The Year of Reading Dangerously: Italo Calvino
If B. S. Johnson has rather faded from view, Italo Calvino is a writer who is now marketed under the ‘classics’ imprint, and If on a winter’s night a traveller is generally regarded as his most important novel, and a key postmodern text. It wears its postmodernism lightly but loudly from the very first lines:
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the other room.”
After a few pages of such scene-setting, we enter the first chapter of the novel itself; however Calvino continues to draw attention to the act of reading:
“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, just as this station is called only “station” and beyond it there exists nothing except the unanswered signal of a telephone ringing in a dark room of a distant city.”
Worse is yet to come for anyone hoping to lose themselves in the story as “you” soon discover that the book has been incorrectly bound and that the first few pages of the novel are repeated throughout. In fact, the only continuing story is that of the search for the next chapter, as each time the reader thinks he has found this it turns out to be the beginning of yet another narrative.
This is a novel, then, which is not simply self-referential in the sense that the writer draws attention to its construction, but which is about the art-form itself. Its main protagonist is a reader who is connected to every reader through the use of the second person, a particularly tricky and insinuating narrative voice. By weaving together a series of openings, Calvino both emphasises and undermines the ‘what happens next’ nature of story-telling. Despite quickly becoming aware that each narrative thread will end prematurely, I certainly found it impossible not to become hooked time after time like a particularly dim fish. This is also a commentary on the nature of stories: any story contains the unfulfilled potential of the directions not taken:
“I am producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.”
It also, of course, allows Calvino to demonstrate his versatility as he skips from genre to genre, nationality to nationality. Meanwhile, between beginnings, he explores the process of a book’s creation as we visit a bookshop, a publisher, a university, and, finally, a writer. If this part of the novel is now the weakest it is probably because it is the most dated and its satirical intent is therefore less obvious. The diary of Silas Flannery (the writer), with its sly parodies of Borges, remains amusing, but the interrupted narratives are generally preferable to the continuing one.
If taken in the playful and light-hearted manner intended (which is not to say that the it is not serious), If on a winter’s night a traveller is an entertaining and charming novel, but it does not quite live up to its billing as one of the most important books of the post-war period, or even as Calvino’s best book.
Danger rating: It’s a little like that Candid Camera trick where you get in a lift, the lift moves, but when the doors open you’re on the same floor: the main danger is that you share the frustration of the “reader”. However, if you take Calvino’s advice and “relax” you’ll have little to fear.