You are about to begin reading an essay about Italo Calvino’s novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. It can be difficult to read for long using a computer screen, so I’ve kept it short. I assume you have found a comfortable place and have closed the tab to the streaming television website. If anyone calls to you, yell out that you are reading Dappled Things right now and cannot be disturbed.
If a Reader, say a middle-aged man who has settled into happy contentment, is to re-read the story If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino upon the 30th anniversary of the Author’s death, does the Reader return to the time and place where he first read the book? Does he become a time traveler through participation in Story and relive his youth? If so, the Reader finds that he is a young undergraduate again, desperately exhausted and yet up late into the night voraciously consuming any and all literature that comes into his purview. The Reader is put in touch with the man he was and who he, in some sense, continues to be; it is a gift he receives from none other than Italo Calvino, an Author who displays the everlasting power of literature to draw a Reader into Story itself. The Reader would be mistaken to consider that a Story is consumed as a product or enjoyed at a distance. Similarly, an Author would be mistaken to consider that a Story belongs to him or that the Reader is unimportant.
If On a Winter’s Night does not make this mistake. Although the conceit, a book of stories that never find completion and eventually draws the Reader personally into the narrative, seems like the sort of nightmarish preciousness dreamed up by a post-grad with too much ambition and cleverness, in the hands of a skilled Author, it really, really works. If you are to open the first page and begin, you will become the Reader, the Story will be yours, and somehow you will commune with the Author even though he died some 30 years ago. You will become a character and lines of reality and fiction will blur. Is it incredibly confusing to find yourself enmeshed in the plot of a book written decades ago? Yes. Is it challenging? Yes. But is it nevertheless enchanting? Absolutely.
Often, when I write I do so with trepidation. Not because of false humility; I am sure others write better (more good?) than me (than I?) but I am suspect that I in turn have my literary moments. Sometimes my words are good and sometimes they are not so good. No, what I mean to say is that I am fearful even of the words I consider to be good because these words cannot continue to belong to me as Author. Once they leave the confines of my imagination, they must also belong to the Reader. This, I find, exposes me to a reality I cannot control. We travel through this Story together, you and I. You might say that the act of putting pen and ink to paper is like holding out your hand to grasp that of a stranger. It is the Story that shall make us friends.
And, Dear Reader, you must make friends with Calvino. He will introduce you to exotic cities, a man who lives only in treetops, and the secret hiding place of urban cats. He has a towering intellect disguised by effortless, whimsical prose. In addition, he has done us the favor of classifying all of the books at the bookstore and will save us uncountable hours of confusion trying to find the right book to purchase:
– Books You Haven’t Read
– Books You Needn’t Read
– Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
– Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
– Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
– Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
– Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
– Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
– Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
– Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
– Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
– Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
– Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
– Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
– Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
– Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
– Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
– Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
– Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them
Calvino loves books. He clearly loves being an Author and wants share his satisfaction with the Reader. Good and Bad, Long and Short, Fiction and Non-Fiction, True and False, If On a Winter’s Night is a romance to all forms of Story. Books both reveal and conceal. They confuse and enchant. It is wonderful simply to be surrounded by them, to open for the first time, to use as coasters, to decorate, to impress guests, to analyze, to overwhelm, but always, always they become a part of who we are. A Story cannot remain external to the Reader. An Author cannot keep a safe distance. In Invisible Cities, Calvino writes,
Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.
We are humble travelers in this world. We pass through quickly and are soon gone. Calvino is a consummate foreigner, born in Cuba to an anarchist-turned-socialist father and a botanist, pacifist mother, the family relocates to Italy in his youth. He actually prefers it, to live as one not quite at home in this world. He believes that this is the best way to see the world through new eyes, beyond its particularities to the grand Story that underlies existence.
Life, with all its facts and particularities, can be melancholic for Calvino. As he sees it, all books, at least the good ones, are written by “somebody who went along a lonely street and saw something that attracted his attention, something that seemed to conceal a mystery…” There are only two possible ends: the hero marries the heroine, or else they die. “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” He finds that, with each story that accumulates, he is further from the primeval Story, from his beginning. But there is always hope, for through writing and reading, somehow we are able to move both backwards in time to recover that which has been lost and forwards towards that which will culminate.
Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.
Sounds exciting. Let’s never stop reading and let’s never stop writing. Somewhere out there in the vast labyrinth of Story, you and I shall meet.