Earlier this year, I picked up If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, by Italo Calvino, from a book-swap shelf at my workplace. I was about to embark on a six-week journey around Europe and was looking for some reading material; a book with ‘traveller’ in the title seemed appropriate. What I expected was a travelling tale. What I got was an exploration of how we humans undertake, experience and process the read experience.
My default approach would be to start by giving you a synopsis of the book. However, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is not a default type of book. This is a novel that refers to its own existence, appoints you as its protagonist and interrupts your reading. It is welcoming and infuriating, like a comfortable lover. It would be misleading of me to tell you what this book is about because it is a collection of (untold) stories and your story, all at once.
In Italo Calvino’s eyes, we are either readers, writers or neither and where we choose to stand within or across these categories determines our reading experience. As an avid, old hand reader and new, greenhorn writer (though these measurements are arbitrary and subjective at best), I found these clear-cut delineations personally and philosophically intriguing. For Calvino, it seems that the read experience can be tainted by the written experience, or vice versa, and it is clear he struggled between the two. Moreover, which is the true read experience? The one that feeds popular masses or the one that lends itself to literary analysis? Which experience has ‘real’ integrity? Which should a writer aspire to? Since (re)venturing into writing, I have sensed a change in my reading habits; I take more notice of style, structure and vocabulary, pay closer attention to plot development and draw comparisons between the historical and contemporary contexts. Personally, I would not go far as to say that my reading experience has been ‘tainted’, but I am certainly aware that when I read, it is more than just for enjoyment. For now, I’m happy to take the chance that my changed reading habits may lead to a written demise.
Despite his categories, Calvino himself acknowledges the divide is not so clear cut by using a second person narrative where the reader is the novel’s protagonist. He blurs the line between protagonist and reader, taking you through different stories and whisking you to a mysterious country where everything has become falsified in its search for the truth. Along the way, Calvino continues to raise more questions and you get the sense that he is leading you to them in a teasing manner. What do we seek when we read: emotion, truth, validation or fulfilment? Are the divides so stark between reader, writer and neither? Who determines the true experience? I could almost feel him chuckling at me every time I stopped and pondered over a new thought.
However, I was disappointed by Calvino’s assumption of the reader as male. Although female readers are encountered, and indeed, pivotal to the plot development, they are never the heroes. This novel was penned during the 1970s, when second wave feminism swept Italy and laws for divorce and regulating abortion were introduced. In this context, it seems remiss of Calvino to ignore the agency of the female reader. In light of the recent US election result, now, more than ever, we need women to assert their agency as the heroes of their own story, and we, as active readers, need to acknowledge their achievements.
I can think of no other novel that resembles If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Although this novel can be dense (some days I could only manage four or five pages at a time), it is certainly worth powering through to the end. Or, at the very least, skimming to the next story for a new adventure.