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  • Reinscribing a Dead Author in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
  • Melissa Watts (bio)

"To give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth," proclaimed Roland Barthes in 1968, a year of overthrows, "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author ("Death of the Author" 148). Two years later, Italo Calvino seemed to agree with Barthes's rather Oedipal prophecy when he wrote that "after the process of literary composition has been taken to pieces and reassembled, the decisive moment in literary life is bound to be reading" ("Notes toward a Definition" 96). And in 1979 Calvino published a novel all about reading with a protagonist called "Reader"—If on a winter's night a traveler. Critical response to Traveler has concentrated on this apparent alliance between Barthes and Calvino, reading Traveler, in Patricia Waugh's phrasing, as "the fictional completion of Barthes's statement: that the death of the author makes possible the birth of the reader" (134). But has Calvino really sacrificed himself that the reader might live? How complete is the correspondence between the theory of reader supremacy and the experience of reading this novel? Can an author apply to his writing a theory that requires his own subordination? Can writing free reading? Are Barthes's ideas about the power and autonomy available to readers realistic? Examination of Traveler in light of Barthes's theory reveals tensions between the means Calvino employs and the result presumed by critics who have read Traveler as a realization of the future of writing according to Barthes's [End Page 705] formula, a liberation and empowering of the reader and relegation of the author. These tensions in Calvino's novel run deep enough to indicate an inevitable and general conflict between writer and reader.

One basis critics have found for their Barthesian reading is the uncanny correspondence of passages and ideas in Traveler to much of Barthes's theory of the text. In S/Z Barthes proposes that each individual work of literature is part of a vast network that constitutes a single text. Each work, then, is a "perspective (of fragments, of voices from other texts, other codes) whose vanishing point is nonetheless ceaselessly pushed back, mysteriously opened: each (single) text is the very theory (and not the mere example) of this vanishing, of this difference which indefinitely returns, insubmissive" (12). This idea of a text as a view on an unapproachable vanishing point, a perspective made up of fragments and voices from other texts, is consistent with some of Traveler's most prominent features.

The structure of the novel is such that it might serve as a microcosmic illustration of the vast textual network. Traveler is a succession of beginnings, or "incipits"—openings onto novels that are never completed. Thus there are actually ten single texts (eleven, if one counts the titles taken together) that ceaselessly push back the vanishing point: from If on a winter's night a traveler to Outside the town of Malbork to Leaning from the steep slope and so on, each one acting as the indefinite and insubmissive return of textual difference.

Like Barthes's single text that comprises all individual texts, Traveler is a pastiche. Calvino compounds various novel genres, literary clichés, and innumerable statements on reading and writing, all of which are "voices from other texts" or from the One Text. The "fragments of other texts" are actual (or supposedly actual) excerpts from other works; and "voices from other codes" appear in nutshell form, caricatured for higher visibility. In Calvino's fiction, Lotaria's literary study group, which examines a fragment of a novel in the spy-thriller genre, heavy on the sexual intrigue, written from a pop existentialist perspective, applies clichés from all available codes:

"The polymorphic-perverse sexuality . . .""The laws of a market economy . . .""The homologies of the signifying structures . . .""Deviation and institutions . . .""Castration . . ."


To accommodate his innovative notion of the text, Barthes requires a new approach to textual analysis, which will be "henceforth less a question of explaining or even describing, than of entering into the play of signifiers" ("Theory of the Text" 43...


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