Critical Theory through If on a winter’s night a traveler


I recently read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Before trying to explain what made this book so entertaining for me to read, I’ll try to sketch an outline of the book if you haven’t heard about it. The overall form consists of alternating chapters. Half the chapters are in second person and refer to “you” the reader. It tells you how you are reading the other half of the chapters and what you are doing between reading those.

The other half of the chapters consists of “short stories” which are fragments of novels. Thus the whole book is in a sense a novel, because it has one overarching story in which you are the protagonist. But it is also a book of short stories which runs the gamut with style and genre. The frustrating thing is that you keep getting stopped right when each story starts to get interesting. There is no closure. The reasons for being interrupted start becoming weirder and sillier (and we’ll see there is good reason for that).

It starts with a bad binding. You go to the store to replace it. Every time you keep getting what you think is the full version of the book only to find out that it is actually a different book. One time you are in a college seminar and the seminar only needs part of the book to do their analysis, so no one has the full thing. By the end, the reasons become much stranger as you enter a Kafka-esque prison situation. The absurdity of the reasons and even conspiracy behind it should keep a smile on your face. As you approach the end of the book, it reads like Pynchon.

Let’s answer an easy question first. What’s up with the title? Part of what is nice about the form of the book is that it tells you what to think sometimes. The book as a whole is a commentary on the falseness of novels. Classical novelists try to give you the sense that what they write is a neat and tidy story. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. In reality, you are just getting a snippet of the character’s lives.

Calvino writes this explicitly near the middle of the book, “Everything has already begun before, the first line of the first page of every novel refers to something that has already happened outside the book.” The book could almost be read as satire in how it comically exaggerates this point by giving you a bunch of fragments of books that never amount to anything. This is the point of the title. All of the books get cut off with no sense of closure, so why not emphasize the point by making a title that feels cut off?

I think basically everyone that reads this book will have gotten that far. They will be aware of how the literary devices fit right in with other postmodern works of that time (late 70’s early 80’s). It is subtly self-referential and comments on what you are reading as you read it. People will probably pick up on the fact that the book is filled with imitation. Allusions to Borges with infinite regressions, labyrinths, and huge libraries are all over the place.

I can tell this will be a long post, because at this point I haven’t even started commentating on what I think most people will miss. I now want to argue that the book takes you on a historical tour of critical theory by example. By this I mean that each segment presents a different mode of reading a text and theory behind the relationship between writer and reader. As you move through the book, you see the evolution of these ideas.

The book starts with a very simplistic and intuitive approach which can be linked back to Aristotle’s Poetics. The writer writes a book, and the reader reads it. Novels consist of mythos, ethos, etc. Good books make you feel something, and this is catharsis. The book doesn’t use these terms, but “you” the reader essentially describe the reading process with another character in classical pre-modern critical terms (plot, character, etc).

Soon you go to a place where books are made and your simple philosophy of reading starts to become confused. “Now you understand Ludmilla’s refusal to come with you; you are gripped by the fear of having also passed over to ‘the other side’ and of having lost that privileged relationship with books which is peculiar to the reader: the ability to consider what is written as something finished and definitive, to which there is nothing to be added, from which there is nothing to be removed.” This is the start of the problem of hermeneutics maybe as seen by Heidegger and Gadamer. The book starts introducing these early problems of getting at meaning and whether authorial intent is important in interpretation.

We then start moving on to the “New Criticism.” We get to something along the lines of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous essay “The Intentional Fallacy.” The main character starts to believe that meaning comes from the reader. Calvino writes, “If you think about it, reading is a necessarily individual act, far more than writing. If we assume that writing manages to go beyond the limitations of the author, it will continue to have a meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his mental circuits.”

We then start moving on to the structuralism of Levi-Strauss. In “The Structural Study of Myth” he shows that you can put texts into categories based on which mythological structure it follows. Calvino writes, “What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences, certain insistences of forms and meanings?” This is a succinct way of summarizing that essay.

Then we get a parody of the Derrida school and the deconstructionist response. This comes in the form of giving such a close reading that the text gets pulled apart into just a list of the words that appear most frequently. This part of the book is pretty interesting, because as is noted, you feel that you do have a good sense of what the book is about based on merely a close, fragmented study of the words it uses.

Then we move on to the school of Deleuze and postmodernism. This is where foundations were ripped apart. In what I imagine to be a parody of the dense, confusing style of these writers, Calvino writes, “Perhaps my true vocation was that of author of apocrypha, in the several meanings of the term: because writing always means hiding something in such a way that it then is discovered; because the truth that can come from my pen is like a shard that has been chipped from a great boulder by a violent impact, then flung far away; because there is no certitude outside falsification.”

By the end, Calvino starts to backpedal a bit. Despite being a book without conclusions, I think he wants to take this quick tour through the critical tradition and pull out of the endless trap it sets up. His conclusion is interesting, because it seems to foreshadow the “New Historicists” which wasn’t a movement at the time he wrote this. He writes, “The conclusion I have reached is that reading is an operation without object; or that its true object is itself. The book is an accessory aid, or even a pretext.”

It would be interesting for someone to take the time and make a more convincing argument that this is what he is doing. I think a much stronger case can be made, and even a finer tuning of the trends in thought can be found. Since this is merely a blog post, I didn’t have the space or energy to do that. Examples that I think fit would be to add in Lacan/Freud, Marx, and Adorno/Horkheimer.

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