Friday, February 13, 2004

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

Some few works of fiction force you to slow down. They ask you not just to enjoy, to lose yourself in them, but to consider quite carefully the implications of all that the texts assert. This novel is among that select few.

I've been wanting to read this particular Calvino for some time. I forget where & how I first heard of it. Certainly its peculiarity, its referential nature, the very nifty-ness of the story was part of the recommendation that I was given.

Other sites give detailed plot summaries; I will only say that the book tells the story of two readers--one of which is YOU, as you read--who fall into a story, but who run sharply into the fact that only the beginning of the story is seemingly extant. Then the readers struggle to find the rest of the story only to be offered another one, and another. Meantime, the readers fall in love, have misadventures, while Calvino offers quite a number of theories of reading for consideration.

The titles of the varied stories are worth quoting:

If on a winter's night a traveller
Outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of wind or vertigo
Looks down in the gathering shadow
In a network of lines that enlace
In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?
--he asks, anxious to hear the story.

Each of these, mind, is a fictional story that Calvino has an author begin. Each of these is a story that begins to attract the Reader(s), and ends, Scheherazade-like. There is a bizarre yet fascinating plot involving a man named Marana, who is somehow involved in the production of fake stories, translations, obfuscations, revolutions, plots, who seemingly exists not entirely within time. Separate and widely diverse, we are constantly reminded that these stories have nothing within them in common--and yet, as you've just read, their titles together form a sentence (although the Reader protests that that too, is accidental...).

What intrigues me so much about this one story, this overall story that both is and isn't, lies in its fascination with what the importance of a story is for. In the multiplicity of reasons, of fors. And of the one reason that cannot be refuted--reading is captivating.

Some lines that particularly struck me:

"Reading," he says, "is always this: there is a thing that is there, a thing made of writing, a solid, material object, which cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead..."
"Or that is not present because it does not yet exist, something desired, feared, possible or impossible," Ludmilla says. "Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be..."
(72, fr. "chapter four")

You are always a possible you. Who would dare sentence you to the loss of you, a catastrophe as terrible as the loss of the I. For a second-person discourse to become a novel, at least two you's are required, distinct, and concomitant, which stand out from the crowd of he's, she's, and they's.
(147, fr, "chapter seven")

You have little cause to rejoice, Reader. The secret that is revealed to you, the intimacy between the two of them, consists in the complementary relationship of two vital rhythms. For Irnerio all that counts is the life lived instant by instant; art for him counts as expenditure of vital energy, not as work that remains, not as that accumulation of books that Ludmilla seeks in books. But he also recognizes, without need of reading, that energy somehow accumulated, and he feels obliged to bring it back into circulation, using Ludmilla's books as the material base for works in which he can invest his own energy, at least for an instant.
(150, fr, "chapter seven")

"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."
(192, fr. "chapter eight")

Lovers' readings of each other's bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost. A direction can be recognized in it, a route to an end, since it tends toward a climax, and with this end in view it arranges rhythmic phases, metrical scansions, recurrence of motives. But is the climax really the end? Or is the race toward that end opposed by another drive which works in the opposite direction, swimming against the moments, recovering time?
If one wanted to depict the whole thing graphically, every episode, with its climax, would require a three-dimensional model, perhaps four-dimensional, or, rather, no model: every experience is unrepeatable. What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.
(156, fr. "chapter seven")