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Character in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

Character in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler

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Published by danilo lopez-roman
How Italo Calvino plays with readers in his famous metafictional novel.
How Italo Calvino plays with readers in his famous metafictional novel.

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Published by: danilo lopez-roman on Aug 30, 2011
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Faith in Literature Can make up Their Own Laws 1

“…-so that each character already receives a first definition through this action or attribute;…” Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, p.36

Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is meta-fictional work that underscores the importance of the reader as active participant in literature while showing the mutability of the writer and highlighting the text as a meeting ground of author(s) and reader(s). While this novel can be approached through many angles, we will concentrate of the readers as characters in it and answer the questions, which are the main characters? What is he/she like? What are her/his needs or concerns? Are there similar characters in other works of literature? Do people like these really exist? What is metafiction? Metafiction “explores the theory of writing fiction through the practice of writing fiction” 2 and tries to draw the reader out of the story at hand to discuss the act of writing. Metafiction stipulates that “reality or history is provisional: no longer a world of external verities (truths) but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures” (Waugh, op cit). Techniques of metafiction Metafiction makes up its own laws of writing in order to analyze the act of writing. Metafictional works have a structure that may be strong in plot, in character, or in narrator point of view3 and uses a series of techniques to make points about literature. Three main ones delineated by Waugh are: A) “History is fiction” and recurs to over- or under-plotting and extreme coincidences in the narrative to move the plot (when there is a plot).

1 2

The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 25 December 1911, Edited by Max Brod, Penguin Classics. Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Conscious Fiction, New Accents. 3 Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Story Structure Architect. Writer’s Digest Books.

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B) “Language is an arbitrary system” and includes blank pages or other unconventional discourses or pictures in the narrative. C) “The author is a paradox” who may or may not have any power on the narrative, and shows the author as part of the narrative (character) or a conflict between the reader and the author or uses a character that is “out of the control” of the author. D) “Fiction and reality are interchangeable” and recurs to foregrounding by juxtaposing fictional and historical characters or discussing writing techniques as part of the narrative. Why If on a winter’s Night a Traveler (IWNT) is a work of metafiction? IWNT follows the structure of metafiction and Calvino uses one or more of the techniques explained above, some with slight variations: A) “History is fiction” and recurs to over- or under-plotting and extreme coincidences in the narrative to move the plot (when there is a plot). Like the nerves of a pinnate leaf, we find in this novel a central, very simple plot out of which branch, in a series of ten interrupted stories, several other insinuated plots. These are plots within the plot, like dreams within dreams, like fractals populating the book with countless characters, central to the sub-plot at hand, but secondary to the central plot of Reader (he) and Other Reader (she, Ludmilla). Reader and Ludmilla go through many adventures in their search for Ermes Marana and his last manuscript (Chapter nine). Marana himself (Chapter 6) undergoes incredible, exaggerated obstacles and situations in several parts of the world.

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B) “Language is an arbitrary system” and includes blank pages or other unconventional discourses or pictures in the narrative. IWNT does not include such technique, but it has a pinnate venation structure, with unfinished stories. It uses different voices and changing point of view in each story by the same author, Calvino. Calvino assumes the personas of ten different writers who are one and the same Flanagan-Marana-Calvino and it praises apocrypha writing (Chapter 8, p. 193) as a legitimate way of creating fiction and manipulating narration. Calvino, like Marana-Flanagan, becomes a counterfeiter, a “wizard” of language. C) “The author is a paradox” who may or may not have any power on the narrative, and shows the author as part of the narrative (character) or a conflict between the reader and the author or uses a character that is “out of the control” of the author. In chapter 5 while talking to editor Cavedagna, reader thinks that “The author was an invisible point from which the book came”. This, and Calvino’s ability to write ten different stories in ten different styles, settings, themes, and voices, supports the idea that the author is just a starting point that, once the novel unleashed to the public, once in the hands and eyes and mind of the reader, makes the author irrelevant 4. Yet, would IWNT be the same if Calvino did not permeate the novel from beginning to end? I think not. D) “Fiction and reality are interchangeable” and recurs to foregrounding by juxtaposing fictional and historical characters or discussing writing techniques as part of the narrative. Calvino is a real figure. The other characters, Reader, Other Reader, Cavedagna, Lotaria, Prof. Uzzi-Tuzzi, etc., don’t they evoke and represent the real, archetypal characters of editors, readers, academics, writers, families, students, etc.? In that sense, they are as real as they can get, embedded in the cultural subconscious of society. In this regard, IWNT interchanges reality and fiction. Readers and writers as characters

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Structuralist theorist Roland Barthes argues that writers only have the power to mix already existing writings, to reassemble or redeploy them; writers cannot use writing to ‘express’ themselves, but only to draw upon that immense dictionary of language and culture which is ‘always already written’. See Raman Selden and Peter Widdowson, Contemporary Literary Theory, University Press of Kentucky.

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Metafiction is said to draw the reader out of the story. Calvino does the opposite: he pulls the reader into the story to draw his/her attention to the act of reading, writing, and text formation. In doing so, we readers become characters in his story. But Calvino not only draws the readers into the novel: he is also in the novel since the very first line, “you are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” (p. 3). He addresses the reader directly throughout the book, so the reader, or the Reader with capital R as to represent the archetypal reader(s), is, are a central character of the story. The story plot then is the Act of Reading itself. The characters, Reader and Other Reader (male and female), are as much a part of the plot as is the Writer, archetypically represented in this case by Calvino himself. In the central plot, Reader and Other Reader connect and embark in the adventure of solving the mystery of the disappearing books. It is an adventure story that takes the characters to strange places and death-or-life perils, to meet many diverse characters, and to live a love story like many others in literary history. The conventional characters listed by Vladimir Propp are present: the hero-Reader, the Dispatcher-Editor-Cavedagna, the princess-Ludmilla, the false hero Irniero, and the villain Silas Flannery/Ermes Marana and his many alter egos, the falsifier of books, an archetype of the faker par excellence: the Writer. Side plots populated by many characters Like buttresses supporting a central frame, the side stories acquire the importance of arguments to make points about the acts of writing and reading, which are two sides of the same coin: literature. To name a few: In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Calvino addresses the act of writing as a quasi-dream state (our friend Zeno of Elea makes a cameo appearance here), where a diffuse station we cannot make up clearly at first, where conversations are just traces and characters obscure. In Outside the town of Malbork, the discussion is about characters and the irrelevance of their names, but the importance of the props used by the author to make the characters memorable. This is further reinforced in the reality of Chapter nine where Corinna is also Gertrude and Ingrid depending on the circumstances. A parallel between fiction and reality. A
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parallel also with us readers who are students, a number, a parent, a married person, a worker, and many other things, all amalgamated into one person; many personas in one character. In Looks down the gathering shadows, the parallel is made between the many stories we live in our life and the stories we read about, and how our life is made up of all these stories (p. 107), and so forth. Does this mean that all the stories of all the people in the history of humankind are in reality one single, long, and compact story? That history is an immense story narrated by the collective consciousness of humanity? Or even more, written and read by an omnipotent Cosmic Mind? Some theoretical discussions are also planted in the main story frame. Chapter four is about the act of reading in silence versus reading aloud and the impact of the narrative and the reader. Ludmilla reads for the simple pleasure of reading (chapter 5, p. 92) while Reader wants to know more, he wants to know the why and the how of narrative creation. Chapter six is about the business of editing and publishing. Chapter seven addresses the issue of point of view and how to better draw the reader into the story, with third person or second person. Then the narrator, Calvino, talks to both readers in the second person plural. Calvino also expands the notion of reading: we read with our eyes not only literature but painting, people, bodies. We search in our memory for codes, signs, symbols and criticize, grasp and, analyze the outside world via the systems so much discussed by Ferdinand de Saussure 5. In p. 153 of chapter seven, the fact that all stories begin where others left off is also analyzed. Chapter eight is about the struggles of the writer in the creative process, and so forth. In summary Which are the main characters? What is he/she like? What are her/his needs or concerns? Do people like these really exist? I am tempted to say that Reader and Ludmilla, but these are just proxies of all archetypal readers. Ludmilla the reader for the pleasure of reading, and Reader the reader who wants to know why and how. She a detached woman who maybe found love in Reader, and Reader the solitary man who desires no more to be alone after
5

See Course in General Linguistics (1915) for a discussion of language as the fundamental sign-system.

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meeting Ludmilla. So they become a couple, through reading. Love is born out of reading, no more a solitary act. Are there similar characters in other works of literature? In the sense of archetypal characters like Propp mentions? Yes. These characters exist and are you and me and anybody else who reads. Are the situations believable? I am sure there are people that have gone through that sort of adventures which by the way comply with the 31 functions in Propp’s theory and the 36 dramatic situations we see in movies once and again. I know a few. I have not seen characters depicted like these in other works of literature. That does not mean there are no such types of characters out there. Dreams –and imagination- are the text of the unconscious, the symbols of desire. In chapter eleven (p. 258) the whole structure of IWNT is revealed: each story title, when put together, read like a story in itself. Who is to say that we cannot take each sentence of each book ever written and create a story out of each of them, and then another story out of each, ad infinitum? There are a couple of elements that could be fixed, the characters: the writers who write them and the readers who read them. This interactive metafiction quality is probably the main treat of IWNT. One last question to posit: In chapter twelve, Reader and Ludmilla are “man and wife”. He is finally able to read and finish IWNT. Does this mean that the whole adventure did really happen inside Reader’s mind the same way everything happened in Danilo’s mind while reading If on a winter’s night a traveler? Is this also happening inside the Cosmic Mind writing and reading me, us all?

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