Monday, 18 February 2013

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino

"You know the best you can expect is to avoid the worst."

As I read I tend to make notes of quotes which seem particularly interesting and may help me in this blogging enterprise. The problem with If On a Winter's Night a Traveller is that it would take me days to type out the quotes that I have noted. If you are interested in the process of writing or reading, or both as they are inextricably intertwined, this is a kind of motherlode.

Calvino starts down one road, doubles back on himself, sprays red herrings with abandon and refuses to let us continue the wild goose chases that he sets up over and over again. But all the time he keeps certain questions to the fore: Why do people read? Why do people write? What do books do? What are words? What are books? How are we drawn into a story? Is our need to have complete narratives now outdated? etcetera...

Joyce called a pier "a disappointed bridge" and Calvino has started a number of bridges here. But can any story really span the emptiness it is faced with. "Perhaps it is this story that is a bridge over the void." He includes the openings of ten fictional fictions, which "The Reader" is unable to continue reading for one reason or another. They are enclosed in an overall narration, however playful and surreal that may become, in which "The Reader" tries to track down the rest of each novel he starts before being distracted by another. Indeed these interpolated beginnings of novels are titled with their 'names' in the list of contents while the chapters narrating the reader's story are given chapter numbers. The acute reader will note that the titles of the books make a kind of narrative poem.

"If on a winter's night a traveller
outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of vertigo Looks down in the gathering shadow
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 story down there awaits its end?"

The book manages to create a chorus of voices by moving between the 'fictions' and the reality and also by moving the perspective which is speaking to us. Or not, as the case may be. Calvino uses the pronoun 'you' but then builds this 'you' into a character, "The Reader". We also get the "Other Reader".  The smallest word can have a profound affect on how a novel is read. In the first of the framed fictions we follow the main character around. The use of "I" is discussed at length. It will alter the way in which the book is read, and also how it is written. - "If you, reader, couldn't help picking me out among the people getting off the train and continued following me in my to-and-fro-ing between bar and telephone, this is simply because I am called "I" and this is the only thing you know about me, but this alone is reason enough for you to invest a part of yourself in the stranger "I." Just as the author, since he has no intention of telling about himself, decided to call the character "I" as if to conceal him, not having to name him or describe him, because any other name or attribute would define him more than this stark pronoun; still, 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."

The most concrete of words can be loaded with its own history. As we step into the first story we are taken to a train station. Rather than the opening of the novel it is as if the novel is being described to us, with the pitfalls inherent in setting location pointed out. "Stations are all alike; it doesn't matter if the lights cannot illuminate beyond their blurred halo, all of this is a setting you know by heart, with the odour of train that lingers even after all the trains have left, the special odour of stations after the last train has left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of indicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog."

Words work as archetypes and also as clues. Each time one is used the reader brings their own bank of knowledge to bear, interpreting it as they have been trained to do by, amoung other things, their previous reading. "A cloud of coal dust still hovers in the air of stations all these years after the lines have been totally electrified, and a novel that talks about trains and stations cannot help conveying this odour of smoke." Of course the author can encourage and use this vagueness to create interest in the reader. The reader wants to know what's going on, where we are:  "For a couple of pages now you have been reading on, and this would be the time to tell you clearly whether this station where I have got off is a station of the past or a station of today; instead the sentences continue to move in vagueness, grayness, in a kind of no man's land of experience reduced to the lowest common denominator. Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it—a trap. Or perhaps the author still has not made up his mind, just as you, reader, for that matter, are not sure what you would most like to read"

History also places the novel in a frame where it has to respond to its own time. Does the when of when a novel is written dictate the elements of form and length that will work best. Would what was once a masterpiece approach parody if written today. Calvino suggests that the continuity of time has been shattered, making his novel of story fragments natural to modern sensibilities. The era where the idea of progress through time towards a goal held sway is posited to have been a brief interregnum. "Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no longer than a hundred years."

Rather than deal with the dispersal of potential is it not better to keep returning to the point at which all potentials still exist? Is Calvino's method a reaction against the modern shattered sensibility rather than an embrace? He would write nineteenth century doorstops if only it were still possible. But the sum of history and knowledge keeps interrupting. "This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition." Of course many readers want to lose themselves in the false time of books, to have an uninterrupted flow from front cover to back, and they (or should I say 'you' dear reader) will grow frustrated "just when you were beginning to grow truly interested, at this very point the author feels called upon to display one of those virtuoso tricks so customary in modern writing, repeating a paragraph word for word."

But this is not a postmodern trick that 'the reader' has come across but a printers error, two identical "sixteen page signatures" being bound together. We are introduced to the book as object, with Calvino explaining how books are printed, folded and cut. He also introduces a character who is a non-reader and uses books to make sculptures. He sees his non-reading status as a badge of freedom, and it is not illiteracy but something he has learned to do. "It's not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear."

We have books whose pages are uncut, where the reader must cut them in order to read: "Opening a path for yourself, with a sword's blade, in the barrier of pages becomes linked with the thought of how much the word contains and conceals: you cut your way through your reading as if through a dense forest." He even predicts the birth of the ebook, the end of the book as an object and its dissolution into pure energy, even if he has his reader split these particular atoms in a fit of rage. "You fling the book on the floor, you would hurl it out of the window, even out of the closed window, through the slats of the Venetian blinds; let them shred its incongruous quires, let sentences, words, morphemes, phonemes gush forth, beyond recomposition into discourse; through the panes, and if they are of unbreakable glass so much the better, hurl the book and reduce it to photons, undulatory vibrations, polarized spectra; through the wall, let the book crumble into molecules and atoms passing between atom and atom of the reinforced concrete, breaking up into electrons, neutrons, neutrinos, elementary particles more and more minute; through the telephone wires, let it be reduced to electronic impulses, into flow of information, shaken by redundancies and noises, and let it be degraded into a swirling entropy."

We follow the trail of books into libraries, universities, publishing houses. We even have nature itself as author: "If the end of the world could be localized in a precise spot, it would be the meteorological observatory of Pëtkwo: a corrugated-iron roof that rests on four somewhat shaky poles and houses, lined up on a shelf, some recording barometers, hygrometers, and thermographs, with their rolls of lined paper, which turn with a slow clockwork ticking against an oscillating nib." There is also an episode involving two characters wrestling, while one considers what his body is trying to say, what this physical confrontation is really about? Everything, it seems, has to be read. Not just books. And anything can become a book, the walls of a cave or an urban underpass. What is the writer of graffiti trying to do? What were the cavemen doing? Perhaps "the need to decorate the cold walls of their caves to become masters of the tormenting mineral alienness, to make them familiar, empty them into their own inner space, annex them to the physical reality of living."

We also come across diaries and translations; episodes from an author's life; writers block and writer's inspirations. In a publishers offices we meet editors and authors both singular and collective. "You have turned up here at a time when those hanging around publishing houses are no longer aspiring poets or novelists, as in the past, would-be poetesses or lady writers; this is the moment (in the history of Western culture ) when self-realization on paper is sought not so much by isolated individuals as by collectives: study seminars, working parties, research teams, as if intellectual labor were too dismaying to be faced alone." Indeed it seems as if authorship is replacing procreation in this world of words: "as if the shared life of a couple had no greater consolation than the production of manuscripts." What would he have had to say about bloggers? He writes about how history treats literature, how we cannot know what will survive, nor how. "Who knows which books from our period will be saved, and who knows which authors' names will be remembered? Some books will remain famous but will be considered anonymous works, as for us the epic of Gilgamesh; other authors' names will still be well known, but none of their works will survive, as was the case with Socrates; or perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer."

What do we want from all this writing? Is it some form of meaning, or just escape? What happens when neither is offered? What happens when the book keeps changing and the expectations raised are not realised? Is this more like life? Is our search for narrative comfort an attempt to escape the true reality that narrative is only roughly sketched over the underlying void? "And so you see this novel so tightly interwoven with sensations suddenly riven by bottomless chasms, as if the claim to portray vital fullness revealed the void beneath. You try jumping over the gap, picking up the story by grasping the edge of the prose that comes afterward, jagged like the margin of the pages separated by the paper knife. You can't get your bearings: the characters have changed, the settings, you don't understand what it's about, you find names of people and don't know who they are—Hela, Casimir. You begin to suspect that this is a different book, perhaps the real Polish novel Outside the town of Malbork, whereas the beginning you have read could belong to yet another book, God only knows which." And is the tension between reader or read not simply a reflection of that between being and life. And life may be even more difficult to read than Finnegan's Wake. "I am 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."

I don't think I will leave it so long before reading this again. It is like a firework show of ideas. I recently read Richard's post on Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate and he talks of how Grossman goes toe to toe with some of the horror of the Twentieth Century, slugging it out with these undigestible truths. Calvino is fighting the same fight but he is a more technical boxer, throwing feints, dancing around the ring so that nothing, it seems, can hit him. But what is it that throws the punches he avoids? Punches that can stop time, fracture space, drive us not just onto the canvass but through it, into the yawning chasm beneath. We know the opponent ("formless and meaningless life"?only by the manoeuvres taken to avoid it.

So, go on. Pick up If On A winter's Night a Traveler, "Adjust the light so you won't strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you're absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn't in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn't too strong, doesn't glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best."


  1. I actually had a library copy of this earlier this year and had to take it back without reading it (I'm still annoyed with whoever had a hold on it...). Definitely one I need to read soon.

  2. This has been on my reading list for at least two years. As soon as I can move my brain to consider any remotely demanding piece of literature, I'll read it (no idea when that might be)!

  3. I wouldn't have considered the Calvino/Grossman connection you make here, Séamus, but you intrigue me with that nonetheless! Sorry to say that I've failed to connect with this work twice now (more a timing thing than anything else, I think) although I naturally will give it at least one more try. Loved Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, though.

    1. I've only read this and The Castle of Crossed Destinies but will now have to add The Baron in the Trees to Invisible Cities on my wish list.

  4. Cosmicomics, too, there's a good chance you'll like that one. This, though, is maybe my favorite. Just the audacity of the chapter breaks is enough for a laugh. Calvino, you bastard, I was reading that! Tony's story is almost, uncannily, the plot of the novel.

    1. Yes, if only Tony had started reading it!
      I'll add Cosmicomics to that never ending wish list.

  5. See, if I were more cunning, I'd claim that my comment was meta-fictional...

    ...sadly, it's actually a true story ;)