleven different novels? Is it a plethora of philosophical arguments? Is it a showcase of Calvino’s capabilities as a writer? Is it a lecture on society?
It is all of the above! Calvino is a master, a philosopher, a wandering mind, and an exceptional storyteller.
In today’s genre-driven market where plots are recycled more often than not, Calvino’s work stands as a prime example of an author who can create original plots and stories while maintaining a strange retrospection to stories we have already read. As a reader, I can relate to all of the opening chapters in this book, to the variety of his plots. As a thinker, I’m aware of the subtle messages about the state of our society, which are sprinkled throughout the book. As a writer, I’m humbled.
–Henry Martin, author of Mad Days of Me: Escaping Barcelona
You are in bed together, you two Readers. So the moment has come to address you in the second person plural, a very serious operation, because it is tantamount to considering the two of you a single subject. I’m speaking to you two, a fairly unrecognizable tangle under the rumpled sheet. Maybe afterward you will go your separate ways and the story will again have to shift gears painfully, to alternate between the feminine tu and the masculine; but now, since your bodies are trying to find, skin to skin, the adhesion most generous in sensations, to transmit and receive vibrations and waves, to compenetrate the fullness and the voids, since in mental activity you have also agreed on the maximum agreement, you can be addressed with an articulated speech that includes you both in a sole, two-headed person. First of all the field of action, or of existence, must be established for this double entity you form. Where is the reciprocal identification leading? What is the central theme that recurs in your variations and modulations? A tension concentrated on not losing anything of its own potential, on prolonging a state of reactivity, on exploiting the accumulation of the other’s desire in order to multiply one’s own charge? Or, is it the most submissive abandonment, the exploration of the immensity of strokable and reciprocally stroking spaces, the dissolving of one’s being in a lake whose surface is infinitely tactile? In both situations you certainly do not exist except in relation to each other, but, to make those situations possible, your respective egos have not so much to erase themselves as to occupy, without reserve, all the void of the mental space, invest in itself at the maximum interest or spend itself to the last penny. In short, what you are doing is very beautiful but grammatically it doesn’t change a thing. At the moment when you most appear to be a united voi, a second person plural, you are two tu’s, more separate and circumscribed than before.
(This is already true now, when you are still occupied, each with the other’s presence, in an exclusive fashion. Imagine how it will be in a while, when ghosts that do not meet will frequent your minds, accompanying the encounters of your bodies tested by habit.)