Thursday, May 29, 2014

If on a winter's night a traveler

If on a winter's night a traveler, by Italo Calvino

Suddenly I'm turning into someone who really likes surrealist post-moderny literature.  How did that happen?

If on a winter's night a traveler is one of the famous landmark postmodern novels.  Start reading it and you find that you're reading about yourself reading If on a winter's night a traveler.  First 'you' settle in to read, and then you get the first chapter of the story, but it breaks off; your book is misprinted.  Back to the bookstore you go in search of a sound copy, where you meet Ludmilla, another reader.  And every time you think you've found a whole copy of a book, it turns out to be the first chapter of a different and completely unrelated novel.  Chapters of your quest to find a whole book alternate with these first chapters, so that the entire reading experience turns into an exercise in frustrated desire (for stories, and, progressively more obviously, for women).

There are some fantastic characters here.  Ludmilla, Calvino's ideal reader, who is constantly coming up with new descriptions of what she wants out of books.  She is mysterious and closed-off, yet allows random strangers in at odd moments.  Her sister, Lotaria (chance?), an annoying grad student who can no longer read for pleasure but only for analysis--finally, she descends to using a computer to read her books.  Ermes Marana, a translator of novels and secret master of a world-wide conspiracy to forge literature!  (How Crying of Lot 49.)  He's like a literary version of his Greek god namesake.


I loved how Calvino put some of his fictional novels into semi-fictional languages.  At one point, 'you' find a novel written in Cimmerian and search out a professor of Cimmerian,* and that leads you to a professor of Cimbrian and a Cimbrian author.  In the story, these languages are related and part of a people who set up an independent republic after World War II (in Europe, presumably somewhere eastern).  In reality, Cimmerians were an ancient tribe north of the Black Sea, squished by the Scythians, and Cimbrian is a German language similar to Bavarian (too dissimilar to be a dialect, apparently, and spoken in very northern Italy).

Later on, we get even further afield.  'You' become embroiled in an international book-censorship scheme between the South American countries of  Ircania and Ataguitania.  Ircania (Hyrcania in English) was once a Persian satrapy.  Ataguitania does actually seem to be a fictional name.

*Speaking of Cimmerian, the professor is named Uzzi-Tuzii.  He's Calvino's jab at stuffy, persnickety professors who devote their lives to one narrow subject--"a dead department of a dead literature in a dead language"--but here's an odd thought I had.  Does anyone else wonder if Uzzi-Tuzii's initials of U-T are a reference to the Biblical Urim and Thummim?  I have probably read too much John Bellairs, but the Urim and Thummim are associated with revelation and divination, right?  The name is supposed to have meant something like lights and perfections, or revelation and truth.  Uzzi-Tuzii is--heck, large sections of the entire book are--just the opposite of that, but in theory a literature professor should be interested in truth.

Or maybe Calvino just liked the goofy sound of the name.

And then at the end, the titles of all those novels you've been trying to read this whole time join up into a first sentence of their own.  (I did notice this quite soon, but I was thinking of it as a poem.)  All along, there is a preoccupation with beginnings, to the point that a novelist character writes:
I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object.  But how could such a book be constructed?  Would it break off after the first paragraph?  Would the preliminaries be prolonged indefinitely?  Would it set the beginning of one tale inside another, as in the Arabian Nights?
And there are some wonderful bits about censorship and repression of literature.  Just endless amounts of fun here.


A very neat novel.  I had a great time reading it and will have to re-visit it someday.

7 comments:

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I think I know the answer to your initial question. You've recently been reading the really good ones.

This is really one of the best of the batch.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I just read this one too, and I didn't have quite as positive a reaction to it. I fear that I am not a lover of postmoderny literature, much as I would like the notion of myself as a reader who liked such things. :/ I thought some of the satire fell a little flat, and I was annoyed with Calvino for assuming a male reader. (He hangs a lampshade on this in the middle of the book, but TOO LITTLE TOO LATE CALVINO. :p)

Jean said...

Good point, Tom--I'm not sure I want to try the bad ones. :)

I'm OK with him making the reader a guy. The reader is, after all, the protagonist here and given the shape of the novel, it makes sense to me. It's a very male book. I think. All that first moment of desire stuff.

It would be interesting to have an entirely different novel where 'you' are the protagonist and you never find out the gender of 'you.' But that would have to be a different book. This book is not it. :)

Ruth said...

Great post and well done.

I am envious (in a good way) that you were able to enjoy this book in such depth, while I felt like I hit a brick wall while reading it. I even put it away for awhile and then revisited it later. I ended up appreciating the very end.

But I think it is apparent that i am just not able to get into the post-modern works (although I did enjoy White Noise).

Do you think you'll read the last three books on the WEM list? White Noise, Song of Solomon, or Possession? You would probably like Possession, if you haven't already read it.

Jean said...

I have already read all 3, Possession twice. But the first two were back long ago in college. I'd quite like to read White Noise again, maybe I'll put it on the pile!

I do sort of like Possession. I always have mixed feelings about A. S. Byatt. In fact I'm trying and failing to read one right now from my TBR pile. I think I'm going to dump it.

Ekaterina Egorova said...

I'm glad you liked the novel! My feelings about it were very similar to yours! I think I'll re-read it someday because it's so awesome and so deep, that I have no doubt I've missed half of the meaning :)

Jean said...

I'm sure I have too. :)