Essay for English Class: Italo Calvino

Being exam time, I don’t have much space to write extended blog posts at the moment but when I have more time over the summer I intend to write responses on Sam Harris’s new book The Moral Landscape, Simon LeVay’s Gay, Straight and the Reason Why, Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World (maybe touching on her A Question of Time as well), and Richard Dawkins’ Greatest Show on Earth and Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. Hopefully I’ll also get around to finishing (and blogging about) T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief. It’s a rather eclectic bunch of books, fiction and non-fiction, that I’ve been reading recently, and they each demand some kind of considered response for different reasons. In the meantime, however, this is an essay I recently penned for English at ANU, focused on Italo Calvino’s postmodern masterpiece, If on a winter’s night a traveler. I’ve become quite a fan of Calvino and his writing; perhaps one day I’ll pick up another of his tomes and attempt to engage with it. For now, though, postmodernism is on the menu:

Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a traveler

Vintage 1998

In part, the history of the novel consists of the drive to represent life as it has been lived by common people through the ages. It is a bold and visionary project that has consistently been acutely self effacing and self critical, while simultaneously claiming to possess a monopoly on moral and social truth. The project of realism – the quest to write a fiction that would accurately and sharply mirror ‘everyday life’ is a project constantly at odds with itself. The old and perennial question, ‘is art truly a reflection of life?’ is perhaps most relevant when applied to realism, which by the very nature of its claim to represent life as it is actually lived begs us to regard it with a special reverence. To achieve a suitably mimetic effect authors have consistently striven to accomplish a sense of verisimilitude; to bring the minutiae of everyday life as it is supposedly lived to the attention of the reader so as to generate the sense of what the critic James Wood (2009: 186) calls “The Real.”

Yet this project, as ambitious as it is, has suffered from constant embarrassment. Since the time of early realist writers like Flaubert, the axioms of the realist project have themselves been undermined. What gives a writer the authority to represent “real” life? How are readers to be certain that the author’s implicit claim to represent real life in the text is a valid one?  Why do we privilege “realist” fiction in the first place? Is there some normative standard by which readers can judge the success of the writer’s art? Why do we assume the writer is in control of his writing, given that novels are complex constructions whose eventual meaning is mediated by a host of other individuals apart from the novelist – editors, illustrators, graphic designers, and others? Do we not “…move merely among competing genres of fiction-making, of which realism is just the most confused?” (Wood 2009: 171) Answers to these questions, and many others like them, have been thought and argued about since the dawn of criticism in Aristotle.

Only in the last century have theorists and other writers conjectured radical and thoroughly destabilising responses to these problems. Although the “genre” of realism continues to enjoy commercial success, its most fundamental assumptions have been diluted. For example, Roland Barthes, a French theorist and philosopher, wrote an essay called “The Death of the Author” in which he sought to demonstrate that fiction was composed not of intentional unity and holistic meaning, but instead constitutes a “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash…”, a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” (Barthes 1967) Authors, for Barthes, become mere “copyists”.  In Wood’s eyes (2009: 171) Barthes posits a world of novels that adhere to “a system of conventional codes” forming a “grammar so ubiquitous that we do not notice the way it structures bourgeois story telling.” Barthes’ suggestion implies that texts refer only to themselves or other texts; there is no ‘reality’ outside the text to which an “author” can appeal – because the author is not really the origin of the text in the first place.

I want to argue in this essay that Italo Calvino, like Barthes, seeks to demystify realism and challenge the notion that authors maintain a kind of supernatural control over the meanings in their work, especially meanings that are said to convey something truthful about the real world. We assume novels are representative of the real world, but we assume this only because we admit great status to the author as a kind of moral prophet. Calvino seeks to expose this assumption and render the figure of the author as absurd as his Father of Stories, a man “who uninterruptedly tells stories in countries and in times completely unknown to him” (Calvino 1998: 117)

A quick glance at If on a winter’s night a traveller hints at Calvino’s scepticism. The text is composed of a sequence of unfinished stories, all unconnected, all fragmentary, which taken together suggest a kind of ‘Barthesian’ view of literature as perpetually self-referential, stuck in a ceaseless, kaleidoscopic universe of allusion, collusion, imitation, and unreality. Even the narrator of the seventh incipit seems to be mysteriously aware of the illusion of received notions of reality: “Speculate, reflect: every thinking activity implies mirrors for me…I cannot concentrate except in the presence of reflected images, as if my soul needed a model to imitate every time it wanted to explore its speculative capacity.” (Calvino 1998: 161). It is as if all meaning is merely a reflection of itself, to itself, and understood in terms only of itself. Yet despite the postmodernistic pretensions of the novel, Calvino opts to make the focus of the journey of the protagonist, named “Reader”.

In many ways If on a winter’s night a traveller is a quest story: there is a dilemma, a journey and an object of the quest.  The initial dilemma concerns the strange and somehow inexplicable fact that the novel the Reader thinks he has purchased turns out to be anything but what he expects. The journey consists of the quest to find the answers; the answer is the object of the quest. And yet, the Reader is never privileged with a final answer; he never discovers the final hoard of gold. Instead, stories merely arise, one out of the other, indefinitely.  “The Male Reader, the main character in the novel, pursues an order…by which to move through the books he reads, only to find that pursuit never ending and impossible”. (Sorapure: 705) Order, finality, ending, totality – these traditional tenets of novelistic realism are undermined and subverted by Calvino. In the ninth incipit, the character is denied any sense of closure, and left to flounder, as we are as readers, to reflect on the fragmentary, the contingent, the unfinished nature of reality.

““The name! My mother’s name! Quickly”

“Now. The moment has come for you to know…”

No, the moment did not come. After having rambled in vain prefaces, my father’s speech was lost in a death rattle and was extinguished for ever.” (Calvino 1998: 223)

How are we to understand the scepticism of If on a winter’s night a traveller, given that the novel appears to deny the efficacy of closure and conclusiveness? These are, after all, traditional tropes of realist fiction. Most novels we ever read have a definable, definite end point: a point at which the reader can anticipate closing the book and feeling satisfied, their emotional expectations having been met. The plurality of stories in If on a winter’s night a traveller seems to suggest that only a fragmented and illusory fiction is capable of capturing the vagaries of “real life”. And yet, strangely enough, we find that If on a winter’s night a traveller itself affords its readers a traditional ending. The Reader marries the Other Reader.. “…in a flash, you decide to marry Ludmilla.” (Calvino 1998: 259) The closure seems abrupt and unnatural, but this is exactly the point. For all its intransigence, its plurality, its difficulty, If on a winter’s night a traveller seeks to be every bit as conventional, as decidedly traditional, as most ‘realistic’ novels ultimately are, with their rounded endings, their resolved plots, their emotional symmetries. The quest story is formulaic: the Reader confers with strange professors, reads manuscripts in near dead languages, falls in love, travels to exotic locales and strives with a mysterious adversary. And yet, Calvino’s novel is at all times ironically aware of its own fallible status. Unlike other “realist” novels, it does not seek to engender notions of reality.  Instead, the juxtaposition of the postmodern and the strangely conventional serve to bring to our attention to the paradox of novelistic realism: a genre that seeks to represent reality is subject to deliberate artifice, an artifice which is exercised not only by the imperfect, solipsistic figure of the novelist but by more mysterious parties with questionable morals. Calvino’s ‘ideal’ novel is ghastly assemblage, more suspect even than Barthes’s clinical conception of novels composed of “cultural” spoils.

In a further layer of irony, Calvino dramatises this very predicament in the pages of his novel. The central portion of If on a winter’s night a traveller is interposed with a comically absurdist diary, written ostensibly by the (fictional) Irish novelist Silas Flannery. The figure of the author is shown to possess forlorn, almost psychotic imaginings, to be the victim of a perpetual neurosis that renders him eternally lonely, reduced to watching his idealised reader, the hoped for recipient of his innermost thoughts, through a “looking glass”. Calvino’s Flannery embodies qualities oppositional to those often ascribed to notions of the traditional author, Barthes’s Author God. “How many years has it been since I could allow myself some disinterested reading?” (Calvino 1998: 169) Flannery is anything but a selfless prophet, invested with perspicacious powers or insight. He is self obsessed, or rather, obsessed with the desire to write. The whole affair of writing is “unnatural” to Flannery; words do not come to him through some kind of inspiration. Instead, he lives an isolated existence at a great distance from his readers, those into whom he theoretically possesses insight that they themselves do not enjoy. Yet Flannery is wrought by struggles. He desires to communicate directly to his readers, in an unmediated voice, pure and focused. “At times I am gripped by an absurd desire,” writes ‘Flannery’, “that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that same moment.” (Calvino 1998: 170) Ironically, “A team of ghost writers, experts in imitating the master’s style in all its nuances and mannerisms, is ready and waiting…”(Calvino 1998: 121) Most of the sentences attributed to Flannery anyone every reads are probably counterfeits, produced by the mysterious Organisation of Apocryphal Power, brainchild of the mysterious Ermes Marana, master of imitation and deceit. Flannery hopes to speak directly to his readers, most of the time he is merely “imitated”, his words counterfeited, inauthentic, suspect. But what does it matter if an author is “imitated”? Are the words any less meaningful? Calvino’s answer to this question seems to be that all writing is imitation of a kind; that all writing suffers from delusions of its own unique authenticity. Flannery suffers from the delusion that he can write a novel at the same moment his readers’ eyes peruse its words. But all words are mediated through the prism of third parties, conventions, inspirations (both conscious and unconscious), cultural and social contexts, etc. The notion that authors have possess kind of direct control over their writings, and that realism is the product of this inspiration, is heavily undermined by Calvino’s treatment of the figure of the author.

This is dramatically realised in the paradox of Flannery imagining his own complete erasure: “How well would I write if I were not here…In between the white page and the writing of words…there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person.” (Calvino 1998: 171) Authenticity can only be realised at the expense of the author? Is this Calvino’s ultimate “message”? Perhaps, but whatever the case Calvino thoroughly demystifies the centrality of the author’s mind, morals, and insight, contesting realism’s claim to moral and cultural supremacy.

It seems clear to me that Calvino is invoking a different sort of fiction, one that consistently demystifies and usurps the purposed control of the author figure. No longer hegemonic, the author is reduced, while the novel itself comes to be seen as an artefact that is as much a part of the world as the people whose lives it, as a form, is designed to represent. Nor can we know the extent of an author’s control over his or her work, but we can no longer assume it is absolute. We don’t know, when we read the ten incipits in If on a winter’s night a traveller, the extent to which they have been fabricated and tampered with by Marana. We must assume a degree of uncertainty and contingency for all realist fiction that in previous times would have been unthinkable.


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