Well before he wrote this novel, Calvino demonstrated an interest in modern critical approaches such as the semiotic theory of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and structural linguistics, especially as advanced by Roman Jakobson. One branch of structuralist criticism has emphasized reading as a creative, unrestrained response to writing, an idea endorsed, with reservations, in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Calvino defies the reader’s expectations because they impede a creative response. Refusing to travel down literary ruts, the author leaves the ten stories to the reader to finish—or not finish. This strategy marks what is sometimes called the antinovel, whose best known practitioner, Alain Robbe-Grillet, has gone much further than Calvino in obliterating the familiar benchmarks of the novel.
It is Calvino’s awareness of this modern shift in critical emphasis from writing to reading, then, that differentiates him from Chaucer. Whereas Chaucer portrays an author struggling to master the art of writing, Calvino depicts the reader wrestling with the demanding art of reading. Both involve impatient audiences, but Calvino challenges his audience’s motives. Reading demands respect for the writer’s art, but the reader must respect the art of reading, too, which calls for more active involvement, more creativity, than the lazy reader can summon. To cite Coleridge again:The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasureable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself.
In Calvino’s book the journey is not that of a character in a railroad station but of the Reader—a journey to which any reader can aspire.