If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

by Italo Calvino

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Critical Evaluation

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The plot of each of the partial narratives in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler mimics the point of progression of the larger novel. For example, following chapter 1, the Reader begins If on a winter’s night a traveler, in which a character embarks on an enigmatic journey—much like the Reader himself and like the real-life reader as well. Following chapter 2, the Reader, having just met Ludmilla and sparked a romantic interest, begins reading Outside the town of Malbork, in which the apparent protagonist thinks about his own love interest.

The remaining fragments follow a similar pattern, with the plot of each reflecting the theme or prevailing message of the chapter preceding and following it. Each novel within the novel supports the main idea of what has come before and what will come next. The novel’s strong narrative framework helps progress the plot. The ten-story structure resembles that of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), in which characters take turns telling ten stories each. However, while for Boccaccio’s readers the characters’ one-upmanship compels narrative progression, Calvino draws his narrative forward as each new story-within-a-story leaves the reader hanging just at the point of climax.

In addition to its innovative narrative structure, Calvino’s novel offers a critical analysis of the relationship between author, reader, and text. Calvino draws heavily on the criticism of Roland Barthes, one of the foremost figures of the postmodernist movement in the mid-twentieth century. In his essay, “Death of the Author” (1967), Barthes explains that the death of the author (generalized) is the reader’s birth. Calvino experiments with this death-birth cycle and crafts his narrative to eliminate the presence of an author figure. His intention for If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is to replace the author’s figure with one removed from the narrative. Instead of the voice of a single author, the reader hears various voices scattered among the multiple false starts within the novel. The author is thus “dead” and the reader is “born.”

The narrative of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is also largely indebted to Barthes’s theory of reading as a pleasurable bodily experience. In Le Plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text, 1975), Barthes explains that while pleasure corresponds to a readerly text, in which the role of the reader is unchallenged, jouissance, or “bliss,” corresponds to a writerly text, which transcends standard textual structures and frees the reader. The narrative framework of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, in which the incomplete texts of the alternating chapters encapsulate a theme of sexual desire and delayed fulfillment, shatters traditional writer-reader roles and brings the reader closer to jouissance.

The novel’s unusual construction is successful because of Calvino’s precise use of language and his development of a distinct philosophy of language. According to the author, language, and written language in particular, is the reader’s bridge to the world outside. Repetition, then, is the surest way of arriving at meaning. However, Calvino subverts this philosophy even as he establishes it. Marana’s character reminds the reader that language offers falsifications as readily as truth: “artifice is the true substance of everything.” Repetition of key words at various points in the text helps identify a theme, through which the reader can interpret meaning. Calvino’s fictions hint at worldly truths through a series of patterns.

The novel is groundbreaking for its intense discussion of the reading experience and for its ability to involve the real-life reader so thoroughly in the metanarrational elements of the plot. Everything that the Reader experiences is experienced—at least vicariously, if not physically—by the real-life reader as well. The reader is just as much a part of Calvino’s story world as his character the Reader. Plot-wise, the reader and the Reader, through repeated attempts, are finally able to grasp If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

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Critical Context