Book Club 2: If on a winter’s night a traveller
If on a winter’s night a traveller – Italo Calvino
“Il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter.”
[“We must choose: to live or to tell.”]
The protagonist of Sartre’s existentialist classic Nausea tells us we have to choose between living and telling, that is, between doing things and talking about them. The problem is that the things we choose to do only seem to acquire meaning and relevance when we talk about them, and this hopelessly complicates the relationship between our active self and our contemplative self. In many ways, this is the paradox at the heart of Calvino’s novel, or anti-novel, which uses the second-person format to drag the reader kicking and screaming from the safety of his armchair/sofa/bed to the madness of a multi-layered hyper-narrative. Of course, the reader cannot be in both places at the same time, as the first piece in this series pointed out, and passages in the book often becomes false the moment they are read (see, again, the opening line: “You are about to start reading Italo Calvino’s new novel”).
The novel recognises that we are not actually the protagonist (the Reader) but it nevertheless invites us to become his proxy in a more direct manner than most books would deign to. Admittedly, this is more difficult for female readers once it becomes clear that the Reader is a man, but this detail is postponed for several chapters, and then the narrative blip is ‘rectified’ when we are introduced to the Other Reader. In any case, the novel blurs any and all distinction between the reader as man/woman of action and as observer of action: in asking us to make ourselves comfortable at the beginning of the novel, Calvino is in fact demanding that we do the opposite. After all, for a book to address its reader in real-time is no less unnerving than the idea of any other inanimate object attempting to put itself on speaking terms with a person in its vicinity.
And yet, having recognised the inherent absurdity in making the reader and the protagonist one and the same person, Calvino proceeds headlong into a story about what it means to be a reader, a story that swings from the disconcertingly plausible to the most far-fetched fantasy. At bottom, it is a novel that asks: what is the reader’s story? And in attempting to answer its own question, it dramatises the reader’s struggle to engage with narrative. As it turns out, this struggle is a fruitless, albeit fascinating one, in which the Reader’s frustration is indeed the reader’s frustration:
“Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find.”
Perhaps this is because literature and reading can be all things to all people: narrative perspective is something that can be changed at the author’s whim, and in this case that is exactly what happens, as we pass from detective novel, to neo-realist drama, to exotic romance, and so on. There is no straight-faced novel that can hope to capture the diversity of human existence simply because the scope is too broad to convey in conventional narrative. Even Balzac could only do one city properly. If on a winter’s night a traveller is a novel that takes a step back and laughs at the futility of realism, and in the context of the author’s career as a writer, this is Calvino laughing at himself.