“If on a winter’s night” … an author and a reader…

Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (‘Se una note d’inverno un viaggiatore’) is a brilliant postmodern novel dealing with the implications of our age-long narrative watertight compartments of author, narrator, character, narrative, stability, identity, persistence, etc – and playing with the fire of their inversion and dissolution. It is a novel about novels (almost a meta-novel), but also an essay on the limits of story-telling and the fluidity of the activities of reading and writing a text as reflected by the text itself.

Calvino’s credo and the essence of the Traveller may be summed up in a passage towards the end of the book (the term ‘book’ isn’t quite appropriate here. I should say text, but I’m too conservative):

“I read in a book that the objectivity of thought can be “expressed using the verb “to think” in the impersonal third person: saying not “I think” but “it thinks” as we say “it rains.” There is thought in the universe—this is the constant from which we must set out every time.

Will I ever be able to say, “Today it writes,” just like “Today it rains,” ‘Today it is windy”? Only when it will come natural to me to use the verb “write” in the impersonal form will I be able to hope that through me is expressed something less limited than the personality of an individual.

And for the verb “to read”? Will we be able to say, “Today it reads” as we say “Today it rains”? If you think about it, reading is a necessarily individual act, far more than writing. If we assume that writing manages to go beyond the limitations of the author, it will continue to have a meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his mental circuits. Only the ability to be read by a given individual proves that what is written shares in the power of writing, a power based on something that goes beyond the limitations of the author, it will continue to have a meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his mental circuits. Only the ability to be read by a given individual proves that what is written shares in the power of writing, a power based on something that goes beyond the individual. The universe will express itself as long as somebody will be able to say, “I read, therefore it writes.”

This is the special bliss that I see appear in the reader’s face, and which is denied me.”

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