THE ACME OF METAFICTION, THE QUINTESSENCE OF POSTMODERNISM
Some important works of fiction deserve another look, another read, even some forty years after their original publication. Such is Italo Calvino’s tour de force of a novel—published originally in Italian as Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore in 1979, translated into English by William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981). The novel is actually an anti-novel, and one of the most creative works about reading and writing fiction that I have ever read.
In order to avoid confusion in this review I will use “the Calvino novel” when referring to the actual book we hold in our hands, as distinct from the many other novels that show up in the narrative.The book begins with a direct address to the reader, who is you. For purposes of discussion throughout this review, we will call this reader “Actual Reader.”
“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!’”
This goes on for several pages, during which the reader is advised on how to find the most comfortable position for reading, how to adjust the light to avoid eyestrain, etc. Such a beginning suggests immediately that you the reader are to play an active role as a character in the book. The direct address to the reader goes so far as to define that reader, to describe what kind of person he/she is: “It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything.”
Hold it. How can the author/narrator possibly know what kind of person I, the reader, am? What can he know about any of his readers? We are soon to discover that the reader addressed here—we will refer to him throughout this review as “You Reader”—is actually a male character made up by the narrator. In fact, You Reader is the main protagonist of the book. But this is not to say that Actual Reader plays no role in the narrative. More on this later.
Sparking on the pages from the very start are Calvino’s scintillating imagination and wit. His narrator leads You Reader into a bookstore to buy the book (this book), then spends a whole page classifying various types of books. E.g., Books You Needn’t Read; Books Read Even Before You Open Them, Since They Belong To The Category of Books Read Before Being Written; Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages; Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. And more.
The subject of Calvino’s Traveler is reading and readers. Ancillary, but closely allied to that main subject is that of writing, especially the writing of fiction. Questions asked or implied repeatedly: What is a reader? What is reading? Why and how do we read? What is fiction? What is good fiction and what is bad? What are political attitudes toward fiction? How do our lives become interwoven with the fiction we read? And many more.
If on a winter’s night a traveler was first published in the late seventies of the twentieth century, when reading and readers of fiction were still, at least relatively, flourishing. For us who read the book today, forty years later, it may appear to be a kind of anachronism, since today reading is ever of less importance, and readers—especially of a piece of fiction as “difficult” as this one—are in ever shorter supply. Chapter Three begins with a description of the tactile joys of using a knife to cut the uncut pages of a book as you read—an experience limited only to older readers of books even in the 1970s, and a suggestion of how far the modern reader—and the modern non-reader—are from issues addressed by the narrative.
The scene in the bookstore describes how You Reader selects the book to be read, picking the book (this book) up, checking the pages to be assured it is not too long, consulting the blurbs on the back: “Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book.” About the blurbs: “you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t say a great deal. So much the better; there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message the book itself must communicate directly.”
Of course, at the time he wrote his lines about the shouting blurbs on his book, Calvino could not have yet known exactly what those blurbs would shout. On the back cover of my paperback copy we read, among other things, “A marvelous book,” and “Calvino is a wizard.” Do we believe these enthusiastic shoutings before we read the book? Of course not. Only the naïve reader actually believes blurbs on back covers. Few books that are praised as marvelous in the blurbs will actually turn out to be marvelous. But guess what, reader? This one, this Traveler, actually does turn out to be marvelous.
Although not titled as such, the beginning of the novel is actually an introduction. On page 9 the narrator says to the reader, who has already read almost the whole first, introductory chapter, “So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page.” A jolt for the reader—both You Reader and Actual Reader—but also one more bit of coruscating wit from the author.
The second chapter has the same title as that of the book as a whole—If on a winter’s night a traveler—and it actually does describe a winter’s night and a traveler. We presume that this is the beginning of a novel, and it is, but only sort of. We start with a train station, with steam from a locomotive clouding things over. In fact, a cloud of smoke “hides part of the first paragraph . . . . . . and the pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.” This imagery suggests and foreshadows the haziness that is to be characteristic of the plot of Calvino’s book as a whole.
We’re in a bar, in a train station buffet, and a traveler whom we presume to be the protagonist of this whole long book walks into “a setting you know by heart,” a place with “the special odor of stations after the last train has left.” Then, suddenly, the man experiencing the station-odor is an ‘I’ narrator. “I am the man who comes and goes between the bar and the telephone booth. Or, rather, that man is called ‘I’ and you know nothing else about him…”
Next comes a remark addressed to the reader: “For a couple of pages now you have been reading on. . . . . . the sentences continue to move in vagueness, grayness, in a kind of no man’s land of experience. Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it—a trap.” The idea of the reader’s being entrapped in a narrative is to recur several times later on, is, in fact, a leitmotiv of the book as a whole.
The ‘I’ narrator in the train station is confused, wondering what exactly he is doing in the story. He, the traveler, vaguely suspects that he is here to pass on to somebody the wheeled suitcase he has with him. He feels not exactly in a story, but in the makings of a story that could veer off in any direction, according to the whim of the author. He repeatedly tries to phone someone from a public telephone, hoping to find out what to do next. The phone rings, no answer. “I know only that this first chapter is taking a while to break free of the station and the bar.”
A first chapter in a novel, featuring a character whose ontology is shaky: “I am called ‘I’ and this is the only thing that you know about me.” He hopes that the action will soon remove him from this train station and take him elsewhere. He senses that there is some authorial force behind the narrative that he is in: “By the very fact of writing ‘I’ the author feels driven to put into this ‘I’ a bit of himself, of what he feels or imagines he feels.”
So now we pull the author into the book, since any ‘I’ narrator is, at least in part, emblematic of the author himself, the real writer behind everything. As of this point we have three characters: the traveler, the reader (You Reader), and the author—but all three are fictitious.
To the extent that there is a plot, here’s how it goes. The I narrator was to come to the station with his suitcase on wheels, was to accidentally on purpose bump into another man with exactly the same kind of suitcase. After saying the password, the second man was to leave his suitcase with the narrator/traveler and take the other’s suitcase. They were to exchange suitcases and go their separate ways, but the second man does not show up, and the traveler is left in a quandary, hanging out as a stranger in a train station buffet where all the locals know each other.
The rest of the chapter develops this plot, first describing the locals in the buffet, then mentioning how the local doctor and police chief are soon to arrive—bets are made on which of these men will arrive first. When the police chief comes in he murmurs the secret password to the traveler, then whispers to him that the jig is up: “They’ve killed Jan. Clear out.” The traveler takes another train, the 11:00 express, departs. End of Ch. 1. Or rather, end of the short story that bears the title of the book as a whole and is the first of many short stories to come. These stories will be billed as first chapters in a succession of novels by various authors, but they are short stories nonetheless. As for the traveler/spy in the train station, his tale is done, and he will not appear again in Calvino’s novel. Nor will any of the other characters from the first story.
The second chapter begins with still more direct address to a you reader (You Reader), who it seems has noticed that certain passages in the book repeat themselves. “You are the sort of reader who is sensitive to such refinements; you are quick to catch the author’s intentions, and nothing escapes you.” Then a revelation: there has been an error in the printing of the book, and the same pages have been bound inside twice. So begins the SNAFU theme that will run throughout the rest of the Calvino novel.
Shortly into this chapter it becomes apparent that the reader addressed as “you” is not really Actual Reader, but a fictitious reader who was trying to read the story of the traveler in the train station. He (You Reader) takes the defective book back to the bookstore, where he hopes to exchange it for a copy with pages correctly bound, but the bookseller informs him that he had the wrong book. Pages from a novel by the Polish writer Tazio Bazakbal, Outside the town of Malbork, had been incorrectly bound into the book about the winter traveler.
You Reader now assumes that the episode he has read came out of the Polish novel, and since he wants to continue reading that story he buys a copy of Bazakbal’s book. The bookseller informs him that another reader, a young woman has done the same, and that she is still in the store. You Reader meets her, thereby setting up another theme—that of romantic love—which will run through the remainder of the Calvino novel.
“And so the Other Reader makes her happy entrance into your field of vision.” The word ‘your’ in this sentence refers to You Reader, protagonist of the book, but it also makes an oblique reference to Actual Reader. This double-referencing is rife throughout the book. Other Reader’s name, we are to discover later, is Ludmilla Vipiteno, and, after You Reader, she is to be the second most important character in the action of Calvino’s novel.
At this point we have the story of a reader reading a novel, but we have in addition the tale of two readers communing as they read the same novel, or novels. But when he gets his copy of the Polish novel home and begins reading it, You Reader discovers that in buying the Bazakbal book he has stumbled into a totally different story. This sets the pattern for the remainder of Calvino’s Traveler, a book in which a reader is to read the first chapters of ten different novels by different authors.
Outside the town of Malbork
Although this is a new story in a different novel there is something familiar about the style: “An odor of frying wafts at the opening of the page, of onion in fact, onion being fried, a bit scorched . . . Rape oil, the text specifies.” At the beginning of the first novel there was an intrusion of smoke wafting over the pages, and here an intrusion of frying grease. The narrative, here as elsewhere later, will be not only a story, but also to some extent an account of how a story may be written. In the middle of this scene setting up the action—describing “our kitchen at Kudwiga” and the people preparing food—a new ‘I’ narrator (named Gritzvi) suddenly pops up: “Mr. Kauderer had arrived the night before with his son [Ponko], and he would be going away this morning, taking me in the son’s place.”
The main action of this first chapter describes a fight between Gritzvi and Ponko, the boy who had come to live in Gritzvi’s house to “acquire the techniques of grafting rowans.” Gritzvi will go to live with Ponko’s people, and there is the sense that they will exchange identities. The fight involves a kind of I rolled over him, he rolled over me, we rolled over us: “I had the sensation that in this struggle the transformation was taking place, and when he rose he would be me and I him.”
“The page you’re reading should convey the violent contact of dull and painful blows, of fierce and lacerating responses.” In addition to describing the fight, the narrator tells how the reader should perceive the fight, which, once again, reminds us that Calvino’s text is, primarily, about reading.
This first chapter of what is supposed to be Bazakbal’s Polish novel implies that later on the two main characters will exchange girlfriends as well as places. It also brings in a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” theme, about family feuds and vendettas among Ponko’s people, the Kauderers, and his girlfriend Zwida’s people, the Ozkarts.
Next comes another SNAFU. This time some blank pages have been bound into You Reader’s copy of the Polish book. Now we’re into the structural pattern that obtains for the entire remainder of Calvino’s novel. One snafu follows hard upon the heels of the last snafu. You Reader reads what he thinks is the continuation of a novel whose first chapter he has just read—only to discover, each time, that he is into the first chapter of an entirely different novel. Furthermore, the identity and authorship of the book he had just begun reading is often called into question.
Suspecting that the story of Ponko and Gritzvi is not a translation from the Polish, You Reader consults an encyclopedia. He discovers that the place names mentioned are in the once independent European country of Cimmeria—capital Örkko, national language Cimmerian. Unfortunately, Cimmeria no longer exists as a country, having been absorbed by other European powers; its language and culture are now in desuetude.
You Reader phones Other Reader Ludmilla, who confirms that her copy of the novel also contains blank pages. She suggests that they meet at the university, to consult with Prof. Uzzi-Tuzzi, a specialist in Bothno-Ugaric languages, including the language of Cimmerian—“a dead department of a dead literature in a dead language” is how the professor later is to describe his place of employment. While wandering around at the university in search of Uzzi-Tuzzi, confused You Reader seems “lost in the book with white pages, unable to get out of it.” He comes upon a young man named Irnerio, a friend of Ludmilla’s who does not read books, who, in fact, has unlearned the very act of reading. As it later turns out, Irnerio is an artist, who makes sculptures, statues, pictures out of the books he does not read. This character is emblematic, perhaps, of what is to happen to words in books in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century; the words being ever more cramped and crowded out on the page by pictorial imagery.
When You Reader describes the Cimmerian novel he is searching for (about Ponko and Gritzvi), Prof. Uzzi-Tuzzi immediately recognizes it as Leaning from the steep slope, by Ukko Ahti. He takes the book down from his shelves and begins translating it aloud from Cimmerian into English—and of course it turns out to be a totally different story.
Leaning from the steep slope
By Ukko Ahti
The ‘I’ narrator of this novel—all of the first chapters of novels within the novel have ‘I’ narrators—is
“convinced the world wants to tell me something, send me messages, signals, warnings,” premonitions, perhaps, of the end of the world. A different sort of reader, this narrator is “trying to read in the succession of things presented to me every day the world’s intentions toward me, and I grope my way, knowing that there can exist no dictionary that will translate into words the burden of obscure allusions that lurks in these things.” He makes an effort “to read between the lines of things the evasive meaning of what is in store for me.” Written in the form of a diary, this novel has one of its characters, Miss Zwida, borrowed from Outside the town of Malbork. This sort of overlapping of themes and characters into new novels is to happen a few more times.
Chapter Four continues with a discussion of how reading by yourself differs from being read to. Prof. Uzzi-Tuzzi reads the Ukko Ahti novel aloud for Ludmilla and You Reader, translating it from the Cimmerian as he goes. “The text, when you are the reader, is something that is there, against which you are forced to clash; when someone translates it aloud to you, it is something that is and is not there, that you cannot manage to touch.” It is somewhat surprising that here—and in the Calvino novel as a whole—the issue of how translation can change, or even traduce a literary text is not touched upon.
As it turns out, we have only the beginning chapter of Leaning from the steep slope, as the author Ukko Ahti sank into a deep depression and committed suicide, leaving the novel unfinished. “Though incomplete [opines Prof. Uzzi-Tuzzi], or perhaps for this very reason, Leaning is the most representative work of Cimmerian prose, for what it reveals and even more for what it hides, for its reticence, withdrawal, its disappearing.”
A question implicit on almost every page of Calvino’s book is this: What is reading? Ludmilla answers the question several different times. Here she emphasizes reading as the progression toward some yet unknown goal: “Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be…” Another of her thoughts later on: “You dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading, innocent, primitive…”
The next novel, Without fear of wind or vertigo, is said to be the same novel as Leaning from the steep slope, but written by the same author under a pseudonym, Vorts Viljandi, and written not in Cimmerian, but in Cimbrian—Cimbria is a different country, a rival in language and culture to Cimmeria. As Ludmilla and You Reader listen to it being read aloud at a meeting of feminist students, they soon discover, of course, that this is a totally different story—involving depravity and revolution in an unnamed country.
Caught up in a maelstrom of books they have now read containing only first chapters, Ludmilla and You Reader discuss going to the publishing house—in an effort to obtain complete copies of the books. At this point Ludmilla appears to express what may be one of Calvino’s, or his main narrator’s aims: “The novel I would most like to read at this moment should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves….” Is that a hint about how Actual Reader is to approach the Calvino novel?
Ludmilla refuses to go to the publishing house with You Reader, asserting that the boundary between those who make books and those who read them should not be transgressed. “Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else…” Ludmilla, who sometimes appears to be Calvino’s ideal of the fiction reader, likes to put emphasis on the pleasures of reading a novel.
Arriving at the publishing house, You Reader meets the go-to man there, Mr. Cavedagna, who is besieged by authors wanting their rejected manuscripts back, plus facing a multitude of other problems. E.g., “an edition of Dostoevsky that has to be reset from beginning to end because every time it reads Maria now it should read Mar’ja, and every time it says Pyotr it has to be corrected to Pëtr.”
Mr. Cavedagna is the kind of reader who yearns to escape from reading. His job involves reading manuscripts all day, but he would like to go back to reading books he really wants to read. Cavedagna tells You Reader about a man who is to become a central character in the book as a whole, the translator Ermes Marana, a fraud and shapeshifter who has convinced the publisher to publish the novel by Ukko Ahti—in a translation from the Cimbrian. Eventually Marana admits that he doesn’t know a word of Cimbrian.
Later in the Calvino novel Ermes Marana seems to be the prototype for the generic quintessential writer of fiction, who can play with narratives, make things up, toy with the reader’s imagination by entangling it in artifice. His letters to the publisher Cavedagna—which the latter permits You Reader to read—are sometimes ordinary business letters, but they also contain “hints of intrigues, plots, mysteries.” Marana is, among other things, something of a graphomaniac, who, “in the end becomes embroiled in increasingly frenzied and garbled volubility.”
At the publishers You Reader finds out that (maybe) Marana has translated a trashy French novel—by the unknown Belgian writer, Bertrand Vandervelde—Looks down in the gathering shadow, and passed it off as a translation from the Cimmerian, or Cimbrian, or Polish. Cavedagna gives You Reader the manuscript to read.
Looks down in the gathering shadow
(Regarde en bas dans l’épaisseur des ombres by Bertrand Vandervelde)
Each of the ten beginnings of novels presented in the Calvino novel has its own discrete story and its own style. The major themes and subjects of the Calvino work, however, repeatedly insinuate themselves into the narrative: the theme of reading, of storytelling, of the writing and reading of the Calvino novel as a whole. Here, for example, is part of the ‘I’ narrator’s discourse in Looks down.
“It is not impossible that the person who follows my story may feel a bit cheated, seeing that the stream is dispersed into so many trickles, and that of the essential events only the last echoes and reverberations arrive at him; but it is not impossible that this is the very effect I aimed at when I started narrating, or let’s say it’s a trick of the narrative art that I am trying to employ…”
And still more: “Having in reserve a virtually unlimited supply of narratable material, I am in a position to handle it with detachment and without haste, even allowing a certain irritation to be perceptible and granting myself the luxury of expatiating on secondary episodes and insignificant details.”
The two passages cited above apply probably more directly to the narrator of the Calvino novel as a whole—call him “Calvino”—than they do to the narrator of Looks down, who is a mobster more intent on covering up a murder than a writer concerned with his style.
Of the ten sub-novels whose first chapters are presented in the Calvino novel, Looks down in the gathering shadow is the only one in which the original (French) title is provided. Its plot is one of the most entertaining of the ten short stories that make up those ten beginnings. I have not remarked much on the literary merits, or demerits, of the ten short stories—doing so would double the size of this already lengthy review—but it is worth mention that these stories are teeming with the charm and sparkling wit that is typical of Calvino’s writing. Here is part of a hilarious passage from the story “Looks down,” a tale of coitus interruptus resumed.
Some background information: the unnamed ‘I’ narrator, it seems, has murdered a fellow gangster, Jojo, and must find a way to dispose of the body. He is assisted by Bernadette, Jojo’s mistress, with whom Jojo was in the act of copulation when the narrator shot him.
“’Bernadette!’ I cry. ‘What are you doing?’ And she explains to me that when I burst into the room I interrupted her at a moment when she must not be interrupted; never mind whether with one of us or with the other, she had to pick up at that same point and keep on till the end. Meanwhile with one hand she was holding the dead man and with the other she was unbuttoning me, all three of us crammed into that tiny car, in a public parking lot of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. Wriggling her legs in contortions—harmonious ones I must say—she sat astride my knees and almost smothered me in her bosom as if in a landslide. Jojo meanwhile was falling on top of us, but she was careful to push him aside, her face only inches from the face of the dead man, who looked at her with the whites of his widened eyes.”
In reading Marana’s letters in Chapter Six, You Reader discovers that the elusive Ermes Marana is the representative of OEPHLW of New York (Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works). He is trying to persuade a blocked Irish writer, Silas Flannery, to allow him to assist him in finishing his works. The purported author of Looks down, Bertrand Vandervelde, is “a Belgian writer who has been shamelessly plagiarized by Flannery.”
Marana, furthermore, has been hired by an Arabian sultan to translate the Vandervelde novel into the native language of the sultan’s wife, a voracious reader. Suspecting his wife of conniving with conspirators to overthrow him, the sultan wants to keep her busy reading. “Marana proposes to the sultan a stratagem prompted by the literary tradition of the Orient: he will break off his translation at the moment of greatest suspense and will start translating another novel, inserting it into the first through some rudimentary expedient . . . . . . the second novel will also break off to yield to a third, which will not proceed very far before opening into a fourth, and so on…” So is Marana’s translation the book that Actual Reader is reading?
“Ermes Marana appears to you as a serpent who injects his malice into the paradise of reading . . . . . . here is a trap-novel designed by the treacherous translator with beginnings of novels that remain suspended.”
Not for the first time do we get the implication that the writer of a fiction is seeking ways to entrap his readers. Once again, in describing a specific situation—Marana’s forestalling the looming revolt against the sultan by keeping his wife reading a succession of beginnings of novels—Calvino alludes to a situation directly relevant to his novel as a whole. By this point we are beginning to suspect that the elusive Ermes Marana is a front man for Calvino himself—or even the trickster chosen by “Calvino” to narrate his Calvino novel. “Ermes Marana dreamed of a literature made entirely of apocrypha, of false attributions, of imitations and counterfeits and pastiches.” Which is an exact description of the Calvino novel that we Actual Readers are reading. Marana also advocates “a systematic uncertainty as to the identity of the writer,” so as to “keep the reader from abandoning himself with trust.”
Among the many machinations of Marana are his conniving with Japanese publishers to publish fake works purportedly by the Irish writer of trash novels, Silas Flannery, and to make money by assisting the blocked Flannery to complete his works. Marana also hopes to convince Flannery to stop plagiarizing Bertrand Vandervelde. Amidst the Marana letters, You Reader comes upon a copy of a novel by Flannery and begins reading it.
In a network of lines that enlace
(by Silas Flannery)
This book’s first chapter—actually another short story—begins with a long description of a man’s neurotic reaction to hearing a telephone ring. The man is a university professor, who is caught up in the ringing of telephones as he makes his morning jog. In a strange twist of the plot, the telephone-phobic prof ends up rescuing one of his students who has been abducted, and when he unties her she thanks him by snarling, “You’re a bastard.”
Chapter Seven returns to the romantic subtheme of the Calvino novel, and to the love interest, Ludmilla, whom the narrator addresses directly: “What are you like, Other Reader [Ludmilla]? It is time for this book in the second person to address itself no longer to a general male you [You Reader], perhaps brother and double of a hypocrite I, but directly to you who appeared in the second chapter as the Third Person necessary for the novel to be a novel, for something to happen between that male Second Person and the female Third…”
More on the Romantic Plot. “Reading is solitude . . . . . . One reads alone, even in another’s presence.” Yet You Reader wants to use a kind of mutuality of reading to get closer to Other Reader Ludmilla. “You have with you the book you were reading in the café [Silas Flannery], which you are eager to continue, so that you can hand it to her, to communicate again with her through the channel dug by others’ words, which as they are uttered by an alien voice, by the voice of that silent nobody made of ink and typographical spacing, can become yours and hers, a language, a code between the two of you…”
The plot now so advances that the two readers end up in bed together: “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 fulnesses and the voids.” And then, somehow inevitably, we get a description of sexual intercourse as reading: “Ludmilla, now you are being read. Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds. Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and your trills.”
“What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.” Part of the reading of the copulation between Ludmilla and You Reader involves their reading ahead, to a time when they will live together, will read in bed beside each other—a situation that comes to fruition on the final pages of the Calvino book.
In the next novel within the novel, In a network of lines that intersect—also by Silas Flannery—a man protects himself from the world at large by constructing a catoptric world of mirrors and kaleidoscopes; and ends up, apparently, kidnapping his own self. The next chapter, Chapter Eight, delves into the private diary of Flannery. Using a spyglass from his Swiss chalet, the blocked writer watches a young woman reading a book on a terrace below, “the invisible movement that reading is, the flow of gaze and breath, but, even more, the journey of the words through the person, their course or their arrest, their spurts, delays, pauses…”
“I look at the woman in the deck chair . . . . . . the result of the unnatural effort to which I subject myself, writing, must be the respiration of this reader, the operation of reading turned into a natural process…”
Briefly touched upon is the idea that writers cannot be genuine selfless readers, inasmuch as in the act of reading they constantly wonder how certain ideas, certain words or styles could be appropriated for their own works. “Since I have become a slave laborer of writing [says Flannery], the pleasure of reading has finished for me.”
Next, Flannery in his diary notes broaches a subject that has—as happens repetitively—direct relevance to the machinations of Ermes Marana and to the Calvino book we are reading: first lines in novels are teeming with promise, but “the romantic fascination produced in the pure state by the first sentences of the first chapter of many novels is soon lost in the continuation of the story . . . . . . 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…”
Flannery tries copying out the beginning of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, thinking that the energy contained in that start might communicate itself to him and spur his efforts to write. Then come more ideas relevant to major themes: in Marana’s view “literature’s worth lies in its power of mystification . . . . . . and “the author of every book is a fictitious character whom the existent author invents to make him the author of his fictions.” Who has Italo Calvino invented to write the narration of If on a winter’s night a traveler? Sometimes it appears that his invented narrator “Calvino” is a twin of the trickster Ermes Marana.
Where does writing come from? There is a brief episode in which Flannery encounters certain believers in UFOs. They make the assumption that he, Flannery, is being used as a conduit by extraterrestrials who hope to get their message out through him: “He shouldn’t even be aware of it. He would believe that he is writing as he likes; instead, the message coming from space on waves picked up by his brain would infiltrate what he is writing.”
Another type of reading is suggested by Ludmilla’s sister, the feminist activist Lotaria, who reads her own prejudices into everything she comes across. “She has read [Flannery’s works] only to find in them what she was already convinced of before reading them.” When he suggests to Lotaria that he would like readers with an open mind, she replies that he wants “a passive way of reading, escapist and regressive. That’s how my sister reads.” Ludmilla actually is not a totally passive reader, but she would probably agree with the following quotation from earlier in the book: “All interpretation is a use of violence and caprice against a text” (p. 69).
Lotaria appears to be the kind of reader who, alas, may soon—say, by the year 2050—be in the majority: the reader as un-reader. She uses a programmed computer to read novels for her and to point out the words most frequently used. From the lists of words she deduces what the story is about. This suggests to Flannery that instead of writing his books he could write lists of words in alphabetical order, then let the computer put them together into a novel.
Flannery dreams of finding Marana and working together with him to flood the world with apocrypha. Apocryphal writing is best because “there is no certitude outside falsification,” and “writing always means hiding something.” This echoes a message voiced also by Marana, that the only important thing about fiction writing is the artifice.
You Reader goes to see Flannery, hoping to find copies of the last two novels he had begun reading: the one about the professor who can’t stand telephones and the one about the billionaire who collects kaleidoscopes. Flannery informs him that these books, published by the unscrupulous Japanese publisher, have been plagiarized from other authors. In speaking of his own plans, Flannery, once again, echoes Marana’s notions applicable to the Calvino book as a whole:
“I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continuously interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning . . . . . . I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader . . . I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary…” The implication here is that we are reading a book that Flannery has written, but it could also be a book written by Marana, with help from Flannery and “Calvino”. The possibilities are innumerable.
Flannery gives You Reader another novel, supposedly one of the fakes, translated from the Japanese, but it, of course, turns out to be a totally different story. Upon leaving Flannery, You Reader is off to South America, in search of master counterfeiter Ermes Marana. On the way there he begins reading the Japanese novel.
On the carpet of [ginkgo] leaves illuminated by the moon (by Takakumi Ikoka)
First line: “The ginkgo leaves fell like fine rain from the boughs and dotted the lawn with yellow.” The ‘I’ narrator, a student working with a professor at the home of the prof, wants to perceive each of the ginkgo leaves as it falls, discreetly from every other leaf and from the fall of the collective whole; he also would like to perceive each leaf by way of the distance between it and other leaves—the empty air separating them.
He compares this kind of perception to the reading of a novel: “the things that the novel does not say are necessarily more numerous than those it does say, and only a special halo around what is written can give the illusion that you are reading also what is unwritten.”
“Sometimes,” the narrator adds, “I happen to talk too much and am unable finally to extricate myself from my tangled reasoning.” If the Calvino book as a whole has any fault it may be this “talking too much.” The reader can easily get lost in the maze of volubility and in all the various entanglements of plot. But, for the most part, Calvino is a master at managing the garrulousness and complexities of the plot line.
At the beginning of Chapter Nine You Reader is on a flight to South America, reflecting on a comparison between reading and flying, while reading the Takakumi Ikoka novel. He arrives in Ataguitania, another imaginary country, where customs officials confiscate his novel (“banned in Ataguitania”). The country, it seems, is in a state of revolutionary turmoil, “where everything that can be falsified has been falsified.” So says a woman who looks like Lotaria but calls herself Corinna. She has joined You Reader and gives him a copy of the Japanese novel recently confiscated. Of course, it turns out to be a different novel.
Next come a series of adventures in police states, keystone-cop episodes involving revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and counter-counter revolutionaries. They arrest You Reader and Corinna, whose name keeps changing as the plot runs on. You Reader ends up in a government jail, where he is given a novel to read: Around an empty grave, by Calixto Bandera. The authorities in charge want to compare the way he reads the book to the way their reading machine reads it.
At this point the narrator behind the whole complicated business of Calvino’s book (“Calvino” or Ermes Marana?) speaks up: “Reader, you have found again the book you were reading; now you can pick up the broken thread; . . . . . . But do you imagine it can go on in this way, this story? No, not that of the novel! Yours! How long are you going to let yourself be dragged passively by the plot? You had flung yourself into the action, filled with adventurous impulses; and then? 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?” Once again here, with this direct address to You Reader—the “hero” of the novel—Calvino or Marana gets in another sideways wink at Actual Reader. As if to say, “Well, here we are already on p. 218. Aren’t you, Actual Reader, getting tired of being jerked around yet?”
A page later and poor You Reader is being ravished, while “Calvino” castigates him: “Reader, what are you doing? Aren’t you going to resist? Aren’t you going to escape? Ah, you are participating. . . . Ah, you fling yourself into it, too. . . . You’re the absolute protagonist of this book, very well; but do you believe that gives you the right to have carnal relations with all the female characters? Like this, without any preparation. . . . Wasn’t your story with Ludmilla enough to give the plot the warmth and grace of a love story?”
Around an empty grave (by Calixto Bandera)
The ‘I’ narrator of this book is sixteen-year-old Nacho Zamora, and the action appears to take place in Mexico. It begins as the narrator’s father, on his death bed, tries to communicate some important information to his son: “I, knowing his tendency to digress, to lard all his talk with divagations, glosses, parentheses, and flashbacks, was afraid he would never arrive at communicating the essential thing to me.” As it so happens, the father indeed dies without having told his son the secret. We’re not sure how You Reader is feeling at this point, but Actual Reader (me) kind of feels the same way about the Calvino book, now 222 pages into it: are we ever going to actually get anywhere?
In Chapter Ten You Reader, held prisoner by the Agaguitanian authorities, is freed, on the condition that he carry out a spying mission in a distant country, Ircania, which is, apparently, another police state, modelled on the Soviet Union. There he meets with Director General Arkadian Porphyrich [note the Russian name], who controls publication of books in his country and who shows You Reader a schema indicating attitudes taken by a variety of countries toward books. These include, among others, “the countries where all books are systematically confiscated; the countries where there is no censorship because there are no books, but there are many potential readers; the countries where there are no books and nobody complains about their absence; the countries, finally, in which every day books are produced for all tastes and all ideas, amid general indifference” [this last one, apparently, is a poke in the eye of the U.S.A.].
Arkadian Porphyrich goes on to make an assertion that became a sort of truism back when the U.S.S.R. still existed: the written word is held in the highest esteem by police states, where literary art achieves an extraordinary authority and readers experience unquenchable cravings for banned books. In the daylight hours A.P. works in his official capacity as a kind of censor, but in his leisure time, in the evening, he reads the banned texts for pleasure.
A.P. also explains to You Reader the relationship between Ludmilla, the selfless reader, and Ermes Marana, the sly counterfeiter and trickster who believes only in artifice: “His driving motive was not money, or power, or ambition. It seems he did everything for a woman, to win her back, or perhaps only to get even, to win a bet with her.” For Ludmilla reading means “being ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author.” In opposition to this notion, Marana wanted to prove to her “that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as an artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood.”
Despite Marana’s position as chief artificer and maker of the action for the narrator “Calvino,” it appears that he loses his bet with the idealistic Ludmilla. Life and art are not just all make believe. Ludmilla’s “always curious, always insatiable reading . . . managed to uncover truths hidden in the most barefaced fake, and falsity with no attenuating circumstances in words claiming to be the most truthful.”
Even the most omnipotent police censorship has no power over reading done at this high level of competence: “in the decree that forbids reading there will be still read something of the truth that we [the oppressive authorities] would wish never to be read.” Calvino’s ringing endorsement of true reading and true readers sounds impressive here, although forty years later we see graphics, pictorial representations, and the overuse of gadgetry encroaching on the art of reading in ways more effective than the harshest measures of police states once were. We wonder if Calvino in his day anticipated what the world of reading literary fiction would come to in the not so distant future.
Still hoping to read the Bandera novel, Around an empty grave, You Reader asks Arkadian Porphyrich to help him get a copy in an Ircanian translation. A.P. tells him about a different novel, “by one of our most important banned authors, Anatoly Anatolin, titled What story down there awaits its end—a version of Bandera’s novel in an Ircanian setting. As soon as we have seized it, I will have a copy prepared for you.” You Reader manages to meet with Anatolin, who passes him part of the book’s manuscript, but government agents seize and arrest the author before he can pass on the whole text.
What story down there awaits its end (by Anatoly Anatolin)
The ‘I’ narrator of the Anatolin novel walks down the main prospect of a large city, mentally erasing all objects and persons as he walks. “The last residue of a vanished world blows away”: a bunch of ripe grapes, a baby bootee, and what appears to be a page out of the novel by Bandera: “a page that seems torn from a novel written in Spanish, with a woman’s name, Amaranta.”
The ‘I’ narrator thinks he is erasing the world for his own private reasons, so that he can remain alone with his good friend Franziska, but then he comes across “men from Section D,” who thank him for helping them with their job. These bureaucrats apparently are erasing the world in preparation for some New World Order and are there to welcome certain new beings who are coming to replace the old.
The ‘I’ narrator now desperately tries to restore his erasures, and to get to Franziska before it is too late. “I advance over the frozen crust toward her. The world is reduced to a sheet of paper on which nothing can be written except abstract words, as if all concrete nouns were finished.” Just as an abyss opens before him and the whole world disappears, he makes it to Franziska, and with their meeting it appears that the almost-vanished world has been miraculously restored.
The last chapter (Chapter Eleven) begins with another apparent double message: addressed to You Reader and Actual Reader: “Reader, it is time for your tempest-tossed vessel to come to port. What harbor can receive you more securely than a great library?”
“After circling the world from book to book,” You Reader is back home; he goes to the library, hoping to find there the ten novels whose beginnings he has read. All of the books, so it turns out, are in the card catalogue, but none of them is available. Various readers sitting in the library explain to You Reader how they read books. The first says that he can read only a few lines before his imagination is lit up, taking him away from the text on long and fanciful journeys.
Another explains that he reads and rereads the same books over and over, “but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book for the first time.” Furthermore, “the conclusion I have reached is that reading is an operation without object; or that its true object is itself.”
More readers voice their opinions. (1) “Every new book that I read comes to be a part of that overall and unitary book that is the sum of my readings” (2) “The moment that counts most for me is the one that precedes reading. At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that perhaps does not exist . . . the promise of reading is enough.” The discussion ends when the seventh reader declares that in ancient times a story could end only in one of two ways: with a marriage or a death. “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” You Reader decides at this point that he wants to end the story by marrying Ludmilla. And so he does.
Chapter Twelve is a Coda chapter. Here it is in its entirety.
“Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader. A great double bed receives your parallel readings.
Ludmilla closes her book, turns off her light, puts her head back against the pillow, and says, ‘Turn off your light, too. Aren’t you tired of reading?’
And you say, ‘Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.’”
So ends the anti-novel than may be the greatest twentieth century book ever written on the theme of readers and reading of fiction. Hunkered down against the computer age in their bunkers, the last dogged readers of the late twenty-first century—still holding out against all odds to keep the art of reading literary fiction operative—may one day look back to this Calvino book as their inspiration.
Already in the late 1970s, when he wrote this book, Calvino, fortified by his apparent in-depth study of French semiotics and deconstruction of text, came up with a multitude of takes on the subject of what reading is and what writing is—with particular reference to the reading and writing of artistic fiction. While his prescience is impressive, he certainly could not have predicted what reading has become roughly forty years later, nor what it is likely to become by the end of the twenty-first century.
Already in the U.S. today more people read books on digital devices than on print. This in itself changes the act of reading in subtle ways. And insidious algorithms, which are intruding into the Liberal Dream of human free will at a dazzling pace, are already at work on Kindle devices that can collect data on readers as they read. Already your Kindle can monitor which parts of a book you read quickly and which slowly, and on which page you take a break or even abandon the book.
As Kindle devices are upgraded in the near future they will be able to determine how each sentence you read influences your blood pressure and heart rate, what made you laugh, cry, or be angry. “Soon, books will read you while you are reading them.” Be prepared to be read, reader of the twenty-first century. [Information in the last two paragraphs is from Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, p. 348-49.]
U.R. Bowie, author of Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence
Your review is detailed and has got me thinking of reading this book. Thanks, Edward!