- Being in the Midst:Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
This is how you have changed since yesterday, you who insisted you preferred a book, something solid, which lies before you, easily defined, enjoyed without risks, to a real life experience, always elusive, discontinuous, debated.(If on a winter's night 32)
Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler collapses the distinction between "solid" fiction and "elusive" reality; his novel is not easily defined or enjoyed without risks, for it is, like the world the Male Reader tries to escape by reading fiction, discontinuous, fragmentary, debatable. The Male Reader, the main character in the novel, pursues an order, "an exact, taut trajectory" (27) by which to move through the books he reads, only to find that pursuit to be never-ending and impossible. He looks in fiction for a consolation for his disordered, uncontrollable existence, a way to step outside of time, to exist in "an abstract and absolute space and time" (27). But Calvino's novel serves to frustrate this, and other, manifestations of the desire for the One, for a nontemporal metaphysical ideal, whether it is the monolithic author who stands above his text, guiding the potentially disruptive characters and events into a neat resolution; or the critical reader who tries to gain a perspective above the text, playing detective in an attempt to tie themes together and arrive at the true and comprehensive interpretation of the book; or, most importantly, men and women in the world who may live as the characters in the story fragments do, reading their experience for signs [End Page 702] of their Origin or End. Whether in writing, reading, or being in the world, If on a winter's night a traveler exposes the attempt to escape an interested position (etymologically, a position "in the midst of") and places man squarely back in his temporal world.
Few articles have been published in English on If on a winter's night a traveler, written in 1979 and translated into English in 1981.1 Though the lack of critical attention being paid to Calvino's ninth book is, in one sense, understandable—the novel intentionally frustrates and eludes the totalizing grasp of traditional critical authority—it is also surprising, given Calvino's wide recognition as one of the most important contemporary writers. In his seminal essay, "The Literature of Replenishment," John Barth points to Calvino as an exemplar of the postmodern program, and Barth urges his audience "to read Calvino at once, beginning with Cosmicomics and going right on" (71). Furthermore, Calvino himself evidently regarded If on a winter's night a traveler as one of his most important works; in an interview in the New York Times in 1981, he describes how he had carried the idea for the novel around with him for many years and even "stopped writing fiction altogether for three years" (1) after the plan for the book came to him. Yet despite the importance of both the writer and the novel, particularly to an academic audience, English and American critics have not written on If on a winter's night a traveler, in part, perhaps, because Calvino is an Italian writer and the majority of criticism of his work has been done in Italian. This language barrier makes it more difficult, but also more essential, for English-speaking scholars to articulate their own responses to Calvino's work.
Both Italian and American critics have helped to identify part of Calvino's project in If on a winter's night a traveler by interpreting the novel as a destruction of the all-powerful Author of traditional fiction and as a document that invests renewed power in the activity of reading. Clearly, a demystification of authority is part of Calvino's larger accomplishment: the demystification of any metaphysical ideal located outside of time and impervious to the surrounding disruptions and disorder. The traditional author has been such an elevated figure, has been, in Mario Lavagetto's words, "silent, dictatorial, omnipresent" (71), completely articulated throughout his textual creation, yet unassailably above it. Calvino explicitly works against this elevation of...