If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino
As a great writer of fables, Calvino loves to show you who a character is as much as he loves to tell you. At various points in If on a winter's night a traveler, he uses actions to convey a great deal about his characters and the themes he explores through them. Whether it's Silas Flannery spying on a woman through his telescope, or Professor Uzzi-Tuzii "growing thinner and thinner until he can slip into the interstices greedy for dust" (7.10), Calvino often uses actions like spying and retreating to convey not only the sneakiness of his characters, but the sneakiness of the book he's written.
It doesn't take long to find out that Calvino is going to go ahead and tell you about yourself, since you are main character of this book. Right off the bat, the book tells you that "You're the sort of person who, on principle, never expects anything of anything" (1.6). At this point, you might actually want to say, "Hey Calvino! You don't know me at all! Quit putting me in a box."
But Calvino doesn't relent, even as he places you in the position of Ludmilla later in the text, saying, "Your relationship with objects is selective, personal; only the things you feel yours become yours" (13.12). Many modern authors shy away from such a bold "telling" of what characters are like, but not Calvino.
Well, it's pretty clear that many of the places Calvino mentions in this book—Ataguitania, Ircania, Oquedal—aren't actually real. He even says as much toward the beginning of the book, writing, "The city outside [the train station] has no name yet, we don't know if it will remain outside the novel or whether the whole story will be contained within its inky blackness" (2.8). In other words, Calvino is very prepared to tell you that he's telling you a story. He makes little to no effort to make his locations more than vaguely recognizable (in the way we can vaguely recognize a South American country, or Switzerland, or a train station).
Quite frankly, the names in this book are all over the place, and Calvino actually seems to revel in making them this way. A small sample can demonstrate his delight in making words sound funny: Nacho, Gritzvi, Ludmilla, Lotaria, Uzzi-Tuzii, Cavedagna, Ruedi the Swiss, Silas Flannery… the list goes on.
On the one hand, Calvino's range of names helps him solidify the numerous geographical places and styles of writing he develops throughout this book. On the other, it also seems to convey the fascination he has with words as letters on a page or noises that your mouth makes. Rest assured; you won't find many Johns or Jennifers in this book.
In almost all cases, characters' occupations have symbolic significance in this book. You might even say that certain characters are representative of entire professions. Lotaria, for example, seems to represent all politically motivated, female students, while Professor Uzzi-Tuzii represents a certain "type" of academic who deals in obscure material that no one really cares about. Sorry, professors.
But when you start getting into all the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary stuff toward the end of the book, it's hard to say if occupations have any stable meaning anymore. For example, who are the real police and who are the fake ones? It becomes impossible to tell, and this process seems to mirror Calvino's process of stripping more and more meaning away from your conventional reading as the book unfolds.
Sex and Love
There's no shortage of sex in this book, although it's not necessarily always connected to love. At least you, the Reader, follow up on your sex with Ludmilla and eventually marry her. But then there's also that sexual episode you have with the Ataguitanian revolutionary with the constantly changing name. At this moment, in fact, the book itself accuses you of being too lusty, saying, "Reader, what are you doing? […] Wasn't your story with Ludmilla enough to give the plot the warmth and grace of a love story?" (17.77).
It's pretty funny, considering that the book itself has forced you into this position. What constantly seems to come up in the ten fictional novels is the notion that readerly pleasure is somehow similar to male sexual desire, finding an object and then pursuing that object in an effort to "know" or penetrate it.
Thoughts and Opinions
You'll pretty much never meet a character in this book who doesn't have a complex opinion about some philosophical issue. This tendency reaches its peak in the book's climactic scene, where you're bombarded with the opinions of eight random readers at a library. But many of these opinions don't only belong to the characters. Instead, they form part of a larger conversation that the book is trying to have about reading.