If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
If on a winter’s night a traveler mentions one of Charles Schultz’s most famous Peanuts cartoons, one especially endearing to writers: it shows Snoopy seated before a typewriter, and the words he has written appear at the top of the panel—“It was a dark and stormy night.” One wonders, though, how many readers of the cartoon recognized Snoopy’s efforts as the beginning of an old literary joke. Italo Calvino certainly did, for the unwritten part of the cartoon—the conclusion of the joke—is the reason it appears in the novel. The story which Snoopy has begun continues this way:It was a dark and stormy night. We were all seated around the campfire. Someone suggested that the Captain tell us a story. He began: “It was a dark and stormy night. We were all seated around the campfire. Someone suggested that the Captain tell us a story. He began: ’It was a dark and stormy night.’”
And so on.
The point of the joke, of course, is that it appears to be the beginning of a “frame” story, a narrative of an event that accounts for the appearance of the enclosed stories before the reader. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrimage to Canterbury is the frame for the telling of The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) themselves. In the joke, however, what the listener believes to be the beginning of a traditional frame leads not to the tale one expects to follow, but to another frame, which leads to a third frame, and the process continues for as long as the patience of the listener endures.
In many cases, an author justifies a fantasy by using a frame to provide plausibility for the story’s appearance, to aid the reluctant reader to suspend disbelief; this enticement may be the frame’s only purpose. Such, for example, is the reason for the Prologue to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core (1922), which the anonymous narrator begins with the words, “In the first place please bear in mind that I do not expect you to believe this story.” The narrator tells of traveling in the Sahara and of his encountering an American, who then tells the story which occupies the book. After this prologue, the function of the narrator has been fulfilled; he reappears only briefly in the last few pages to round out the tale.
Some few frame characters escape anonymity and take on a story and a life of their own—the Canterbury pilgrims and Lemuel Gulliver come to mind—but for the most part they remain simple delivery boys, as necessary to the story but just as featureless as the paper on which it is printed.
If one can be charitable to fictional beings, Calvino has done frame characters a great kindness in If on a winter’s night a traveler. He has created a cluster of frame characters and given them roles that grow in importance (rather than diminish) as the story proceeds. His novel comically frustrates, the reader’s expectations at every chapter in the same way that Snoopy’s joke does, and eventually the book becomes a game between author and reader: after the first few chapters, the reader knows what is coming, but reads on to see with what ingenuity Calvino can bring it about.
The novel begins in a customary form, although its voice and some of its details are unusual: it begins in the second grammatical person with the sentence “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” The reader soon discovers, however, that the opening sentence is not addressed to him, but to a fictional Reader, who is to become the central character in the book. This character’s importance, however, is not appreciated for some pages. After interesting but not exceptional preliminary material, Chapter 1 (the pages addressed to the Reader-as-character) concludes, and the first named chapter, “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” begins. This one, like all the titled chapters in the book, is a first-person narrative, and the grammatical distinction between the two kinds of chapters helps to forestall some of the confusion that might otherwise arise in what is a very complicated book.
The chapter “If on a winter’s night a traveler” initiates what appears to be a spy story. It is followed by the second numbered chapter, which returns to the frame story; here the Reader notices that his copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler contains only the first chapter of the spy story, repeated over and over again. He assumes he has a defective copy, one in which multiple first gatherings, instead of the appropriately ordered gatherings, were bound together. The Reader returns to the bookseller, who tells him that his suspicions of a publisher’s error were correct, and that in fact no words of Calvino’s appear within the covers of the book he is holding; instead he has read the first chapter of the novel Outside the Town of Malbork by the Polish writer Tazio Bazakbal. When offered a good copy of Calvino’s book, the Reader declines, saying that he wants a copy of Outside the Town of Malbork: that story is the one he has begun and the one he wants to continue. He receives a copy of Bazakbal’s novel, and while at the bookstore meets another reader who shares his predicament. This Other Reader is Ludmilla Vipiteno, an attractive young woman with whom he immediately finds much in common, especially their mutual love for novels. He manages to exchange telephone numbers with her before he leaves for home to continue his interrupted reading.
Simultaneously, then, the real reader and the character-Reader begin the second titled chapter, “Outside the Town of Malbork.” Unfortunately for both, this chapter is not the continuation of the story begun in “If on a winter’s night a traveler.” Instead, it begins another story, apparently a...
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