If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

winternightBefore getting down to any details about this novel, I just want to say quickly that this a magnificent and enchanting work of fiction. Or metafiction – as you wish. And indeed you can make your choice, because as it happens, you are the protagonist of the book.

As you might have noticed if you had read a couple of my reviews that I have no problem with metafiction or any kind of meta-stuff in general; I even like that sort of meta-literature which excludes the reader from itself, and which is mostly about the writer who would like to experiment with forms, points of views, narrative techniques or anything else, without thinking about the consequences. I love to read other people’s experiments, and I love to see how someone fools around and plays with ideas or styles just for the hell of it.

But Italo Calvino is way more polite (or way more cunning) than this. He doesn’t exclude me from his fiction – on the contrary, he makes me the protagonist: an adventurer, an explorer, a detective, and a young lover, and he tells me: “this is you”. And because I happen to be a sucker for books which tell me that they are about “me”, I immediately fall for this novel. (Even when I’m re-reading it for the third time. And I’m pretty sure I will fall for it again the next time I re-read it.)

It would be good to know what’s so very-very appealing and tempting about a novel which starts by saying that I’m just starting to read it, and then offers me some advice about the best position in which I might read it, and tells me that I should take care of my bodily needs before really getting involved in it, and then goes on to elaborate on the feelings I experience while I’m reading the first couple of pages.

Really – what’s so stunning about this? Perhaps I really love to read about myself, and I really like to be the main character. (On the other hand – who doesn’t?) Or perhaps the novel amazes me because it implies that someone’s paying attention to me and knows me inside out. Or maybe it’s fascinating because it gives me the illusion I used to know well when I was a more naive reader, but I don’t experience too often nowadays (even though I’m always looking for it): the illusion that I’m within the story; that “I” am “you”, and “I” am “me” at the same time; that I’m inside and outside at the same moment – I’m paying attention to the story, and I’m observing myself as I’m paying attention to the story. Or maybe it’s so enticing because it promises that it will tell me why and how I read, and what’s so good about reading.

I said in the beginning that Calvino is a polite writer, and that his metafiction is not in love with itself but always makes sure to include me. But in fact, this is not politeness – this is trickiness of the highest order. I know he will fool me, yet, I let myself be fooled. And I know he knows that I know that I’m being fooled. And I know that I’m alone while reading, but I let him persuade me that in fact I’m not alone.

So, yes, I know he’s not only playing with his text. He’s playing with me as well. But I don’t mind – I just hugely enjoy it. And anyway, if we “must” be postmodern-smart-playful, then I think the best, most entertaining and most uplifting way to do it is to do it together – the writer and the reader.

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