Review of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

by Ralph Dumain

I lived numerous decades of life before reading Italo Calvino. I read a good percentage of Borges in English, and I appreciated him more after leaving him be for a few decades. I finished reading Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler at exactly 8 am EST this morning. This metanovel is brilliant. The structure is so complex it takes a remarkable author to put such a thing together, and then there’s the vividness and sensuous details of the descriptions. I have noticed that fiction writers do so much better with idealist philosophies, semiotics, and postmodernism than asshole philosophers and literary theorists.

Another interesting things about authors of metafiction is what makes them different from one another. Compare for example Calvino, who was inspired and influenced by Borges, with Borges. Compare Robert Zend (whom you have never heard of but you can listen to my podcast), who was not only friends with Borges but collaborated on a story with Borges, and they are quite different. Calvino is also quite different from Borges. With Borges you get idealist philosophy, paradoxes and labyrinths, infinite regress and the dissolution of the cosmos, and overall metaphysical anxiety.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a novel about reading itself, about the adventure of reading and the desires and assumptions behind reading and the variety of readers. It is also about writers, and the mechanisms of publishing and distribution and censorship, and about the gaps between the author as a person and the author as author and the reader and the intermediaries including translators, publishers, and in some cases the secret police. It is also about the relationships between readers not only as interpreters, but as human beings, as there is also an erotic dimension to the novel. It is about human interaction mixed with the mental isolation and discrepancies between the discrete individuals who interact as well as develop conceptions of the other.

It is also about literary theory, classification, and computer generation and analysis of texts, and what escapes the net of theory and taxonomy in the mind of the individual readers. It is about the holes in all systematic interpretive schemes, as the readers, the writers, and the actors are cast into a chaos of uncertainty, fluidity; and the boundary between the authentic and the fraudulent dissolves. Also, the novel in all the fragments of the ten elusive sub-novels it presents (each one breaking off at a critical moment) displays examples of the basic narrative types that exist, hilariously exemplifying literary cliches while making them all compelling as well as reflection-inducing. It is a semiotic novel par excellence, and thus, most importantly, an epistemological novel. I love it not because it advocates irrationalism, which it does not, really, at least not as I read it (ha ha!), but because it lays out all the issues and perspectives from which one perceives not only texts, but in an abstracted way, experience itself.

Another interesting point is that Calvino’s novel was published in 1979. One really must ask what is really new in the realm of ideas since 1980, or whether what we’ve seen is merely the technological and cultural materialization of ideas imagined by a previous few generations, the thinkers of which who have been lucky enough to die out not suffering what the 21st century would bring. Stanislaw Lem lived long enough to see the Internet and hated it.

17 November 2017

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