Thursday, October 27, 2011

If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino

No, that's not a typo on my part; it's the whole title -- If On a Winter's Night a Traveller.  What? You insist it's an incomplete title? You have the sympathy of the book's protagonist. He buys the novel and discovers that his copy is only partial. He returns to the bookshop for an intact copy of the same book. Once home again, he learns that although the replacement has the same title and author, it is in fact a different novel, and it too is only partial. At least his next trip to the bookshop is made slightly more pleasant by the arrival of an attractive female reader, also there to return her partial copy.  Our hero's interest in literature takes a marked leap as he suggests that they work together to solve the mystery.

Calvino proceeds to poke great fun at books, the people who read them, write them, study them, publish them, translate them and sell them. Oh, yes, and also those who don't read at all.

Our nameless protagonist soon discovers that the object of his literary lust, Ludmilla, has an intensely academic sister, Lotaria. They don't get on especially well: "Lotaria wants to know the author's position with regard to Trends of Contemporary Thought and Problems That Demand a Solution."
She eventually writes a computer application that tabulates the word count for a book, and based upon the frequency of certain words, she is able to analyse the content rationally and efficiently.  She has no use for her sister's reading of fiction for pleasure.
"Ludmilla reads one novel after another, but she never clarifies the problems. It seems a big waste of time to me. Don't you have this impression?"

Throughout the book, Ludmilla explains what, exactly, she wants from a novel.  There's only one problem: each of her explanations, while terribly articulate and erudite, differs from all the others.
"The novel I would most like to read at this moment," Ludmilla explains, "should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you, simply allowing you to observe its own growth, like a tree, an entangling, as if of branches and leaves..." 
Then later, "The novels that attract me most," Ludmilla said, "are those that create an illusion of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure, cruel, and perverse as possible." In short, there's no telling what she would like most to read.

Ludmilla and the hero go to the university hoping to find the missing ending to one of their novels. There, the hero meets Irnerio, who not only eschews reading but also has a dubious relationship with Ludmilla. It's a wicked combination. Irnerio makes the point, however, that once we've become readers, it's hard to stop.
"Me? I don't read books!" Irnerio says.
"What do you read, then?"
"Nothing. I've become so accustomed to not reading that I don't even read what appears before my eyes. It's not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear."
Ludmilla and the hero meet Professor Uzzi-Tuuzi, an expert on the dead (and fictional) Cimmerian language, believing that one of their partial novels is a translation from Cimmerian. The professor is delighted -- yes! They are correct, and he proceeds to translate an entirely different plot with different characters. He translates, however, with precision and passion.

Furthermore, Professor Uzzi-Tuzii had begun his oral translation as if he were not quite sure he could make the words hang together, going back over every sentence to iron out the syntactical creases, manipulating the phrases until they were not completely rumpled, smoothing them, clipping them, stopping at every word to illustrate its idiomatic uses and its connotations, accompanying himself with inclusive gestures as if inviting you to be content with approximate equivalents, breaking off to state grammatical rules, etymological derivations, quoting the classics. But just when you are convinced that for the professor philology and erudition mean more than what the story is telling, you realize the opposite is true: that academic envelope serves only to protect everything the story says and does not say, an inner afflatus always on the verge of being dispersed at contact with the air, the echo of a vanished knowledge revealed in the penumbra and in tacit allusions. Torn between the necessity to interject glosses on multiple meanings of the text and the awareness that all interpretation is a use of violence and caprice against a text, the professor, when faced by the most complicated passages, could find no better way of aiding comprehension than to read them in the original.
Following this linguistic performance, they ask again if he might actually have what they are looking for. He does not take it well.
"Don't ask where the rest of this book is!" It is a shrill cry that comes from an undefined spot among the shelves. "All books continue in the beyond...." The professor's voice goes up and down; where has he got to? Perhaps he is rolling around beneath the desk, perhaps he is hanging himself from the lamp in the ceiling.
Ludmilla and the protagonist go to the publishing house to try and get to the bottom of it all. Why, why can't they find one complete novel, written by the stated author in the stated language?  Once there, they find an old, harried editor running about like a madman, offering random suggestions to authors of rejected manuscripts. His advice most likely has nothing whatever to do with their work. He bumps into the protagonist and, mistaking him for another author, blurts out some advice.
"But couldn't you, forgive me for asking, include the footnotes in the body of the text, and perhaps condense the text a bit, and even—the decision is yours— turn it into a footnote?"
"I'm a reader, only a reader, not an author," you hasten to declare, like a man rushing to the aid of somebody about to make a misstep.
"Oh, really? Good, good! I'm delighted!" And the glance he gives you really is a look of friendliness and gratitude. "I'm so pleased. I come across fewer and fewer readers...."
This novel is hugely entertaining in the cerebral realm. Calvino's not aiming his arrows at readers' hearts. For those of us who read a lot, though, it poses one critical question:  Why? And maybe he doesn't even demand the answer to that. After all, do we ask why we eat or sleep?

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