If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, written in Italian in 1979, is ten novels in one. The protagonist of these ten novels (and the only apparent thing they have in common) is the reader. Yes, “you,” as you interact with the author, are the main character.
You begin one of the novels, get interested in the setting, the characters, the plot, and then just at the point of suspense, the story is cut off and another begins. Frustrating? Another character says to you:
You have only this beginning and would like to find the continuation, is that true? The trouble is that once upon a time they all began like that, all novels. There was somebody who went along a lonely street and saw something that attracted his attention, something that seemed to conceal a mystery, or a premonition; then he asked for explanations and they told him a long story… Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? (258-259)
You keep reading, simultaneously hating the author for “committing serious imprudences” (66) in throwing off the conventions of storytelling, and finding yourself compelled to “read between the lines of things the evasive meaning of what is in store” (66). Your efforts are rewarded; it turns out that the ten novels are one, a decagonal storyline demonstrating that life, the universe, existence, is one story with infinite permutations.
This is experimental fiction, emphasis on the experimental. Calvino is clearly concerned with saving the novel form from “being an assembly-line product” (128) and drawing distinctions between “those who make books” and “those who read them” (93).
And he has a lot to say about those who make them. He describes both precision and confusion in the publishing house. He makes a showdown of the “productive writer” vs. the “tormented writer” (173). He comments on the trend of the plural author, jabbing at husband and wife pairs, “as if the shared life of a couple had no greater consolation than the production of manuscripts” (96). (That one smarts!)
A beautiful analogy of the craft of writing comes from a character in one of the novels monitoring an observatory:
From my position up there I felt as if I had the storms and the clear skies in my hand, the thunderbolts and the mists: not like a god, no, do not believe me mad, I did not feel I was Zeus the Thunderer, but a bit like a conductor who has before him a score already written and who knows that the sounds rising from the instruments correspond to a pattern of which he is the principle curator and possessor (67).
The writer is not an inventor but a skilled conduit of the pre-existing story, ultimate truth revealed in glimpses. Therefore, the ideal novel has “as its driving source only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves” (92).
I believe that. The problem, of course, is that Calvino’s statement appears in this novel, the one with the anarchist agenda, the one that argues for purity in storytelling and the necessity of throwing off preconceptions—in other words, a novel that imposes a philosophy of life rather than allowing you to observe its growth.
It’s a brain teaser, this one. Worth the effort—but successful in providing a great deal of frustration along the way!