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Making a Successful Text-reader Relationship: Italo Calvino’s if on a Winter's Night a Traveler

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Written narratives often exist within a clear text-reader relationship established by an author. The act of reading and experiencing a text—its reception—inevitably causes some kind of reaction for the reader. Reception theory is the theoretical study of the variety of ways in which a text may be read and received. Italo Calvino plays with this variety in his novel If on a winter’s night a traveler. He pushes the limits of reception theory by creating a narrator who supposedly already knows what the reader’s reaction will be. If on a winter’s night a traveler challenges the traditional modes of narratology, thus forcing me to question my own assumptions about how narratives are structured and received.

Calvino’s reworking of the text-reader relationship could not be effective without these very assumptions. Naturally, the title provided me with my first impression of the novel—that it would probably be a dramatic narrative full of adventure or romance. Given an understanding of more traditional novels, one would not expect this assumption to be far from the truth. However, Calvino must have anticipated my presumptions, because he certainly shattered them by the end of the first sentence: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler” (3). I immediately became aware of his plan to subvert narratological conventions. This opening line, particularly in contrast with the title, challenged everything I thought I knew about narratives. The sentence establishes an ambiguous narrator; one can never be sure if it is a self-referential Calvino or simply an omniscient third-person voice. I also began questioning the nature of the story—What happened to the dramatic title? Does this mean that I have not started the book yet? Calvino played into and subverted my assumptions about storytelling with a single sentence. The opening lines both discredited my ability to discern the text’s genre and dictated my process of textual reception.

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Though uncertain of the narrator’s identity, I was bound to his instructions right from the start of the novel. He tells me to “relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade” in order to receive Calvino’s text (3). Here, the narrator seemed to have some assumptions of his own. He knew exactly how I should receive the text. Rather than simply addressing me as a detached audience, he imposed an explicit series of preparations to be made for reading the rest of this novel. I was dragged into the text against my will, as I had no other choice but to continue reading the narrator’s orders.

Calvino then expanded my involvement in the text to something of a character role. Our narrator still knows best, but his tone suddenly shifts from instructive to dialogical: “Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, ‘No, I don’t want to watch TV!’ Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’” (3). Here, we see a toppling of conventional text-reader relationships; my reading experience now serves as an actual scene. Calvino’s “you” thus blurs the line between character and reader. A certain reception has been imposed on the reader such that being a recipient entails living and functioning within the text.

However, the reader’s existence inside If on a winter’s night a traveler is both fleeting and arbitrary, as Calvino creates a virtual “you.” The reader inevitably reaches a point at which he or she detaches himself or herself from the “you” being addressed. This moment arrived for me when the narrator reverted my attention to “the TV…in the next room” (Calvino 3). The narrator made assumptions about my reception of the text that were not true. Simply, there was no television near me. Though he did not lose my interest, Calvino certainly loosened his grip upon me as a recipient. The “you” referred to throughout much of If on a winter’s night a traveler—in fact, it is the novel’s first word—is indeed virtual. “You” is not attached to any particular reader. Instead, it serves to push the story along, regardless of a reader’s ability to receive the text.

Calvino played with my reception again in the succeeding chapter. He negates everything I had just read by informing me that “the novel begins in a railway station” (Calvino 10). It seems as though If on a winter’s night a traveler has two openings, the second of which is narrated in a new, more descriptive third person voice. As the first narrator had predicted, “You don’t recognize [the tone of the author] at all…But then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author” (Calvino 9). Indeed, Calvino subverted my presumption that narration is limited to a relatively consistent voice. One extreme case of unconventional narration I had previously read is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Though several of Faulkner’s characters narrate each chapter, at least the novel sticks to a distinct first person narrator throughout. Meanwhile, Calvino’s ambiguous narrator shifts from addressing a virtual “you” to approximating a more conventional third person storyteller.

At this point, Calvino seemed to suspend his efforts to drag me into the text. He introduces a counterpart to the virtual “you:” a character whom I consider to be a third person “I.” Our new narrator explains that “I am the man who comes and goes between the bar and the telephone booth. Or rather: that man is called ‘I’ and you know nothing else about him” (Calvino 11). The chapter follows “I” as he struggles to carry out an elaborate plan to switch empty suitcases with another man in the station. The use of a detached first person has inspired in me a new understanding of voice and character. I had never before considered the possibility of using “I” as more than just a pronoun. I would like to contend that the novel’s contents (I emphasize content, not effect) would not be significantly different had Calvino used traditional third person names instead of “you” and “I.” I was able to separate these arbitrary labels from the characters and storyline; whether or not I was a part of the novel had no effect on the plot. Detaching myself from “you,” specifically, freed me up to appreciate another target of Calvino’s subversions: structure.

I first noticed a structural oddity at the start of the railway station chapter. Whereas the first chapter was simply entitled “[1],” this new chapter bore the familiar name “If on a winter’s night a traveler” (Calvino 10). Here, Calvino made me question my assumptions about a title’s function and placement. That “the novel begins in a railway station” seemed to imply that If on a winter’s night a traveler has multiple beginnings. In the following chapter, [2], the virtual “you” discovers that “If on a winter’s night a traveler” was actually the opening chapter from “the Polish novel Outside the town of Malbork by Tazio Bazakbal,” mistakenly bound in “your” copy of the Calvino novel (28). Naturally, I began questioning everything I had just read. Calvino playfully undermined my knowledge of his text and challenged my presumptions about narrative structure. At this point in my reading, I realized he was essentially telling two different sets of narratives.

The virtual “you” then began taking on a life of its own. “You” proceeds to meet and fall in love with a lady, Ludmilla, whose copy of If on a winter’s night a traveler suffers the same defect. Their relationship transforms into a relatively conventional narrative over the course of the numbered chapters. This second person narrative was more akin to what I imagined at the beginning of the novel—full of adventure, drama, travel, and romance. Calvino alternates between telling their love story and presenting the opening pages of several other fictional novels; for example, the following chapter takes the same name as Tazio Bazakbal’s book. Both sets of narratives run alongside each other throughout the rest of the novel. The numbered chapters continue to develop, such that I nearly found myself beyond the point of reattachment to Calvino’s “you” by the last page: “Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader. A great double bed receives your parallel readings” (260). Though Calvino initially dragged me into If on a winter’s night a traveler, my existence within the novel ended up being irrelevant by the final chapter. The virtual “you” embarked on an entire journey to reach this happy ending, independently of my reception of the text.

If on a winter’s night a traveler juxtaposes two sets of narratives in a manner quite reminiscent of my personal favorite novel, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The Russian satire alternates between biblical Jerusalem and 1930s Soviet Moscow. A burned manuscript about Pontius Pilate ties these settings together and drives the novel’s overarching plot, a love story between the titular characters. Though not as politically motivated, Calvino achieves a similar effect with If on a winter’s night a traveler as the focal point of “your” romance with Ludmilla. He raises his text into a new realm of text-reader relationships, thus taking reception theory to the ultimate level. Calvino extends his role as an author to play with the reader’s assumptions about how a narrative can function. By the end of If on a winter’s night a traveler, I found myself suspended somewhere in between being the novel’s main character and receiving Calvino’s text as a detached reader.

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