Everything about Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” published in 1979—from its dust jacket to its spine to its pages, lined with print—attests to its being a novel. Only, it doesn’t read like one.
The sensation of reading it is like that of being in a bright dream in which one awakens from a dream, when, in reality, the dreamer continues to sleep. At another level, it’s like that of standing in front of a funhouse mirror that bends novels out of shape by tossing out everything that makes them what they are.
This isn’t the kind of book one reads on a train because reading it makes one feel that they’re in an illusory realm, where time decelerates and the hands of the clock move too slowly. Yes, it’s a challenging read, but also distinct and delicious.
By the time I made it to the end, I’d read a collection of 10 novels, all incomplete, all left on a note of great suspense. As in the Christopher Nolan-directed “Inception” (2010) in which the honcho of an energy conglomerate is transported into a many-leveled dream, so in this book, the reader is forced to hop from one book to the next.
Those are crosshatched with a parallel novel, divided into a dozen numbered chapters. The two sets are interconnected: each numbered chapter tells the story of how the reader arrives at the next book and has a clever trigger baked into it; each book, in turn, exudes a whiff of what’s to follow. Together, they make this book whole.
Its protagonist is the Reader, the person who’s both reading the book and the one being read. It begins: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”
Its titular story, “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” is about a man who arrives at a railway station, where he’s to hand over a piece of luggage to a stranger. The plot breaks off on a cliffhanger due to a “printer’s mistake.” The Reader realizes he’s got a defective copy, which has, in essence, 30-odd pages; the rest of it, repetitions of the same.
He goes to the bookstore to complain. He’s told: “Through an error of the bindery, the printed signatures of that book became mixed with those of another new publication, the Polish novel, “Outside the town of Malbork,” by Tazio Bazakbal.” It dawns on him then that the book he was reading isn’t the one he thought it was—the one by Calvino—but a Polish novel. So, he decides to pick up a copy of the new book from a pile.
But when he begins to read book No. 2—by Bazakbal—he observes that it has nothing in common with book No. 1—by Calvino. This is about a boy who leaves a farm. The names of places in it, oddly, aren’t Polish at all. The Reader consults his atlas and encyclopedia.
The region it describes, he learns, belonged to an independent nation called Cimmeria, which existed in the interwar period, but the young state was erased from the map in the territorial grabs between its two powerful neighbors. With the outcome that Cimmerian culture and language had no development. This too, is a faulty copy, a series of alternating two blank pages and two printed pages, all the way to the very end.
The Reader and the Other Reader, Ludmilla—whom he met at the bookstore—go to the one-man Department of Bothno-Ugaric Languages and Literatures at the university to investigate. It turns out that book No. 2—by Bazakbal—is, in fact, a Cimmerian novel by Ukko Ahti, the sole work left by this promising writer. But the text has a different title: “Leaning from the steep slope.” Luckily, the professor owns the slim volume. As it hasn’t been translated into any other language, he reads it to them, translating extempore. It’s about a man who lives in a pension and buys a grapnel for a woman he’s taken a shine to.
Disappointingly, book No. 3 too, is truncated. After that incipit, Ahti sank into depression and killed himself, the professor tells them.
Calvino takes an activity as abstract and solitary as reading and makes it the object of a devilishly geeky intrigue, which amalgamates the flavors of a thriller and a jigsaw puzzle. Dragged from one broken plot to another broken plot, the Reader arrives in the Latin American nation of Ataguitania, where nothing is as it seems: from cabs to cops, everything and anyone is a fake.
He’s told: “Once the process of falsification is set in motion, it won’t stop. We’re in a country, where everything that can be falsified has been falsified: paintings in museums, gold ingots, bus tickets. The counterrevolution and the revolution fight with salvos of falsification: the result is that nobody can be sure what is true and what is false and the political police simulate revolutionary actions and the revolutionaries disguise themselves as policemen.”
At the airport, book No. 8 is impounded. He’s hauled to jail. The female leader of a shadowy agency that clandestinely circulates banned books thrusts another book at him: “Around an empty grave,” by Calixto Bandera. Beneath book No. 9 is book No. 8. Apparently, disguise is the only mode of circulation for books in this country, where the most draconian form of censorship is enforced.
A legitimate copy of book No. 9—by Bandera—is on catalog at the prison library. But what he comes across on the shelves are a “few tattered, worn quires.” When the Reader complains about this to the librarian, all he gets is a spiel on how the regime employs versatile “reading machines,” which can judge the merit of a novel, store it in an electronic format (like an e-reader) and print it out on rolls of paper (like a print-on-demand publisher), typically, in “edulcorated” editions.
The book’s magnificently labyrinthine structure has its roots in an esoteric Parisian literary laboratory, of sorts. In 1967, Calvino moved to Paris, where he stayed, off and on, for 15 years. During his time there, he hung out with literary theorists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes and moved in intellectual circles at Tel Quell (a French avant-garde magazine) and the Oulipo (short for “OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle.”)
Founded in 1960, by Francois de Lionnais—a chemical engineer by training—and Raymond Queneau—a poet—Oulipo’s philosophy connected two seemly mismatched areas of study: math and literature. A collective of numerate writers and writerly arithmeticians, the group, active in France in the Sixties and Seventies, formulated unorthodox structures of writing, prompted by the world of numbers.
Calvino was its member. In the essay, “How I Wrote One of My Books,” which ran in volume No. 20 of La Bibliothèque Oulipienne, published in 1982, he explained that he’d based “If in a Winter’s Night a Traveler” on the “semiotic square,” a concept borrowed from the noted semiotician Algirdas Greimas.
Postmodernism seeks to disrupt the grand narrative and expose the artifice of writing. Dissected, its innards revealed, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” resembles geometry:
Chapter I is represented by a single square with four coordinates: R, B, r and b.
The living Reader (R) reads the physical book (B).
The physical book (B) tells the story of the reader who is in the book (r).
The reader who is in the book (r) doesn’t succeed in reading the book in the book (b).
The book in the book (b) doesn’t tell the story of the living reader (R).
The reader who is in the book (r) pretends to be the living reader (R).
The physical book (B) wants to be book in the book (b).
Chapter II, a notch more complex, has two squares; III, three; IV, four; V, five; VI, six; VII, six; VIII, five; IX, four; X, three; XI, two; and XII has one.
Around the middle, the volume begins to wander into technological territory. The polyglot translator Eames Marana relates his absurd misadventures in his attempts to procure an eagerly awaited new novel from a reclusive Irish writer named Silas Flannery. After perilous peregrinations during which his plane was hijacked by a band of book pirates to a dictatorial African republic, he dutifully delivered it to the Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works (or O.E.P.H.L.W.), headquartered on Wall Street.
That is where the Flannery’s work will be completed—by computers. In its “control room,” he saw a reader soldered to a chair, her head and temples connected to an electroencephalogram to record her brainwaves as she read the novels cranked out by machines.
They measure their effect on her concentration. If her attention reached certain highs, with some continuity, the paperback is launched on the market. If it flagged and shifted, it’s rejected. Its elements are then broken up and repurposed in other contexts. In this literary factory, novels are assembled and reassembled.
Fortunately, today, books still aren’t created this way, although a tiny bit of journalistic content is. Last year, The Associated Press turned to a content-generating tool called Wordsmith to generate its reports about college sports. At the time Calvino was writing this book, nearly 40 years ago, computers were only beginning to pop up here and there, let alone make deep inroads into the business of publishing. But that he could foresee that they would, in the future, is nothing short of prescient.
One of the characters is writing a dissertation on the Flannery oeuvre. But she doesn’t read any of his works. Instead, she feeds them to a computer that skims the texts in a jiffy and barfs out all the words in it in order of how often they appear. She then goes over that lexical inventory to get a grasp of the book. She sounds remarkably like a scholar of the emergent field of digital humanities, which examines the humanities through the lens of algorithms.
Flannery is hiding both from his literary agents who are breathing down his neck as well as from salespeople who’d like his characters to wear certain brands of apparel and drink certain fruit juices a.k.a. “product placement.”
The convolution extends into science-fiction. One day, when Flannery is out for a walk in a mountain trail, he runs into a party of boys who tell him that they’re putting markers for passing flying saucers. They’ve heard on the grapevine that extraterrestrials will convey a message to humanity, encoded in his new work. He’ll write knowing that his thoughts are his own, of course, but in reality, they’ll be dictated by aliens.
What gives? “The secret spring that set [this book fraud] in motion [is] the jealously of the invisible rival who came constantly between [the plotter] and [the object of his love], the silent voice [that spoke] to her through books.”
So, he came up with a brilliant plan to thwart her effort at reading. He “dreamed of a literature made entirely of apocrypha.” “He went on sowing confusion among titles, authors’ names, pseudonyms, languages, translations, editions, jackets, title pages, chapters, beginnings, ends, so that she would be forced to recognize those signs of his presence.
If the identity of the writer was kept uncertain, “perhaps externally, the edifice of literature would not have changed at all, but beneath, in the foundations, where the relationship between reader and text is established, something would have changed forever.” To that end, he founded the Organization of Apocryphal Power (or O.A.P.), a mysterious bibliophilic sect that steals manuscripts and corrupts them.
Trotting the world from book to book, the Reader returns to the city from which he’d set out. He goes to the local library to look for all the titles he hasn’t been able to read to the finish. All of them are on catalog, but none are immediately available. Yet, his quest is somehow complete.
Chapter XII concludes with a single square:
The Reader (R) is finishing the book (B).
The Female Reader (L) has exited the book.
The Reader switches off the light.
The Female Reader approaches the Reader in the dark (n).
The Reader and Female Reader lie down together.
Life goes on. The physical book ends there.
In a note, at the end of his essay in La Bibliothèque Oulipienne, Calvino lets out a little secret: that each of the incomplete novels was written with a selection of “Oulipian constraints.” It’s the reader’s job to puzzle them out. Could it be a “pangrammatic lipogram,” a passage written with every letter of the alphabet save one? Example: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” This omits “S.”