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if on a winter's night a traveler

10 april 2017

I missed reading Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler when it first appeared in William Weaver's marvelous English in 1981. That is perhaps a good thing. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler has since become a classic in world literature and dated badly. I wonder if I would have been able to sit through it back in '81. I struggled enough with If on a Winter's Night a Traveler in 2017 – despite, for the most part, loving the novel extravagantly.

The plot of the novel is endlessly complicated, but its structure is simple enough. The first chapter addresses the reader who has just picked up If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. In the second chapter, the novel actually begins. In the third, it breaks off: part of the book is missing. The reader goes off in search of it, but instead finds a different novel, which he starts to read in the fourth chapter, whereupon it breaks off … and so through eleven novel-openings and eleven chapters which explain how the reader came to read them. A 23rd chapter ties things off in time for the reader to finish If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

This is all very wonderful, except that the addressee – quite explicitly an addressee, often invoked in the second person – is male. In 2017 we'd also note that he's a hetero cis male. The Reader bonds with a woman reader who has a name, Ludmilla. Oddly enough, having a name does not make her more specific and realized than the unnamed Reader. The Reader is Everyman; Ludmilla is just the receptacle of his love interest.

Ludmilla has a sister, Lotaria, who would make all the observations I've just made – probably even the "hetero cis" part. She is a feminist literary scholar for whom a novel is just grist to the theoretical mill. Full disclosure: I was in graduate school in 1981, and I took feminist theory seriously. I disliked books that sneered at feminists, and I disliked books that sneered at graduate students. I still dislike books that sneer at feminists. This creates some problems for reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveler on its own terms (it's a somewhat sneery book) and as an evergreen classic (because it descends to satirize ephemeral academic infighting of the 1970s, even as it tries to strike a literary aloofness).

Ludmilla and the Reader are soul mates because for them, reading is pure jouissance (I really did go to grad school in 1981). They are swept apart by metaliterary circumstances but eventually reconverge and bond over If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. In the meantime, Calvino burlesques via extrapolative thought experiment every possible postmodern mode of reading and writing. Literature is treated as a kaleidoscope, as an infinitely deferred exercise in translation, as an impossible compromise among authors, editors, and readers, as an organized venture into plagiarism, as a glitchy breakdown in communication between writers and readers, as an industrial process, as state-sponsored censorship and censor-sponsored samizdat. Most bizarrely, for a reader in 2017, Calvino foresaw literary scholarship as data mining. Several of his readers feed texts through computers in order to decompose them and reinterpret them as abstract patterns of content. Satire, but satire that would draw approving nods at face value from some 21st-century digital humanists.

Those are the great parts of the book, and their amazing inventiveness means that the eleven abortive novel fragments aren't far behind. (You really do want each of them to continue, even long after you've tipped to the gimmick that they can't.)

But If on a Winter's Night a Traveler keeps winding back to its Reader and his beloved Ludmilla. Calvino is quite open about his gender choices: the Reader is necessarily a man, who desires a woman; the woman desires the man in return, but she remains Woman, inaccessible, evasive. I don't know how a woman is supposed to read the book. Of course, I ought to give women readers a shot at that dilemma, and not just decide for them that they can't relate to it. But there is something irritating and dissatisfying about the novel's central gender choices. They really do posit both reading and writing as a male activity: the novelists and protagonists in the book are male, women merely their muses and sirens.

Ultimately I think that If on a Winter's Night a Traveler tries to get around and above gender, to fold its Reader and its Ludmilla into one flesh that becomes the perfect implied reader for the novel itself. But it does not do this by actualizing Ludmilla, by giving her a say in the matter. The Reader ends the book by deciding he will marry Ludmilla, and of course she goes along.

And of course Italo Calvino was a man. When one is irritated by an author's gender attitudes (I had this problem with Proust, too), one way to resolve the irritation is to give the author credit for honesty. Calvino doesn't pretend to be able to speak for women readers (and though he's quick to caricature feminists, he caricatures a lot of masculine attitudes as well). He speaks instead from the perspective of a man who desires women across the medium of books. Fair enough: but for me this honesty drops If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, for all its wonders, just below the rank of truly comprehensive, empathetic world classics.

Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. [Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore, 1979.] Translated by William Weaver. 1981. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. PQ 4809 .A45S3713