Caught in the Act:
The Act of Reading in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler
You have just been caught in the act, the act of reading. As you sit here reading this paper in your chair you have become a part of a never-ending story1, a world where narrative lines intersect in a network of texts. You have become in effect a part of not just this text, but everything that is connected to this text as well. What does that have to do with Italo Calvino you are wondering? Well, it is Calvino’s hypernovel, If on a winter’s night a traveler that demonstrates this idea along with many other ideas. Just as Calvino threads ten different stories If on a winter’s night a traveler, he threads in many different literary concepts and criticism. In true hypertext fashion he cuts and pastes the neorealism, reader-response, modern and postmodern schools of thought into one single text. The lines between these theories blur and we see a new place in which they can some how coincide in harmony.
Where you even begin to examine or deconstruct this ambitious novel? You have to dig like an archaeologist through the countless layers of information that overlaps here. If you were to follow each of the links within the text, it would give way to endless possibilities just like the endless possibilities that come from surfing the Internet. The novel does not necessarily demand such a rigorous examination; in fact, I think Calvino would rather discourage that. He knows that above all else, it is the reader who brings the text to life. The reader ultimately chose to pick up on and follow certain aspects of this text. As Wolfgang Iser points out “Central to the reading of every literary work is the interaction between the structure and its recipient” (Iser 20). The focus then is on “you” the character and you the reader. If on a winter’s night a traveler was written specifically with you in the reader in mind. Calvino examines the roles of the reader, the author and the text through the ideas of hypertext, language and translation. All of the theories and criticisms are used here to underline the real focus, to strengthen the idea that it is ultimately the reader who complete the text. Calvino uses this fictional book as a forum to explore how this shift from traditional text to hypertext decenters the experience of reading all together and changes everyone’s roles in the act of reading.
Calvino begins his novel by describing what “you” the reader are experiencing, which immediately brings the novel purpose into focus. His playful address to “you” pulls the reader right into the novel and makes them not just an observer, but an active participant. Your attention is brought right to your role as a reader and even the act of reading itself.
“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 close the door; the TV is always on in the other room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—-“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed (3).
He continues in the same fashion for several pages, describing what “you” are doing, and “you” are in the process of reading. After “you” have gotten comfortable, “you” flashback to when “you” bought the book. The narrator goes on to describe all the books that “you” pass by on “your” search for one to buy. Along the way you see Books You Have Been Planning To Read For Ages, Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Time To Re-Read, Books You Have Always Pretended Have Read But Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Read Them, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, and New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You, etc. Calvino describes this process with great detail in order to show that he is very aware of what it is like to be a reader in the world, what the reader’s experience often encompasses. As you sit there and read about this reader reading you feel almost as if you were looking in a mirror. This mirroring effect is just what Calvino had hoped to accomplish. The line between the “you” of the novel and the real you has already been blurred from page one. The reality of the author driven text has transformed into a reader-centered hypertext right before your eyes.
The transformation does not end there though. Calvino has set up a very complicated framework in order to explore the ever-changing roles of the text, the reader and the writer. As you continue to read you find out that “you” have picked up a book and found that it was incomplete. The publisher made a mistake and only printed pages one through thirty-two several times over. “You,” of course, are very upset about this and so “you fling the book, you would hurl it out the window, even out of the closed window…” (26) After this initial frustration you pick up “your” book and take it to the bookstore to get a copy that is not defective. The bookseller informs “you” that the whole shipment is defective and needs to be sent back. What “you” thought was Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler was really a novel called Outside the town of Malbork by the Polish author Tazio Bazakbal. Now that “you” have started that novel, “you” are determined to finish it, so “you” ask if you can exchange your falsified novel for the real one. From there, “you” are drawn to nine more incomplete complete stories in a similar fashion. Each novel that “you” get your hands one has been tampered with, falsified or even confiscated before “you” can finish it. This has frustrated “you” a great deal, but Calvino does this on purpose and he knows exactly what he is doing.
The incompleteness and the continuos disruptions decenter the novel from any traditional sequential novel. In fact Gaggi says, “Probably no other novel destabilizes the reader’s position so systematically as Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler” (Gaggi 50). There is no solid center from which to work. This permits the individual reader to choose his or her own center of investigation or experience. The direction and the meaning that the novel takes on is completely up to the reader. This is the definition of a hypertext, according to Lando. He says, “As reader’s move through a web or network of texts, the continually shift the center—and hence the focus or organizing principle—of their investigation and experience. Hypertext, in other words, provides an infinitely recenterable system whose provisional point of focus depends upon the reader” (Lando 36).
Calvino decenters the text by interrupting and switching narratives. He purposely leads the reader through a labyrinth of various characters, times and places, and he does this for two reasons. First, by having no endings, just a series of beginnings he expressing the idea that no test is ever complete. No matter how much the writer describes and explains that there will always be an endless volumes of information that were left out. Calvino believes that all the writer or reader can ever hope to grasp is just the tip of the textual iceberg. He expresses this key idea in a paragraph:
But how to establish the exact moment in which a story begins? Everything has already
begun before, the first line of the first page of every novel refers to something that has
already happened outside the book. Or else the real story is the one that begins ten or a
hundred pages further on, and everything that proceeds it is only a prologue. The lives of
the individuals of the human race form a constant plot, in which every attempt to isolate one
piece of living that has a meaning separate from the rest—for example, the meeting of two
people, which will become decisive for both—must bear in mind that each of the two brings
with himself a texture of evens, environments, other people, and from that meeting, in turn
other stories will be derived which will break off from their common story (153).
Ironically enough, Calvino sets this whole paragraph in parentheses, as if it were a casual aside, when in fact it is very important. This passage gives clear insight in Calvino’s thoughts on the “incompleteness” of novels and behind the format of If on a winter’s night a traveler.
Second, he is shifting the focus away from one narrative told by one author. With multiple narratives, the reader is allowed more freedom. Iser explains this technique, “One common means of intensifying the reader’s imaginative activity is suddenly to cut new characters or even different plot lines, so that the reader is forced to try to find connections between the hitherto familiar story and the new, unforeseeable situations” (Iser 192). The reader is then faced with a network of possibilities, which forces him to create connections. This pushes the passive observer-reader into the new role of an active-reader.
One of the problems with this new active-reader comes when a text is read aloud. The reader’s perception influences the listeners. This influence takes away the listener’s ability interpret the text one their own. Calvino explores this difference between the spoken and the written word in the passage where Professor Uzzi-Tuzii translates Leaning from a steep slope for “you.” “When you read, you can stop or skip sentences: you are the one who sets the pace,” the narrator explains (68). The person reading aloud might have a totally different pace than the listener, which makes it difficult to get as much out the text as a reader would. It is even more difficult when the reader is translating as they are going along, as the Professor is doing for you and Ludmilla. “Listening to someone who is translating from another language involves a fluctuation, a hesitation over the words, a margin of indecision, something vague, tentative. The text, when you are the reader, is something that is there, against which you are forced to clash…(68). The reader has something solid to work with and make his own, while the listener does not. Reading-centered texts can only work properly if the reading is done by the reader. If it is done by anyone else the relationship of the reader to the text is altered.
If the reader has begun to take a more active role in creating his experience then this changes how the writer must write. Calvino explores this idea through the character of Silas Flannery.2 Flannery is a writer who muses in his diary about his writer’s block, not that much unlike Calvino himself. Flannery’s diary is the only place where he can feel free enough to express himself. Its lack of formal structure does not limit Silas in his explorations. Here he can drift from idea to idea without worrying about keeping to a particular order. Through this diary, we get a glimpse into Calvino’s own thoughts and frustrations about being a writer.
For the writer who wants to annul himself in order to give voice to what is outside him, two paths open; either write a book that could be the unique book, that exhausts the whole in its pages; or write all books, to pursue the whole through its partial images. The unique book, which contains the whole, could only be the sacred text, the total word revealed. But I do not believe totality can be contained in language; my problem is what remains outside, the unwritten, the unwritable. The only way left to me is the writing of all books, writing the books of all possible authors (181).
This passage essentially outlines what Calvino is doing with If on a winter’s night a traveler. He is writing a sample of all books, because that is all he can write.3 There is no way to avoid the influence of these other books and writers just as there is no way to avoid leaving things out. Anything that is complete is not reflective of reality. Any text that is complete unto itself is not reflective of reality and is not taking into account the role of the reader. The text, Calvino believes, can only really come alive through a reader. The text can only be actualized or realized when there is an interaction between the text and the reader.
Calvino peruses the idea of novels existing somehow in an unwritten language in his passage with “you,” Ludmilla and the professor. “You” and Ludmilla have sought out the professor to find out more about the incomplete novel that the both of you were reading. The professor’s is an expert on Cimmerian4 literature and just happens to be named Uzzi-Tuzii. The strange name of the professor and the conversation that follows resembles the Borges short story Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius. In Borges story, we find that there is planet called Tlon, where there is one single plot, one author and every text remains incomplete. This idea is lifted right from Borges and placed within the framework of Calvino’s own novel.
Professor Uzzi-Tuzii translates part of a book for “you” and Ludmilla, but then stops abruptly. There simply was no more to be translated. “You” ask him why this is and he explains that all Cimmerian books continue into the beyond. “You” inquire further and he tries to help you understand this concept. As the professor speaks, Calvino adds in a wonderful description of how the professor himself seems to disappear into the beyond. From some unseen corner of his office Uzzi-Tuzii says, “All Cimmerian books are unfinished because they continue into the beyond….in the other language, in the silent language to which all the words we believe refer to…” (71). Uzzi-Tuzii is referring to the perfect language of Dante, Augustine, Eco and even the Kabbalah. He is also referring to Derrida’s concept of intertextuality and the idea that there is a trace of all books in every book written. This perfect language would encompass all these traces and needs no translation. Everyone would speak this one pure language where the signifier and the signified would be one in the same.
The idea of translation is further explored through the character of Ermes Marana, who is a translator by profession. Ermes is a play on the Greek god Hermes who is known not only for conducting the dead to the underworld and being a master thief, but for being a mediator and interpreter. Ermes is the one who has mixed up the authors’ signatures and created this chaos in the publishing world. He has thoughtlessly translated a trashy novel and passed it off as Cimmerian, Cimbrian and the Polish without knowing a single word of these languages (Weiss 174). Calvino takes the problem of translation to the extreme in this plot twist. Calvino views the translator as a sort of traitor. Translations are often full of mistakes and misinterpretations, and therefore are false in sense. He would prefer that the author himself be able to translate the text, because when someone else translates they then interpret the text and end up altering it. The reader then gets a filtered version of what the author intended. If the text is not authentic and not effective in communicating then it might as well have been faked or falsified intentionally.
This is a problem with not just texts, but with hypertexts as well. With the technology to mass-produce and reproduce texts, it becomes increasingly easy to pirate an author’s works. The Internet is a particularly problematic, because there is no way to copyright or police production. Though the Internet did not exist when Calvino5 wrote If on a winter’s night a traveler as it does today, he seems to have anticipated its effects. Ermes Marana’s misattributed translations exemplify the problem of hypertext. Calvino believes, as Baudrillard5 does, in the idea that the world is made up of only representations and reflections. There is no true text any longer, nothing that is pure. Everything has been contaminated with other texts.
If everything is merely a replica or reproduction of another text then what is the point? Why bother writing is there is nothing original to be written? The author, in this view, is nothing more than a translator or interpreter himself. Francese points out that Federman would say this indicates “the death of the author.” Since reality cannot be properly portrayed the author can do more than write about his or her own perceptions and experiences. Francese explains, “Unable to know the world, the author forfeits the right to impose meaning on the text (Francese 49). Calvino recognizes this fact, but he would not call the author dead exactly. We see him grappling with this problem through “your” musings on the relationship between Ludmilla and Ermes Marana:
How is it possible to defeat not the authors but the functions of the author, the idea that
behind each book there is someone who guarantees a truth in that would of ghosts and
inventions by the mere fact of having invested in it his own truth, of having identified
himself with the construction of worlds? Always, since his taste and talent impelled him
in that direction, but more than ever since his relationship with Ludmilla became critical,
Ermes dreamed of a literature made entirely of apocrypha, of false attributions, of
limitations and counterfeits and pastiches. If this idea had succeeded in imposing itself,
if a systematic uncertainty as to the identity of the writer had kept the reader from
abandoning himself with trust—trust not so much in what was being told him as in the
silent narrating voice—perhaps externally the edifice of literature would not have changed
at all, but beneath, in the foundations, where the relationship between the reader and text
is established, something would have changed forever. Then Ermes Marana would
longer felt himself abandoned by Ludmilla absorbed in her reading; between the book and
her there would always be insinuated the shadow of mystification, and he, identifying
himself with every mystification, would have affirmed his presence (159).
The author is not so much gone, but anonymous. The author’s role certainly changed, but it has not disappeared. With the author’s personality all but gone from the text this allow for a better connection between readers. Calvino would say that the author has sacrificed his or her own personal identity for a collective voice.
Instead of wondering what inspired the author you begin to wonder what other readers experiences have been. These mutual experiences of the same text can bring two people together, as it brings “you” and Ludmilla together.6 The relationship between “you” and Ludmilla begins because both of you have come to the bookstore to exchange the defective copies of If on a winter’s night a traveler. The bookseller points her out to ‘you” as the other reader3 who wanted to continue the novel Outside the town of the Malbork which was falsely labeled as If on a winter’s night a traveler. “You” decide to approach her and discuss your common experience. After a lively conversation “you” exchange phone numbers. Once “you” get home “you” realize something has changed. “Your reading is no longer solitary; you think of the Other Reader, who, at this same moment, is also opening the book; and there, the novel to be read is superimposed by a possible novel to be lived, the continuation of your story with her, or better still, the beginning of a possible story” (32). Interaction between readers connects, not only the readers, but it connects all the texts that the two readers have read. This creates an infinite network of “links,” and perpetuates intertextuality.
This intertextuality is often compared to textual intercourse. Freud thought that writing created a sexual pleasure for the author. Roland Barth extended this idea to include reading in his book The Pleasure of text. Calvino takes Barth’s concept and really runs with it here. He suggests that the connection to the author, and then other readers, creates a sort of sexual union. Calvino demonstrates this in a very literal way, but with wonderfully playful tone through the characters of you and Ludmilla. He writes that, “You are in bed together, you two Readers” (154). Then he goes on to describe the intimate moments in terms of language. “At the moment when you most appear to united voi, a second person plural, you are two tu’s, more separate and circumscribed than before” (154). Calvino continues talking about how you are reading Ludmilla with your senses and how she is reading you the same way. This parallel between the character’s intimacy and reading is very clear.
For Calvino reading is not just something you do with your mind, it is something that involves every part of your being. Reading is not just with the eyes, but with the ears, nose and even the taste buds. Everything that read triggers the senses and the memory, which transforms the words in a sensual experience that, can reach orgasmic climax. Just as in lovemaking, reading can be create a different experience each time it is done. Calvino says plainly, “What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them time and spaces open, different from measurable time and space” (156).
This awareness or perception of space and time is a very postmodern idea that blends into the idea of the reader response. Joseph Francese explains that one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism is, “the shortening of commonsense perceptions of time (Francese 3). The present becomes all that exists. This eternal present is exemplified by all these different times, places and characters coexisting in one novel. The only real way that this altered sense of time can felt is through the reader. As Weiss points out, “Calvino is convinced that a narrative text is rewritten every time it is read and that one literature differs from another text, past or future, less because of the text than the way it read” (Weiss 133). A traditional text would be constrained by some sense of sequential order, but a hypertext can exist without it. Hypertexts then are both a postmodern and a reader-centered medium. In fact, it could be said that the idea of reader-response criticism is just one particular aspect under the large umbrella of the term postmodern.
This reader-response view sacrifices the traditional objective way of studying texts for a very subjective conception of interactions. You can see Calvino leaning toward this objectiveness in Flannery when Flannery muses over erasing the word “I” from writing.
I must stop thinking of my conversation yesterday with Marana. I, too, would like to erase myself and find for each book another I, another voice, another name, to be reborn, but my aim is to capture the in the book the illegible world, without center, without ego, without I. (180).
If there is no author or narrator to guide the story then the story becomes the reader’s creation. The text and the reader merge completely and there is no need for an author. The author then becomes an architect rather than the actual construction worker. The faceless and nameless architect is needed, but no longer constrained by his or her own personality. This anonymity creates the ultimate ideal reader-text relationship.
The novel is often the text is written with a certain reader or audience in mind. The author will make assumptions about his or her audience and so there is an implied reader. “The implied reader is transcendental model which makes it possible for the structured effects of literary texts to be described. It denotes the role of the reader, which is definable in terms of textual structure and structural acts” (Iser 38). In other words, the text as well as the reader have been created for each other. The author, intentional or not, designs the structure of the book in a particular way. Iser elaborates, “The concept of the implied reader is therefore a textual structure anticipating the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining: this concept prestuctulizes the role to be assumed by each recipient” (Iser 34). If on a winter’s night a traveler is very much prestructualized. Calvino assumes that his reader is an intelligent, educated and well-read individual. If a person who rarely reads picks up his book, it is apt to be too disorientating and confusing. Someone without any knowledge of theory or criticism might not understand what Calvino is trying to accomplish. The implied reader then, is not just anyone; it is someone like me and like you.
Only the implied reader of If on a winter’s night a traveler will be able to notice Calvino’s references to Borges and to Calvino’s own early work. The 10/12 form of the novel itself is borrowed from Borges. Calvino has 12 chapters existing within 10 frames. These 10 separate frames or stories are fragments of various styles and genres. As a reader himself Calvino wanted to explore these different genres that he had read, but he didn’t feel that he could properly do it as a writer.5 Instead of trying to create an entire novel in any one of these genres, he chose to simply sample each one, that way he could successfully explore and experiment without having the responsibility to do it seriously.
The third story Leaning from a steep slope, as McLaughlin points out, seems to draw from Calvino’s own experience in a harbor jail as well as a jail in two of his earlier stories (McLaughlin 118). The fortress-like bastions also recall the Chateau d’If at the end of Time and the Hunter, and the empty beach chairs recall the city of absence, Baucis, in Invisible Cities. These empty beach chairs are also an allusion to Ionesco’s story The Chairs. Finally, there are the spiral shells that allude to the final story in Cosmicomics. So what you are wondering. Well, these allusions are important. Each of these illusions leads the reader to new avenues of exploration. They are essentially “links” to other texts, links that the reader may choose to pursue. If the reader has already read these other texts or eventually picks them up, then Calvino’s story takes on a whole new dimension. Leaning from a steep slope extends beyond the excerpt Calvino gives us and begins to take shape as a universe unto itself.
The other stories within the framework also provide the reader with many “links.” The fourth story, Without fear of wind or vertigo, is possibly a reference to Dr. Zvivago and a very similar to a passage in The Path to the Spider’s Nest.8 The fifth story, Looks down in the gathering shadows, makes allusions to the end of Invisible Cities. The two stories In a network of lines that enlace and In a network of lines that intersect could easily refer to the way that hypertexts enlace and intersect. The other stories probably have many allusions in them as well, allusions that other authors have not yet discovered. You the reader are ultimately in charge of what you associate or link the stories with. Calvino leaves you with general genres that you can explore in order to discover these particular links though. Borgesean fables, Spy-thrillers, Russian revolutionary novels, Japanese erotica, and Latin American magical realism (specifically Marquez) all exist within the text and are just waiting for you to explore.
After all these genres and texts have been introduced your vision has expanded. The story then is no longer just about “you.” At the end of If on a winter’s night a traveler Calvino shifts his focus once again from you as a specific to reader, to the reader as a community. The first reader at the library says, “If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow if for more than a few lines, but those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust” (254). The reader will create an entire universe around just a few pages his or her experiences, associations and imaginations. Calvino suggests the idea that a five-hundred-page book is no more complete than a five-page excerpt. Then Calvino moves swiftly on to a second reader who takes a scientific approach to reading. He ends by saying, “This is why my reading has no end; I read and reread, each time seeking the confirmation of a new discovery among the fold of the sentences (255). The text to him is never complete either. There are, as Derrida would say, endless interpretations of the text that exist to just to one reader, let alone all the other possible interpretations that other readers could make. The third reader confirms this by adding that the text is really just a pretext. The fourth reader talks about the subjectivity involved in reading and how each reading transforms the text. He suggests that all he has done is read one single book.9 The fifth reader then confirms this and adds that he finds nothing but echoes of a particular book he read in his childhood. The sixth reader does not even need to read. The promise of reading is enough to set his imagination free. The seventh reader longs to find some truth or conclusion within books, but is left to create the real ending for himself.
This is when “you” speak up. “You” resist these ideas and explain to the community of readers that you still crave a beginning, middle and an ending. “You” have become very frustrated with you quest to find a complete novel. The fifth reader is reminded of a particular story in Arabian Nights, The Caliph-al-Rashid. As “you” tell him the titles of all the books “you” have begun but not been able to finish something becomes clear. All of these titles are connected; in fact, they create one long sentence.
If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep
slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadows in a network of
lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by
the moon around an empty grave—What down there awaits it end?—He asks, anxious to
hear the story (258)
This connection between all the books that “you” have read only goes to prove what the other readers have been telling “you,” and what Calvino has been saying all along; that all books are essentially one long, continuous novel. Every book that you read is connected to another and another and another. There might not be one huge book that contains all books, but in essence each book contains apart of all the others. This trace, as Derrida would say, of the other books in the books that you are reading creates a sort of invisible subtext. It is in what is not mentioned, but merely hinted at that creates this complete text. This complete text only exists though because of readers. All of the other texts written could and would not exist without a reader to connect them and bring them into reality.
Reading and reality move into a new place at the end of If on a winter’s night a traveler. With the marriage of “You” the reader and Ludmilla, the marriage between the real reader and the text is complete. Iser believes this linking of fiction and reality is a natural link. He says, “If fiction and reality are to be linked, as they are here, it must be in terms not of opposition but of communication, for the one is not the mere opposite of the other—fiction is a means of telling us something about reality” (Iser 53). Reading becomes an event and that creates the impression that the reader is involved in something real. In reading, we are able to experience things that no longer exist and to understand things that are unfamiliar to us. The act of reading is just as much an act of creation as writing is, and you the reader have control over that creation.
So you have reached the conclusion of this paper. The conclusion is found not within this paper though, but within your experience of the paper. As you sit there and ponder over the points I have made you made the paper come alive. All of the things you have experienced in life and all of the things you have read affect how you will see this. The connections you draw and the line of thinking that you pursue will create this paper, because the paper is not complete and really does not exist without you the reader.
1) The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, which was published in Germany in 1979, is a wonderful example of how all stories all apart of one single story. Ende begins with a boy name Bastian picking up a copy of the book The Neverending story. Eventually Bastian is pulled right into the novel himself.
2) Angela Jeanette connects the name Silas Flannery with the George Elliot novel Silas Marner and the author Flannery O’Conner.
3) This idea of one single book containing all books is very similar to Borges short story The Library of Babel.
4) In the same fashion as Borges, Calvino takes a real life Cimmerian culture and fictionalizes it for the sake of his story.
5) Martian McLaughlin quotes from Calvino’s The Written and Unwritten Word in his chapter A Borgesian Summa, which is in his book Italo Calvino. Calvino says, “That’s what happened with my last novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. I started imagining all the kinds of novels I would never write because I couldn’t; then I tried to write them and for some time I felt myself in the energy of ten different imaginary novels.”
6) Francese points out that in the Italian text that the “you” is the male Lettore and Ludmilla is written as the female Lettrice (pg. 51).
7) Interestingly enough even though Calvino anticipated and wrote about hypertext he never actually own a computer himself.
8) See Jean Baudrillard’s The Perfect Crime.
9) McLaughlin compares pages 86 and 87 of If on a winter’s night a traveler to page 47 of The Path to the Spider’s Nest.
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