If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino

How could a book comprising the beginning of lots of different books possibly not appeal to someone like me, who finds himself reading so many books eagerly for the first fifty pages … but then feels no greater desire than to stop and read instead the first fifty pages of some other book? There’s one point in this book when a character – I think it was the writer, Silas Flannery – suggests (in a meta-fictional way) that perhaps a book of mere beginnings is enough, since in his own reading that’s generally all he needs to understand the book in its entirety – the rest is just wasted verbiage, a tiresome and unenlightening struggle. (As you might see by the increasing list of books on the left sidebar, it is a struggle I am much familiar with at the moment). And yet, it is to Calvino’s credit that actually, many of the beginnings to books he sets down here I would have liked to have gone on; there were intriguing enough; they each had a good idea behind them – or at least I believe I would; though equally, if they had been continued, maybe I would have become bogged down in them.

Yes, it all works nicely, this novel. At first seemingly an unconnected series of narratives, interspersed with a connected meta-fictional narrative, it all builds up and becomes more complex, as these two narratives intertwine – until you could almost end up considering it a coherent novel in its entirety – which perhaps it is, if you look into the question closely enough; but I, as usual, find I’m not that much inclined; I’ll let the greater complexities of the work pass me over. For the most part I was entranced: a novel of such disparate elements, you expect some to be a let down; but I only was perhaps with the later bits set in a [South American?] dictatorship, where Calvino started to become just a little too Kafkaesque in his tedious relating of political structures.

Once again, meta-fiction works when it is not po-faced; – when, rather than bring attention to its cleverness (if this kind of reflexivity can be considered cleverness in the first place), it only seeks to laugh at it – to pile absurdity on complexity. Is Calvino making profound points about the nature of fiction and its relation to the reader? Or is he just throwing up paradoxical ideas which catch our fancy? I think probably the latter – there feels nothing, after all, of systematic thought in all this; which is not something I am in any way disparaging Calvino for; I am not one who believes fiction’s main purpose is to examine the philosophical underpinnings either of society or of itself. I was thinking of this and Borges, and I felt maybe there was a kind of similarity between the two in that, rather than a story for them (as it may be for other writers) being a mere vehicle in which to put forward their philosophical view of life, they use a particular philosophical vision of life as a mere vehicle in which to frame their story. That is to say, it is the story which is important, and not the philosophy. At least, I did feel at times, amidst all the meta-fictionalness here, that Calvino at heart was really defending the idea of pure story-telling; that he hadn’t any time for his own clever tricks. Which takes us back again to the fact that the stories he tells, when he does tell them, are themselves pure pieces of story-telling, beautifully constructed to draw us in; and the reader – that is, the character of the reader in the novel – is continually frustrated by anything that gets in the way of them.

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5 thoughts on “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino

  1. One of my favorites, too, for similar reasons.

    I am not one who believes fiction’s main purpose is to examine the philosophical underpinnings either of society or of itself

    Nor am I. If this were the main purpose, I would be pursuing some other art form.

  2. Yes, I would see it as a send up, of course, because that fits in with my philosophical vision of things.

    I often think, if you are really more interested in philosophy, perhaps you should write philosophy. Of course, philosophy’s much harder to write, being concerned with truth and all that; whereas philosophical fiction is a goddamn copout, because – being fiction – you don’t have to strive towards truth at all, and can sufficiently distance yourself (as writer) from your own foolish thoughts. (It’s why I don’t write philosophy, after all).

  3. Of course if you are interested in philosophy but don’t believe in the concept of truth perhaps philosophical fiction would be a good fit?

  4. Hmm, that would explain the post-modernist trend towards “philosophy”-based fiction.

    I’ve enjoyed your 102 albums, btw. Particularly appreciated the inclusion of Subway Sect (the right album, though I’ve always had a fondness for Vic Godard’s The End of the Surrey People), Television Personalities (but surely it should have been, The Painted Word!?), and A House (I was convinced no one else had ever heard of this band, but sounds like they were almost famous once).

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