I have, at long last, finished reading If on a winter’s night a traveler. It is a book that I at first enjoyed: it was creative, employing the use of the second person, and had a mystery of the missing novel. However, by the third or fourth interrupted novel, I as the Actual Reader was already expecting this to happen. I began to treat each new novel incipit as a short story, or rather, not investing too much in the story because I knew that the chapter would cut off at its most climatic moment. The Character of the Reader, however, the ‘You’ character, continued to invest himself, to follow the mystery. It was not until the seventh or eighth interrupted novel that the conspiracy theory began to take off—so, if I was already expecting the stories to be interrupted at the third occurrence, you can imagine my annoyance that it took four more repetitions until the alternate storyline began to pick up.
While at first creative, the use of the second person for the narrator failed with the second chapter. In the first chapter, the Character of the Reader is gender-less; by the second time you see him, he has become clearly male and it becomes immediately apparent that he has a sexual attraction to Ludmilla, the Other Reader. As first or third person this character might have worked, but as second person it did not. Instead, Calvino was imposing upon the Actual Reader a persona that the Actual Reader does not have.
And, at risk of sounding completely super-feminist (especially in light of a recent post), it appears that in this novel it is impossible for a man and a woman to have any form of relationship that is not sexual. In the storyline of the Readers, Ludmilla exists as a sexual object for every man she encounters; her sister is set up as a foil to her, and the Character of the Reader almost has sex with her, too, at one point. In each of the novels, every female character is presented in terms of her sexual availability. I was sick of it already by the time the student of the Buddhist master has sex with his master’s wife while her husband and the daughter look on. I hate to generalise, but I suppose I ought to remember that this novel was written in 1979 by an Italian man; these two things are contributing factors, at the very least.
As it is, my main complaints lie with the Readers’ storyline. The actual stories interspersed I enjoyed reading. Regardless, If on a winter’s night a traveler is a feat of modernism. I might even assign it if I were ever to teach a course on literary theory.
Ludmilla often says, ‘The book I am looking for is…’ and each time it is a different description. What stays the same, however, is her detachment from the author. She is New Criticism personified: books exist independently from their authors and she holds no desire to ever meet the author of her favorite books. An author in the book comments that Ludmilla is his ‘Ideal Reader’.* I was reminded of a conversation recently had over lunch in 66—I had made the comment that authors should purge their journals and notes before they die. What I had intended as an aside was met with gasps throughout the room. A former archivist exclaimed, ‘The archivist’s worst nightmare!’ It was then that I realized I am of two minds: as a student of literature, I occasionally like to know the biographical information of the authors I am studying; but as a writer, my thoughts are my own, and what is important is the final product: the text. Any study on ‘the influences of X’ redirects attention from the text to the author, which, as an author, is not the point. Thank heaven I am saved from being distracted by the biographies of the authors of the texts I study because nearly all of them, as are most writings from the medieval period, are blissfully anonymous.
Anyhow, now that this book is finished, this Reader can move on to one of her well-tried Scheherazade’s, The Queen of Attolia.
* The Ideal Reader is not to be confused with the Perfect Reader.