Calvino in Postmodern Literature
‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ has been described as a postmodern text. What does the term postmodernism mean when applied to a literary work? What reasons does the novel suggest for its unorthodox narrative practices?
For a movement that has been in existence for quite some time, it is incredible how no-one has created a universal definition for postmodernism. By studying Italo Calvino’s novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller with an eye for postmodern techniques, we might come closer to a idea of what literary postmodernism might be. But before we can do that, we must look at postmodernism in general and in other fields. James Ley perhaps best summed it up in one of his lectures on Calvino: “incredulity towards metanarratives.” This means a systematic breaking down and voiding of metanarratives (narratives that have a higher meaning beyond their initial being). This is apparent in many facets of life and art. For example, Andy Warhol mass produced his simplistic ‘pop-art’ to redefine what an artist was. In postmodernism, artists are no longer the gods of their domains. Indeed, the ‘author-gods’ of modernism are replaced with the belief that no one true meaning for anything exists: it is simply up to the individual and the collective to impose meaning. Calvino has written a guidebook on how postmodernism works with Traveller. He incorporates so many postmodern techniques that it would be impossible to describe them all. Mary Klages lists many modernist techniques in her essay on postmodernism, and describes how they can be all used in a postmodern context as well. She says modernism upholds the idea that “art can do what other human institutions fail to do”, whereas postmodernism “celebrates the idea of fragmentation and incoherence” (Klages 2007). She sums it up thus: “Let’s not pretend that art can make meaning then, let’s just play with nonsense.”
One - “An emphasis on HOW seeing takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived.” (Klages)
Calvino takes this idea and puts a literary spin on it, replacing ‘seeing / perceiving’ with ‘writing’. It is a “novel about novels, a book about the reading and writing of books” (De Lauretis 1988, pp. 135). There are many passages scattered throughout the novel which go into detail about the production of books. The sub-story contained within the numbered chapters is an old-fashioned mystery about two sides in a literature war: those for the purity of written novels, and those for the counterfeiting and mixing-up of literature. One chapter even deals with an entire country caught up in the idea of counterfeiting: “you find yourself prisoner of a system in which every aspect of life is a counterfeit, a fake” (Calvino 1998, pp. 215). Even the sex scene is written in language terms: “Your body is now being subjected to a systematic reading” (Calvino, pp. 155). When not
explicitly addressing writing, Calvino still uses examples of reality (in a reading context) to address the system of literature production. Thus every aspect of the novel relates to reading and writing in some way.
Two – “Movement away from omniscient thirdperson narrators and fixed narrative points of view.”
One of the most obvious techniques Calvino uses is to include us, the Reader (with a capital R) into the novel. He does this by using a second-person narrative technique, addressing us as ‘you’. The first chapter is basically what one would do when buying and beginning to read a novel. “It’s not that you expect anything from this particular book”; “you start leafing through the book”; “you are at your desk” (Calvino, pp. 6-7). This whole chapter, and many after, address us as part of the inner workings of the novel, essentially placing us inside the story. But this isn’t just limited to the numbered chapters. The first ‘story’ has a first-person narrator: “I am the man who comes and goes…” (pp. 11), as do most of the even chapters. Calvino even talks in a double secondperson perspective: “So the time has come to address you in the second-person plural.” Nowhere in the book is there a third-person perspective. This allows the reader to enter into the action, to make us feel as though we are part of the unfolding narrative. It also denies the chance for a narrator to tell us what lies ahead, or what other characters may be thinking. The Other Reader demonstrates this when talking on the phone to the Reader: “Perhaps Ludmilla has covered the receiver with her hand…be careful” (pp. 46).
Three – “A blurring of distinctions between genres.”
Traveller exhibits a vast array of genres. This is because of the nature of the story told in the numbered chapters. Every time the Reader comes to continuing the novel he previously started, he ends up beginning a whole new novel. This means Calvino can play with various styles and conventions while maintaining a direct story outside of these novellas. The Reader’s story is a mixture of many genres, including romance, mystery,
action and crime. The story chapters range from a spy mystery (‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller) to a Romeo and Juliet style mystery (‘Outside the Town of Malbork’), and also includes a strangely incestuous Japanese love story (‘On the Carpet of Leaves Illuminated by the Moon’). This idea of mixing genres fits into postmodernism well. Klages mentions the idea of “celebrating pastiche and bricolage”, and the novel clearly favours “fragmentation and discontinuity, especially in narrative structures”.
Four – “Fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, random-seeming collages.”
Continuing on from Klages’ last point, the abundance of different genres seen in Traveller make for a fragmented reading experience. The Reader is always interrupted in the middle of one of the novels he is reading, creating a discontinuous flow. An example is when the Reader opens the book he thinks will be the continuation of the first, and “you realise the novel you are holding has nothing to do with the one you were reading yesterday” (Calvino, pp. 33). This is repeated all throughout the novel, and the only seemingly straightforward storyline is what the Reader experiences. Yet even his journey is a strange one, which never seems to stay still, shifting from one genre and point of view to another. The most glaring example of these “random-seeming” collages comes from the very last chapter. When the Reader asks another reader whether they have any of the books he has begun, he reads them aloud in a sentence. They actually could be the opening paragraph of a novel, and he remarks, “I could swear I’ve read it…” (pp. 258). All the titles of these random-seeming novels come together into one legitimate paragraph. This suggests an infinite continuation of the novel, or is it just pure coincidence? Being postmodern, Calvino doesn’t give us an answer.
Five – “A tendency towards reflexivity and selfconsciousness.”
The blurb on the back of Traveller says, “You are constantly assailed by the notion that Calvino is writing down what you have already known”. This form of reflexivity is apparent right throughout the novel. On some occasions, it is obvious that Calvino is drawing attention to the novel’s status as a novel, with passages like this: “You noticed in a newspaper that If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller…by Italo Calvino, which hadn’t been published for several years” (Calvino, pp. 4). At other times, it is slightly more subtle. The very last chapter of the book consists of the Reader in bed with Ludmilla, where he says, “Hold on, I’ve almost finished reading Traveller.” This is a strange moment. Does Calvino mean us, as in we have finished the novel? Has the Reader tracked down the rest of the first novel he never finished? Or is it the mysterious novel composed of the book titles? This self-consciousness about the story being a story is a major part of the Calvino experience, and the postmodern condition as well.
Six –“Minimalist designs…spontaneity and discovery in creation.”
If looking at Traveller as a whole, it would appear as if Calvino is ignoring this point. As a complete entity, this novel is epic and sprawling, filled with details and a large narrative scope (through separate characters, stories and genres). While Calvino can be pictured writing whatever came to his mind, the storylines that intersect and the final chapters signify that a lot of thought went into the creation of the novel. The fact that he used all the chapter names to write a full paragraph shows that his thought processes are more detailed than spontaneous. To fulfil this postmodern idea, we need to think in a postmodern fashion, in a ‘minimalist fashion’. If we took each seperate ‘story’ by itself, it would reveal a very straightforward and minimalist idea, with simple stories and characters. Perhaps the brightest example of this ‘discovery in creation’ is the journey of the Reader. While the Reader goes through many trials in search of the one elusive novel he wants to finish, he discovers a whole new world of conspiracies and literature spies. We can imagine Calvino sitting at his writing desk, coming up with seemingly random plot twists to make the Reader ‘create’ his own story around the stories he is reading.
Seven – “A rejection of distinctions between high and low art forms.”
The story encased within the numbered chapters addresses this postmodern idea directly. The idea is that of a conflict between those who worship the original idea of a novel, and those who feel they should infiltrate and cause chaos within the literature world. As in any war, neither side is morally ‘better’ than the other. This conflict signifies the difference between high (pure) and low (counterfeit) literature, but fails to say which side has the upper hand, or is more ‘right’. It simply cannot be put into black and white terms, such as good and evil. Another example is the story between the two writers watching each other, one being “productive” and the other “tortured”. Neither writer is held in more esteem over the other: the productive one envies the tortured, thinking his own work is “superficial”; the tortured writer envies the productive one, and his efficiency in what will “surely be a best seller” (Calvino, pp. 173-174). The ultimate rejection of distinctions is made when conclusions are thought of: the woman gets two copies of exactly the same novel from each writer; she returns the novels, but to the wrong authors, and they discover their “personal veins”; or even a wind mixes up the novels and creates a perfect work. This says that neither high nor low art forms are perfect in themselves, but a combination of the two might find that elusive middle ground. All these points show how If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a glaringly postmodern text. It showcases the process of writing, rather than the words themselves: has a second-person Reader, that could well be Us entered into the text; combines disparate genres into cohesive narratives; leaves narrative strands open and never concludes them; and always seems to be conscious of the fact that we are reading a novel, and that metanarratives should, and do not, exist. All these ideas are similar across the range of postmodern art forms, from music to art to literature. Calvino has written a manifesto of what postmodern literature should be with Traveller, and as Readers (with a capital R) we should be than KFUL.
CALVINO I, 1998, IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELLER, RANDOM HOUSE, LONDON. DE LAURETIS T, 1988, ‘READING THE (POST)MODERN TEXT: IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELLER’, CALVINO REVISITED. KLAGES M, 2007, POSTMODERNISM, HTTP://WWW.COLORADO.EDU/ENGLISH/COURSES/ENGL2012KLAGES/POMO.HTML,
Calvino in Postmodern Literature