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...
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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 novel of initiation about a boy who finds himself caught in a centuries-old feud between two Central European families. The section breaks off in the middle of a passage, and Chapter 3 shows the Reader looking at a bookful of blank pages following what he has read. The Reader supposes for a moment that what he has in his hands is in fact the real Polish novel Outside the Town of Malbork, and that what he had thought was the first chapter of that book, the one that had presented itself as Italo Calvino’s work, was some as-yet-unidentified book. He immediately rejects that hypothesis, however, for the characters, placenames, and the like of the chapter he has just read do not sound at all Polish. An atlas reveals the names to be from Cimmeria, a country whose brief existence between the World Wars ended with its absorption by more powerful neighbors. The Reader calls Ludmilla, who says that her copy also has the corresponding pages blank, but she proposes a solution to the mystery. She knows a university professor who teaches Cimmerian literature. They can visit him and ask him to identify the book they have been reading, which they both want to continue. The Reader, who has now been frustrated by two intriguing but uncontinued first chapters, sees in the invitation a chance to satisfy both his current desires: to see more of Ludmilla and to go on with the interrupted story.
When the Reader arrives at the university, Ludmilla is not there, but he meets the professor, who at once identifies the story the Reader relates as the beginning of Leaning from the Steep Slope, by the Cimmerian author Ukko Ahti. The professor has some doubts about the Reader’s book, however, since Leaning from the Steep Slope has never been translated from the Cimmerian. The professor has a copy of the Cimmerian edition, and insists on translating it for the Reader on the spot. Thus begins the chapter “Leaning from the steep slope,” which obviously is a third story, entirely different from those already encountered.
The pattern of the novel is thus established: in his quest for the novels which he is continually beginning but never finishing, the Reader begins ten stories in all, each of which is broken off by forces over which he has no control. Each of these “first chapters” is preceded by a numbered chapter from the frame story, which, instead of receding into the background, becomes more and more complicated. Even the frame story is interrupted by false starts—by dreams, by diary excerpts, by unfinished anecdotes. Other characters enter the frame story: aging novelists, feminist revolutionaries, secret police, South American dictators, Japanese plagiarists, and most surprising of all, the translator Ermes Marana, who is to the underworld of literary crime what Professor Moriarty was to the less specialized underworld of Sherlock Holmes’ London. Although Marana never appears as a character, his tracks are everywhere. The reader learns that the chain of unfinished novels is not a series of bizarre coincidences, but the work of Marana, who, as a disappointed suitor of Ludmilla, has arranged these frustrations to destroy her faith in reading. His machinations involve a complicated mixture of holding companies, literary agents, ghost writers, outright plagiarists, and computers that can simulate any author’s style.
Slapstick comedy and broad satire enliven the book, but If on a winter’s night a traveler is not merely farce: it is also a reflection on writers, on readers, and on the process of reading itself. In many places it sounds like a hymn of praise to the literary art; in others it sounds like a search for a form that will supply the pleasurable anticipation that the beginning of every story promises but none of the disappointment that so many deliver.
Characters both in the frame and in the false starts frequently comment on the form of Calvino’s book, because almost all of them are storytellers. A character in a gangster novel alludes in every paragraph to exotic adventures in his past; he does so, he says, in order that the reader will feel a “saturation” of other, potential stories around the story he tells. Still another character, a magnate with Byzantine inclinations, likens his life (and Calvino’s novel, by implication) to a house of mirrors in which one’s image is replicated endlessly.
The character who comments most clearly is the aging novelist, an Irish expatriate of international reputation living in Switzerland. Prolific through many decades, he has run into a dry spell in which he can begin novels but not conclude them. His troubles with his loss of inspiration are increased by the advances which he has accepted for works he cannot finish, and these troubles are symbolized by the Snoopy cartoon that hangs on his wall. In his diary he records that too often the excitement seeded by the opening words of a story is lost as it unfolds, and he wishes that he could 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.” He wonders what form such a book would take. One of the conjectures he makes is the form of Scheherazade’s tales in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (first transcribed in the fifth century). References to The Thousand and One Nights comes from the lips of other characters, too, and unsurprisingly, because that collection is a paradigm for If on a winter’s night a traveler.
There is a hint that the aridity of the Irish writer will end, because his yearnings crystallize after a meeting with the Reader. The novelist records a remarkable five paragraphs in his diary in which he sketches the idea of writing “a novel composed only of beginnings of novels,” and then outlines the plot of the frame story exactly as it has occurred up to that point.
At the climax of the frame, in Chapter 11, the Reader has finally found his way to a great library which lists in its catalog all the books he has begun. He hands call slips, a title at a time, to the librarian, who each time returns with some reason why the book is not available. While he awaits their appearance (or nonappearance, as it turns out) he is engaged in conversation with seven readers who represent a whole range of the different pleasures to be found in books. Each tells the Reader why and how he reads, and some of the explanations are strange indeed. Eventually the Reader can stand it no longer; he asserts that he likes to read what is printed in the book, not what it may suggest or allude to; he believes that not all readings are equal—that some are in fact definitive; that he likes novelty in novels; and that most of all he likes to read them from beginning to end, a pleasure that has been denied him for some time now. At this point, the Reader notices that the various book titles he has been requesting, together with a title he has just now suggested for an Arabian Nights-like story, form a grammatical sentence:If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave—What story down there awaits its end?—he asks, anxious to hear the story.
One of the readers thinks that he has read a story that begins like this, and the Reader protests that these are only titles strung together. The sixth reader, however, notes that at one time all stories began like this, with a traveler used only to get the story started. The seventh interrupts with the question of whether the Reader believes that every story must have a beginning and an end. As he points out, no matter how a story starts, it can end only with marriage or with death: “the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” The Reader reflects on his own story, and decides to marry Ludmilla.
Cannon, JoAnn. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic, 1981.
Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, June 17, 1981, p. 17.
De Lauretis, Teresa. “Narrative Discourse in Calvino: Praxis or Poiesis?” in PMLA. XC (1975), pp. 414-425.
Library Journal. CVI, April 1, 1981, p. 812.
Nation. CCXXXII, May 23, 1981, p. 641.
The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, June 25, 1981, p. 3.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, June 21, 1981, p. 1.
The New Yorker. LVII, August 3, 1981, p. 90.
Newsweek. XCVII, June 8, 1981, p. 93.
Olken, I.T. With Pleated Eye and Garnet Wing: Symmetries of Italo Calvino, 1984.
Salvatori, Mariolina. “Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: Writer’s Authority, Reader’s Autonomy,” in Contemporary Literature. XXVII (Summer, 1986), pp. 182-212.
Saturday Review. VIII, May, 1981, p. 72.
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Times Literary Supplement. July 10, 1981, p. 773.