Two related themes emerge in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: the intimate relationship between reading and living, and the tension between the reader’s expectations and the writer’s quest for distinction and originality. Reading and living are metaphors for each other. Observations such as the narrator’s “The lives of individuals of the human race form a constant plot” are frequent. The two Readers “read and review” each other in Ludmilla’s home. The book resembles life in many ways, particularly in its unpredictability. In developing a thesis about Calvino’s “narrative discourse” several years before the publication of this book, Teresa de Lauretis translated a passage from Calvino’s preface to a 1964 novel thus:Readings and lived experiences are not two universes, but one. To be interpreted, every experience of life recalls certain readings and becomes fused with them. That books are always born of other books is a truth only seemingly contradictory to this other truth: that books are born of practical day-to-day life, and of the relationships among men.
Calvino never exemplified his theory of the “one universe” more strikingly than in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
The theme of life and reading leads Calvino to play continually with the conflict between the reader’s demands and the author’s intentions. The former is likely to want to immerse himself (or herself—Ludmilla particularly expresses this wish) in the narrative, to submit to being swept along to a satisfying conclusion. The writer counts on the ordinary expectations of the reader but defies these expectations to a greater or lesser extent, as daring and originality dictate. To conform completely would be to write pallid and imitative books; to defy all expectations would be to risk unintelligibility and alienation. Calvino takes a risk—not the minor risk of supplying an unexpected ending but the headier one of furnishing no ending at all, instead producing a series of beginnings that resembles neither life nor any of the usual forms of fiction.
The novel comments throughout on these tensions between writer and reader. Calvino’s narrator is lured by the possibilities of the various counter-narratives that suggest themselves. As far back as Miguel de Cervantes, novelists have digressed from the main story, and not always irrelevantly. One of Calvino’s fictional subnarrators is “always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories have been told first.” The reader, however, may not share this penchant for literary sideshows.
Furthermore, readers have different expectations, some of them excruciatingly inapt to the writer. Some want only to escape from the world, an outright denial of Calvino’s premise that life and reading are inseparable. When the Reader encounters the seven readers with different slants on their common interest, one, for example, reads each new book only until he is sure that it is not one which he read in his childhood but has not been able to locate since. Another reads in order to go off on a tangent; when he has succeeded, the book has served its purpose. Clearly, these are perverse readers, unwilling to receive the book as written, in Ludmilla’s fashion. The Reader, in response to such vagaries, asserts his intention to read only what is in the book, to connect its parts with the whole, to acknowledge only certain readings as correct, to distinguish one book from another, and, most important, to read the complete book from first page to last.
This quest for unity, for the one complete book, is signaled in the first interpolated narrative. The traveler in the train station will recognize his counterpart by a password, “Zeno of Elia.” Zeno was...
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the early Greek philosopher who stressed indivisibility—“the one”—in contrast to the school of Heracleitus, whose basic principle was flux—a continually moving and divisible reality. The password is exchanged but not the suitcases, and the narrative yields to a succession of similarly unfinished stories: the seeming triumph of flux and disunion and the denial of Zeno’s principle.
The seventh reader in the library is permitted the last word. Beginnings and endings as such are not important; “the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” Back with Ludmilla, the Reader plans to finish Calvino’s book. He cannot finish the first story called “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” but he can finish the book of the same name, which is not, after all, a pastiche of many books but a complete narrative of his own initiation as a Calvino reader, that is, a reader who has learned not to demand what the author cannot or will not give him. The main story, his own, ends happily with his marriage to Ludmilla, which has produced one whole reader, one whole life. Zeno’s principle is reaffirmed—if one allows for what Samuel Taylor Coleridge liked to call “unity in multeity.” The artist has made a whole out of seemingly disparate parts, a whole symbolized by the union of the two Readers.