The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. (2.1)
Right away, Calvino tries to confuse the boundaries between the world inside the book and your real life. In this sense, the words you're reading on the page start to get blocked by the steam rising from the same train they're describing. Trippy, right? The relationship between words and the supposedly "real" things words refer to will continue to catch you throughout the novel.
[A]ll of this is a setting you know by heart, with the odor of train that lingers after all the trains have left, the special odor of stations after the last train has left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of indicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog. (2.3)
Okay, so can language communicate some sort of physical "reality" to us? You'd have to be a semiotics genius to have a super-theoretical conversation about it, but let's at least take a look at what Calvino thinks. In this passage, the speaker suggests that words might actually destroy the things they're talking about more than describe them. How could words possibly do this? Well, because in a book, the words are all you've got. If you had the real thing in front of you, you wouldn't have your nose buried in a book. The book assumes that the things it describes are absent while you're reading. You convinced?
"It's not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear" (5.60)
Irnerio says that the secret to teaching oneself how not to read is to stare at words until all you see is black scribbles on a white background. This reminds your brain that there is nothing naturally meaningful about the words you read. For all your eyes care, what you're reading could look like (*&%^&$&%$(&^(%&. It's only after your brain adds its own interpretation that words mean something. This quote develops the idea that some void-like silence lurks beneath all words. It's a void that you can almost see if you stare hard enough... keep staringstaringstaringstaring… anything yet?
"Books are the steps of the threshold.… All Cimmerians have passed it.… Then the wordless language of the dead begins, which says the things that only the dead can say. Cimmerian is the last language of the living, the language of the threshold! You come here to try to listen there, beyond…Listen…" (7.13)
Professor Uzzi-Tuzii is translating a book from a dead language by a dead author. Shmoop can dig that, but he has way more to say on the matter. The prof insists that there's a connection between books and an essential silence that lies beneath their words. He thinks that this silence is somehow connected to the death that awaits all of us as mortal creatures. Especially at this point in the novel, we're meant to be a little confused, don't worry.
"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." (7.19)
The dear professor Uzzi-Tuzii expands on his theories concerning what (if anything) reading is able to communicate to us. Here, he's responding to Ludmilla's insistence that there is something about a novel that obviously "exists." Yes, he admits, books are real physical "things." But lying beneath their thinginess is something invisible and unsayable that all humans measure themselves against. It might be some sort of perfection that human beings aren't fully able to understand. For example, you might know in your mind what a perfect circle should look like, but it's impossible to find one in the real world that's truly perfect. Plato would be proud.
And so it is with authors: he deals with them every day, he knows their fixations, indecisions, susceptibilities, ego-centricities, and yet the true authors remain those who for him were only a name on a jacket […] The author was an invisible point from which the books came, a void traveled by ghosts, an underground tunnel that put other worlds in communication with the chicken coop of his boyhood.... (9.77)
While visiting Mr. Cavedagna at the publishing house, you come to understand that on the production side of things, people have a unique perspective on the relationship between books and readers. Authors might be real people with real hang-ups, but on the publisher's desk, the authors are just names that refer to other books (and maybe certain styles of writing). The author is actually destroyed by his or her existence in print, since this existence on a book's cover actually overshadows and erases him/her as a real person. Yeah, not the most motivational thought for people who are thinking about becoming writers.
"I make things with books. I make objects. Yes, artworks: statues, pictures, whatever you want to call them. I even had a show. I fix the books with mastic, and they stay as they were. Shut, or open, or else I give them forms, I carve them, I make holes in them. A book is a good material to work with; you can make all sorts of things with it." (13.36)
Irnerio, who's taught himself not to read by reducing language to its basic physical shape, has taken this idea to the next level through his artwork. He uses books to make things like sculptures, and neglects the fact that these books were created for the purposes of reading. There is consistency here between his art and his teaching himself not to read. As you find out later, Calvino takes this absurdity one step further, saying that there is a photographer who has taken pictures of Irnerio's creations and plans on putting them together in—you got it—a book.
"In my case, too, all the books I read are leading to a single book," a fifth reader says, sticking his face out from behind a pile of bound volumes […] "There is a story that for me comes before all other stories and of which all the stories I read seem to carry an echo, immediately lost." (21.10)
The fifth reader at the library suggests that when he reads, there is an ideal book in his mind that sets the bar for his current reading. He doesn't know exactly what this book is because it's actually an ideal book that doesn't (and can't) exist. He has a vague awareness of what it would be like, though, and this is why he can hear an echo of it, just before the echo is lost.
He goes on to add, "'In my readings I do nothing but seek that book read in my childhood'" (21.10). Like Mr. Cavedagna, this reader believes that at some unknown point in the past, he was innocent enough to read a book with no expectations to limit his reading. This half-remembered encounter with the "ideal" story is what feeds his desire to read for the rest of his life.
9. "For me, on the other hand, it is the end that counts," a seventh says, "but the true end, final, concealed in the darkness, the goal to which the book wants to carry you. I also seek openings in readings." (21.12).
Um, what? Let's break this down. The seventh reader who speaks at the library suggests that instead of focusing on a story's opening (like much of Calvino's book does), he feels that it's the end that counts. This is just the kind of claim that you, the normal Reader, can get behind.
But the other reader takes it in a different direction than the one you'd expect, saying that he's not looking for your average ending, but "the true end, final, concealed in the darkness." By this, he could mean the sort of final ending that each book wishes it could give you but can't, since there will always be more books to read.
Or maybe, just maybe, the reader is talking about the ending of reading itself, the end of language, or even the end of the world. Because in the end, why do we all keep talking? It's because we're never able to express something with total perfection; there's always that little bit of a gap (or something like a remainder when you're doing long division) that keeps us going.
Or is this all just a pile of nonsense?
"Do you believe that every story must have a beginning and an end? In ancient times a story could end only in two ways: having passed all the tests, the hero and the heroine married, or else they died. The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death." (21.25)
Want a quick rundown of how Calvino talks about language in If on a winter's night a traveler? Just take a gander at this passage. Throughout its pages, the novel has spoken about how words never fully capture meaning in the way we want them to, and so we keep on talking into the future. This continuation of speaking is the part of language that refers to the "continuity of life" ending of stories, which is usually symbolized by a marriage.
But as Calvino reminds us, there is another face to this same coin: the face of death, which will reach us when language itself goes silent. (Ominous, we know.) We don't know when that day will be, but it seems unlikely that language will continue being spoken into infinity. So as language continues going, it does so with the awareness that somewhere in the future, the ultimate end is coming. This is what is represented by the other ending of stories: death. It also refers back to the "the true end, final" that the seventh library reader mentions (21.12). It's like some sort of language apocalypse.
You try to picture how the world might appear, this world dense with writing that surrounds us on all sides, to someone who has learned not to read. And at the same time you ask yourself what bond there may be between Ludmilla and the Nonreader, and suddenly it seems to you that it is their very distance that keeps them together, and you can't stifle a feeling of jealousy. (5.64)
What's happening here? Okay, you meet Irnerio in the hallways of the university, and he seems to already know you're looking for Ludmilla. Curious. You realize that there is some bond between them and can't help but feel jealous. After all, your bond with Ludmilla is based on the fact that you're both readers, but there's an innocence to Irnerio that might make him more attractive in Ludmilla's eyes. So for you, jealousy is usually rooted in the thought that some rival can offer a woman something you can't. Grrr.
"She's there every day," the writer says. "Every time I'm about to sit down at my desk I feel the need to look at her. Who knows what she's reading? I know it isn't a book of mine, and instinctively I suffer at the thought, I feel the jealousy of my books, which would like to be read the way she reads" (11.36)
Silas Flannery has been watching a woman read. Um, creepy. He tries to work on his own novels, but finds he can't go for long before he must return to his spyglass and watch her. We repeat: creepy. She's always reading and is always rapt at whatever she's reading. This creates a deep jealousy in Flannery, who wishes that he could write a book that would be read the way she reads. He can't do it, though, and this failure only makes his jealousy worse. Womp womp.
Reader, prick up your ears. This suspicion is being insinuated into your mind, to feed your anxiety as a jealous man who still doesn't recognize himself as such. Ludmilla, herself reader of several books at once, to avoid being caught by the disappointment that any story might cause her, tends to carry forward, at the same time, other stories also.... (13.24)
Wait, what suspicion is Calvino talking about? It's the nerdy suspicion you have when you learn that Ludmilla carries on with many different books at the same time so she can hedge her bets when it comes to satisfaction. You begin to wonder if she does the same thing with the men in her life, and it fills you with jealousy. But at this point, you can't really even admit it to yourself.
The dismay at seeing [Irnerio] enter her house as if it were his is stronger than the uneasiness at being here yourself, half hidden. For that matter, you knew perfectly well that Ludmilla's house is open to her friends: the key is under the mat. (13.29)
When we first read this passage, it seems like you're once again feeling jealous of Irnerio's relationship with Ludmilla. But in this case, your jealousy is connected directly to a physical space. It's not just the idea of another man being romantically involved with Ludmilla that bothers you; it's the fact that he comes and goes from her apartment as he pleases.
And remember, your jealousy of Irnerio comes right on the heels of the jealousy you feel for the various books Ludmilla likes to read at once. You begin to realize that maybe no single man—just as no single book—can satisfy her. And yes, you're so into her that you're even jealous of the books that make her happy.
Jealousy, which has been a kind of game you played with yourself, now grips you relentlessly. And it isn't only jealousy: it is suspicion, distrust, the feeling that you cannot be sure of anything or anyone.... The pursuit of the interrupted book, which instilled in you a special excitement since you were conducting it together with the Other Reader, turns out to be the same thing as pursuing her, who eludes you in a proliferation of mysteries, deceits, disguises.... (13.53)
Whew. You've finally become aware that your jealousy over Ludmilla is directly connected to your desire to chase down the books you've started reading. Way to get fancy on us, Calvino. He's suggesting that there's a general type of desire that comes from not feeling satisfied in some way—whether it's from books or sex. It's a desire that's connected to the fantasy of romance and the fantasy of reading a book that can totally fulfill the promises made by its opening pages.
Little by little you will manage to understand something more about the origins of the translator's machinations: the secret spring that set them in motion was his jealousy of the invisible rival who came constantly between him and Ludmilla, the silent voice that speaks to her through books, this ghost with a thousand faces and faceless, all the more elusive since for Ludmilla authors are never incarnated in individuals of flesh and blood […] (13.113)
So much jealousy! But Marana's jealousy is totally book-related, because books are just way better at inflaming Ludmilla's desire than any human being ever could be. To top it off, Ludmilla is searching for something that always keeps her wanting more. Ah humans—never satisfied. Speaking of which, we could really go for a new pair of boots.
"Why have you come to see me, then?" I replied. "Go to that gentleman and ask him how things stand.' I began to suspect that between the Reader and Ludmilla there was a bond, and this was enough to make my voice take on a hostile tone." (15.157)
Now it's Silas Flannery's turn to feel jealous over Ludmilla. Receiving a visit from you, the Reader, Flannery isn't psyched about the interest you've taken in Ludmilla. Like you, Flannery is dealing with an intense and deep-rooted dissatisfaction, and he wants to use Ludmilla as a way to fill the void in his life. Note to Shmoopers: it ain't gonna work.
[Y]ou savor the certainty, confirmed by the omniscient Director, that between [Ludmilla] and you there no longer exist obstacles or mysteries, whereas of [Marana], your rival, only a pathetic shadow remains, more and more distant. (19.25)
Finally, some relief from your jealousy toward Ermes Marana. You've learned from the Porphyrich that Marana has admitted his defeat, saying that for all of his attempts to intentionally create confusion in reading, "'something happens over which [he has] no power'" (19.18). It's kind of like the final battle in No Country for Old Men, because you never really get to see the showdown take place. Come to think of it, you've never really laid eyes on Marana in this entire book. Marana might as well be a total figment of your jealous imagination.
In this passage, you lose your sense of jealousy as soon as you feel that "between [Ludmilla] and you there no longer exist obstacles or mysteries." Hmm. Does that mean that, as a reader, you've come to understand and identify with Ludmilla's open-minded approach to pleasure in reading? All along, your jealousy might have been the product of a frustrated, normal approach to stories—whether it's the stories you've been reading or the one you've been imagining for yourself with Ludmilla.
It was not until this moment that I thought of Brigid; in a flash I saw Ponko and Brigid, who would dance together on the Feast of Saint Thaddeus, Brigid who would mend Ponko's woolen gloves, Ponko who would give Brigid a marten captured with my trap. (4.7)
Gritzvi, the young narrator of Outside the town of Malbork, goes to his bedroom and encounters Ponko, the young man who is about to take Gritzvi's place in his own home. Up until this moment, the story doesn't give you much of a sense of the antagonism between the two young men, but as soon as the lady folk become involved, flames of jealousy start burning. And sure enough, it leads to a throw-down.
[Y]ou, who unearthed that title because you know the title and nothing more, and you liked letting her believe you had read it, now have to extricate yourself with generic comments, like "It moves a bit slowly for me," or else "I like it because it's ironic," and she answers, "Really? You find it ironic? I wouldn't have said…" and you are upset (3.26)
Oh, Calvino. Always the jokester. Here, Calvino establishes that you—like many people—can be a bit of a poser at times, especially when you're trying to show Ludmilla how much you like to read. You've tried to make her believe that you've read a lot of books, but in reality you're just pulling titles out of the air. When it turns out Ludmilla actually has read most of the books you mention, you have to backpedal pretty hard to keep from getting found out for lying. This moment of observational humor is one of the more recognizably "normal" scenes in the beginning of the book. By using it, Calvino is able to make your character more likeably awkward (Michael Cera, anyone?). Also, the scene hints toward the later moments in the text when you realize that Ludmilla really is a better reader than you.
"And then, in correcting the proofs, we notice some misconstructions, some oddities... We send for Marana, we ask him some questions, he becomes confused, contradicts himself.... We press him, we open the original text in front of him and request him to translate a bit orally.... He confesses he doesn't know a single word of Cimbrian!" (9.64)
Care of Mr. Cavedagna, our first impression of Ermes Marana, the fraudulent translator whose lies and deceit will basically fuel the action for the rest of this novel. Marana poses as a false translator, but not just to pocket some extra money. No, he believes that the names and titles of books don't matter as long as the stories survive, and that in thousands of years, the names on books won't matter anyway, since people will forget who the authors were.
"We calculated that all this to-ing and fro-ing with the print shop, the bindery, the replacement of all the first signatures with the wrong title page—in other words, it created a confusion that spread to all the new books we had in stock, whole runs had to be scrapped, volumes already distributed had to be recalled from the booksellers...." (9.70)
Ermes Marana's lies and deceit entered the publishing house like a virus and spread out in all directions. No book had the right title or author, and the mistakes produced new errors in an exponential way. In this passage, we start to think about how lies and deceit just can't be undone once the lies start looking so much like reality it's impossible to tell the difference. Have you ever started a rumor, then tried to stop it from spreading? Yeah, good luck.
The pursuit of the interrupted book, which instilled in you a special excitement since you were conducting it together with the Other Reader, turns out to be the same thing as pursuing her, who eludes you in a proliferation of mysteries, deceits, disguises… (13.53).
You're at Ludmilla's apartment, and you become aware that she has had a past relationship with Ermes Marana. Uh oh. This passage draws a direct connection between your pursuit of the interrupted books you've read and the pursuit of Ludmilla herself, both based on "mysteries" and "deceits." It's because you can't fully "know" Ludmilla that you want so badly to possess her. And guess what? The same is true for the books you've read. Since you can't trust anything you read because of Marana's deceit, this fills you with an even stronger urge to hold a book in your hands that you can actually finish. It's the things that elude you that make you most crazy for control—like when something's right on the tip of your tongue and you just can't say it.
"He was here. Now time has passed. He shouldn't come back here again. But by now all his stories are so saturated with falsehood that anything said about him is false. He's succeeded in this, at least. The books he brought here look the same as the others on the outside, but I recognize them at once, at a distance. And when I think that there shouldn't be any more here, any more of his papers, except in that storeroom... But every now and then some trace of him pops up again. Sometimes I suspect he puts them here, he comes when nobody's around and keeps making his usual deals, secretly...." (13.55)
Here, Irnerio is telling you that Marana has a previous (and possibly ongoing) relationship with Ludmilla. Marana, the king of deceit in this novel, seems to come and go from Ludmilla's apartment, and it's impossible to tell when he's been back to inject lies into everything he touches. At this point, you can't be certain that this man even exists, or if he's been created by the international book conspiracy you've stumbled upon.
"I don't know… Ludmilla says that whatever he touches, if it isn't false already, becomes false. All I know is that if I tried to make my works out of books that were his, they would turn out false: even if they looked the same as the ones I'm always making…" (13.57).
While hanging out in Ludmilla's apartment, Irnerio tells you that Marana has some sort of Midas touch when it comes to infecting the things around him with falseness. But while you might think that this falseness exists only in the words that Marana writes down, Irnerio (who doesn't care about words) suggests that there's actually something in Marana's deceit that goes beyond words and seems to infect physical objects. Wait, what? How can a physical object be false? Well, Calvino is always implying that when it comes to truth and lies in books, there is something going on beneath the surface of what you're reading. He'll develop this idea further in the rest of the book, but in this particular scene, he decides to leave the meaning of what he's saying uncertain. What else is new, right?
I have built my financial empire on the very principle of kaleidoscopes and catoptric instruments, multiplying, as if in a play of mirrors, companies without capital, enlarging credit, making disastrous deficits vanish in the dead corners of illusory perspectives. My secret, the secret of my uninterrupted financial victories in a period that has witnessed so many crises and market crashes and bankruptcies, has always been this: that I never thought directly of money, business, profits, but only of the angles of refraction established among shining surfaces variously inclined. (14.4)
The narrator of In a network of lines that intersect explains how his fondness for mirrors and illusions has managed to make him a genius in the world of business. Like Marana, he has discovered that it's not enough to create a single lie that can be quickly proven wrong. You must create lies that lead to other lies, and mix in the occasional truth to make it harder to track the lies. (Sound familiar? It's kind of like reading this whole book). The importance is not to destroy the truth, but to hide it where it can't be found—or where it's so out of place that it seems like a lie. Sneaky.
"He says he is interested in me chiefly for two reasons: first, because I am an author who can be faked; and second, because he thinks I have the gifts necessary to be a great faker, to create an author who can be faked; and second, because he thinks I have the gifts necessary to be a great faker, to create perfect apocrypha. I could therefore incarnate what for him is the ideal author, that is, the author who is dissolved in the cloud of fictions that covers the world with its thick sheath." (15.55)
Ermes Marana, in his effort to inject falseness and untruth into everything he touches, approaches Silas Flannery to help him spread mystery and uncertainty through the world of books. For Marana, the ideal author is one who completely embraces the deception of writing, one who realizes that the author of a book is just a name slapped on a cover page, a fictional character who can be swapped for another at random. It's not exactly what you want to hear if you plan on becoming an author to prove how great you are.
"Perhaps my true vocation was that of author of apocrypha, in the several meanings of the term: because writing always means hiding something in such a way that it then is discovered; because the truth that can come from my pen is like a shard that has been chipped from a great boulder by a violent impact, then flung far away; because there is no certitude outside falsification" (15.138)
The term "apocryphal" has two potentially opposite meanings. According to Flannery, it originally referred to sacred or "secret" books of religious power, and later referred to books that were attributed to incorrect authors and incorrect historical periods. By saying that there is no certainty outside falsification, Flannery seems to be coming around to Marana's point of view in this scene.
"What were you expecting?" Corinna says. "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, the political police simulate revolutionary actions and the revolutionaries disguise themselves as policemen" (17.17)
The web of lies and deceit is totally out of control at this point. There are no longer just lies, but levels of lies so multiple it makes Inception look like a children's nursery rhyme. Police and revolutionary fighters pose as one another, then pose as one another posing as someone else. Huh? There's no end to it, no untangling the web, and you have no choice but to continue living in the knowledge that you don't know squat.
Well, what about books? Well, precisely because you have denied [pleasure] in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn't serious. (1.6)
Shmooper, meet yourself. Yep—this passage introduces you to yourself as "You, the Reader," which is the position you'll occupy for most of the novel. It tells you that you tend to be very conservative with pleasure; in other words, you tend to avoid displeasure more than you pursue pleasure. Why? Because you're afraid of disappointment. The only true pursuit of pleasure you'll allow yourself comes in books, since in books there is no serious threat of disappointment. It's a safe place where you can pursue pleasure. It's nothing nearly as scary as asking someone on a date in real life.
So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don't recognize it at all […] Are you disappointed? Let's see. Perhaps at first you feel a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won't work. (1.21)
You sit down and start reading If on a winter's night a traveler, only to find out that the tone and style of the book is nothing like what you expected. In modern reading, an author's tone can be like a specific brand of product that you buy, and it comes with certain expectations from the reader. When the narrator asks whether you're disappointed, Calvino is hinting toward the fact that any expectations you have going into a book are things you should avoid. It's better to just read with an open mind. Calvino later takes on this idea of an author having many different styles of writing by beginning ten different novels in ten very different styles. In other words, the book will go on to frustrate your expectations as a reader specifically because it doesn't want you to have any.
The thing that most exasperates you is to find yourself at the mercy of the fortuitous, the aleatory, the random, in things and in human actions—carelessness, approximation, imprecision, whether your own or others'. In such instances your dominant passion is the impatience to erase the disturbing effects of that arbitrariness or distraction, to re-establish the normal course of events. (3.5)
You've been interrupted in your reading of If on a winter's night a traveler after discovering that the book's first chapter is just repeated over and over again. And guess what? It's occurred at the very moment when you are most desperate to keep reading. The thing that disappoints you most about this problem is that it is based on a completely random error: a bungled job at the printing house. See, you seek pleasure in reading because there is a recognizable order to it, and you don't like when something random interrupts your well-ordered life and well-ordered pleasure. You immediately become impatient to set things right again, to have the world make sense. You want life to unfold in front of you in a logical, straightforward way. But that's not what you always get in life—and apparently, not in reading either.
"I rather enjoy the sense of bewilderment a novel gives you when you start reading it, but if the first effect is fog, I'm afraid the moment the fog lifts my pleasure in reading will be lost, too." (3.20)
You've just met Ludmilla, who comments on the style of the novel you've both been reading. As she explains to you what kinds of books she enjoys, she suggests that books that begin in a "foggy" way allow your mind to set up an infinite number of possible plotlines. But a book like this can never fulfill the promise of such expectations—it's just setting itself up to disappoint you. That's just the nature of an open-ended beginning, which can't stay open-ended forever. It's kind of like hearing "You can be whoever you want" as a child, and then getting older and having to actually decide who you're going to be. Bummer.
[Y]ou turn the page and find yourself facing two blank sheets. You are dazed, contemplating the whiteness cruel as a wound, almost hoping it is your dazzled eyesight casting a blinding glare on the book, from which, gradually, the zebra rectangle of inked letters will return to the surface. (5.3)
Your second attempt at reading, this one involving a book called Outside the town of Malbork, has been interrupted. This time, rather than having the first chapter repeated over and over, a printing error has caused every two pages to be printed properly, and every third and fourth to be blank. You have just enough in front of you to make you try to keep reading, but it's no use. BAH.
The first time, it could have been random. But now, you feel like this is what Calvino has in store for you for the rest of the book—he gives you just enough material to make you keep grasping at empty air. The satisfaction that's just barely out of reach is always more crushing than the one's that's light years away.
And so Marana proposes to the Sultan a stratagem prompted by the literary tradition of the Orient: he will break off this translation at the moment of greatest suspense and will start translating another novel, inserting it into the first through some rudimentary expedient; for example, a character in the first novel opens a book and starts reading. The second novel will also break off to yield to a third, which will not proceed very far before opening into a fourth, and so on....
Marana has decided to help a Sultan keep his wife from setting off a revolution in their country, the fear being that as soon as the Sultana finishes her book, she will feel ready to call on the revolutionaries. So Marana devises a plan to constantly break off her books at their most interesting moment, constantly causing the Sultana to turn to her next book, then the next, and endlessly postponing the moment of revolution. For the first time, the book comments directly on how provoking a reader's disappointment can be used for strategic ends. And—you guessed it—this refers back to what Calvino is doing with his own novel.
It could be an important feature to be added to your portrait: your mind has interior walls that allow you to partition different times in which to stop or flow, to concentrate alternately on parallel channels. Is this enough to say you would like to live several lives simultaneously? (13.23)
First things first. Now, you're Ludmilla. You with us? Okay. While addressing you as Ludmilla, the book tries to figure out why you read so many books at the same time and why this is connected to your feelings of dissatisfaction. Maybe it's because real life is like reading Italo Calvino's book, and pleasure is always erased in the moment that it's about to be satisfied.
"At times it seems to me that the distance between my writing and her reading is unbridgeable, that whatever I write bears the stamp of artifice and incongruity" (15.5).
Silas Flannery stares through his stalker spyglass at a woman reading in a sun chair, and he becomes obsessed with the idea that the book she is reading is the book that he has always been supposed to write. Obviously, he suffers from terrible disappointment in his writing, and uses the woman as a fantasy to help him express this frustration. According to Calvino, the reality is that writing can only be a disappointing experience, since you can never write something that is perfect with words. As Calvino constantly reminds us, words are always incomplete in the way they create meaning; they always need to be interpreted by someone else, and you can't completely control what your words are going to communicate to someone. It's this exact sense of disappointment that keeps authors writing. If they wrote something perfect, there'd be no reason to continue.
"The romantic fascination produced in the pure state by the first sentences of the first chapter of many novels is soon lost in the continuation of the story: it is the promise of a time of reading that extends before us and can comprise all possible developments. I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object." (15.39)
Silas Flannery muses in his diary about the exact type of book Calvino has created for you in If on a winter's night a traveler. This passage comments on the general nature of desire in reading. After all, who hasn't thought of writing the perfect opening paragraph to a novel, only to be disappointed to discover that it's impossible to maintain this level of enthusiasm for an entire story?
The beginning of a novel is a promise of sorts, leading your mind toward all the things that could happen in the story. Unfortunately, then comes the continuation of the story, which develops on a line that becomes narrower and narrower as the plot unfolds. This is the nature of desire: the more it exists in a state of total potential, the more it is stimulated; the closer this potential gets to a feeling of satisfaction, the more difficult it is keep your initial enthusiasm.
"I like to keep one book distinct from the other, each for what it has that is different and new; and I especially like books to be read from beginning to end. For a while now, everything has been going wrong for me: it seems to me that in the world there now exist only stories that remain suspended or get lost along the way." (21.13)
As you stand in front of the readers at the library, you finally say out loud what has been troubling you throughout this book. You give voice to your disappointment as a reader, and reaffirm that you are a person who has normal expectations when it comes to reading.
Basically, Calvino is putting words into your mouth and is trying to make your character feel the way he's been trying to make you feel by breaking off his ten different novels at their most exciting moments. By giving you only the beginnings of novels, Calvino wants you to get used to reading with a sense of total potential and to have as few expectations as possible when it comes to reading. This will lead you to find new forms of pleasure and happiness in reading. At this point in the book, though, your character still hasn't been totally broken by the constant interruptions. Instead, he makes one last appeal for some sort of normal plotline and complains about how the whole world of his reading seems to be messed up.
Your attention, as reader, is now completely concentrated on the woman, already for several pages you have been circling around her, I have—no, the author has—been circling around the feminine presence, for several pages you have been expecting this female shadow to take shape the way female shadows take shape on the written page, and it is your expectation, reader, that drives you toward her. (2.25)
The speaker of this passage draws a connection between your expectation as a reader and the manly expectation that comes with hearing that there's a lone woman in a room full of men. In this instance, Calvino sets up a dynamic that will pop up a bunch of times throughout the novel, showing the male reader's eye turning a woman into a sexual object. As a male reader (like it or not), you come to the book with certain expectations, and these expectations become especially strong when a female presence starts to "take shape on the written page."
Now, moreover, the professor's reactions at the name Ludmilla, coming after Irnerio's confidences, cast mysterious flashes of light, create about the Other Reader an apprehensive curiosity not unlike that which binds you to Zwida Ozkart […] and here you are in pursuit of all these shadows together, those of the imagination and those of life. (5.76)
As you wonder about Professor Uzzi-Tuzii's relationship with Ludmilla, you begin to realize that your attraction to her is similar to your attraction to the female characters in the books you've been trying to read. Hmmm. Also, check out how the passage refers to women as shadows, suggesting that it is their evasiveness that makes them so desirable to you. Calling them shadows, however, also happens to rob women of their humanity.
"I was coming to tell you I had found the novel you were looking for, and it is the very one our seminar on the feminist revolution needs. You're invited, if you want to hear us analyze and debate it!" (7.21)
Sure, Lotaria is a foil to the "innocent" reader, Ludmilla. But the book gives a view of Lotaria's feminist politics that is pretty stinkin' critical, lumping these politics into a pile of agenda-driven reading practices that just end up ruining everyone's enjoyment of things. The concern about academic reading often comes up in instances when Calvino takes jabs at feminism. The book strongly suggests that readers, and particularly female readers, should remain "shadows." Those who are too vocal, Calvino portrays as angry and annoying.
"Hey, weapons aren't things to joke around with," I say, and hold out a hand, but she trains the revolver on me.
"Why not?" she says. "Women can't, but you men can? The real revolution will be when women carry arms."
"And men are disarmed? Does that seem fair to you, comrade? Women armed to do what?"
"To take your place. We on top, and you underneath. So you men can feel a bit of what it's like to be a woman. Go on, move, go over there, go over beside your friend,' she commands, still aiming the weapon at me." (8.52-8.55)
Here, we're reading from the novel called Without fear of wind or vertigo. A woman named Irina grabs a gun, and after saying that she feels tempted to kill herself, aims it at the two men near her. She's making a statement that is beyond feminist, saying that women should rule the world rather than being equal with men.
Since this passage is in one of the fictional novels, it doesn't adopt that same scathing tone toward Irina's feminism as it does for Lotaria's. So is Calvino suggesting that being feminist is okay, as long as it never trespasses on the sacred ground of "innocent" reading pleasure?
It was our common interest that kept us together: Bernadette is a girl who catches on right away; in that mess, either we managed to get out of it together or we were both done for. But certainly Bernadette had something else in the back of her mind: a girl like her, if she's going to get by, has to be able to count on somebody who knows his way around; if she had got me to rid her of Jojo, it was in order to put me in his place. (16.17)
In Looks down in the gathering shadow, the main character, Ruedi the Swiss, reflects on his young lover, a former enemy turned accomplice. Ruedi believes that Bernadette hasn't just sided with him because she loves him, but because she finds him to be an improvement on her former love interest. Since this is a novel embedded in another novel, we can't necessarily pinpoint a view on gender. But what is clear is that, like all of the other novels that hope to elicit our desire to read on, this one tries to get our attention by making a woman into a sexual object for a manly protector.
The pursuit of the interrupted book, which instilled in you a special excitement since you were conducting it together with the Other Reader, turns out to be the same thing as pursuing her, who eludes you in a proliferation of mysteries, deceits, disguises...."(13.53)
Ladies and books—the two best things on this planet, apparently. If on a winter's night a traveler draws a direct connection between the desire you have to finish the books you've started and the desire you have for Ludmilla. As the novel unfolds, you sense that Calvino is actually talking about a general form of human desire; the sex drive and the drive to keep reading are just particular cases of it. It's all connected to the thrill of pursuing something, and the satisfaction you think you will feel when this pursuit is over. You know very little about Ludmilla, and that's exactly what makes you attracted to her. Similarly, you know little about the books you've started reading, and that's what makes you want to keep reading. Isn't it all so tantalizing?
In a deck chair, on the terrace of a chalet in the valley, there is a young woman reading. Every day, before starting work, I pause a moment to look at her with the spyglass. In this thin, transparent air I feel able to perceive in her unmoving form the signs of that invisible movement that reading is, the flow of gaze and breath, but, even more, the journey of the words through the person […] that journey that seems uniform and on the contrary is always shifting and uneven. (15.1)
By watching the woman through his spyglass, Flannery is basically doing the same thing that you're doing with Ludmilla throughout this book: turning a woman into an object and fantasizing about how you'll be able to fulfill your frustrated desires by owning her. Great!
Notice, though, that Flannery's gaze is completely one-way. The woman likely doesn't know she's being watched—and that's actually part of the reason Flannery watches her. He wants to see her natural reactions to the book she's reading so he can try to write something that can give her the same pleasure. But what goes missing in all of this is the fact that Flannery's acting like a creep. In this sense, it can sometimes be hard to tell if Calvino is actually poking fun at Flannery's peeping-Tom habit or actually celebrating it as a metaphor for the tortured writer.
Reader, what are you doing? Aren't you going to resist? Aren't you going to escape? Ah, you are participating.... Ah, you fling yourself into it, too.... You're the absolute protagonist of this book, very well; but do you believe that gives you the right to have carnal relations with all the female characters? Like this, without any preparation..? Wasn't your story with Ludmilla enough to give the plot the warmth and grace of a love story? (17.77)
Finally, the book seems to call you (and itself) out on all the sex that's been going on. The narrator literally asks you "how much is enough?" The moot answer might be that just as there is never an end to reading, there is never an end to this kind of sexual appetite (at least for men). That said, Calvino might also, for the first time, be offering you the possibility of sexual restraint.
"You're hurting me," Amaranta says as I press her whole body against the sacks and feel the tips of her budding breasts and the wriggle of her belly.
"Swine! Animal! This is why you've come to Oquedal! Your father's son, all right!' Anacleta's voice thunders in my ears, and her hands have seized me by the hair and slam me against the columns." (18.47-18.48)
In the second-to-last of Calvino's fictional novels, the pursuit of women reaches its most aggressive level as Nacho tries to force himself on Amaranta, a young girl who might be his sister. As if this scene weren't enough, Nacho tries the exact same thing only a few pages later with another young girl named Jacinta, who might also be his sister. Blah.
Male sexual aggression toward women is a part of this book from its earliest stages, and it reaches an almost absurd level in this later novel. But in these scenes, it still isn't clear if Calvino is using Nacho to criticize the expectations of an average male reader or simply catering to these expectations when it comes to sex and women. Maybe Calvino thinks that if he gives you enough sex, you'll go along with his more challenging points about the reading process. It's best to hope not, but it's uncomfortably vague at moments like this.
Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader. A great double bed receives your parallel readings. (22.1)
Congratulations! You're married! Yep—in the book's final scene, you discover that you and Ludmilla have gotten married. Your marriage symbolizes that you've come to accept Ludmilla's open-minded approach to reading as better than your "normal" approach, and this acceptance has made you and Ludmilla into "Reader and Reader."
Up to this point, the story has always referred to you as the Reader and Ludmilla as the Other Reader. The phrasing of this final scene, though, demonstrates that you and Ludmilla have become equal, and that rather than having two distinct styles of reading, your approaches to books are parallel. Your education as a reader is complete, and Calvino finally allows you to enjoy a sense of closure in your story, uniting you with the woman you love.
If you start arguing she'll never let you go. Now she is inviting you to a seminar at the university, where books are analyzed according to all Codes, Conscious and Unconscious, and in which all Taboos are eliminated, the ones imposed by the dominant Sex, Class, and Culture. (5.17)
Your first impression of Lotaria reveals that she is a student at "the university," where she scorns people like her sister who read for pleasure without trying to "clarif[y] the problems" in a book. How dare they read for pleasure!
Lotaria's reading practices are obsessively political and have little to do with the pleasure of reading. She doesn't appreciate, but only analyzes books according to many academic frameworks like psychoanalysis, feminism, and Marxism. You can tell from the tone of this passage alone that Calvino paints a pretty unsympathetic picture of her, compared to people who read for pleasure. Down with literary criticism! (Wait, can we say that?)
"It's not easy: they teach us to read as children, and for the rest of our lives we remain the slaves of all the written stuff they fling in front of us. I may have had to make some effort myself, at first, to learn not to read, but now it comes quite naturally to me. The secret is not refusing to look at the written words. On the contrary, you must look at them, intensely, until they disappear." (5.60)
This guy, Irnerio, has strangely enough taught himself how not to read. He's fed up with all the writing in advertisements and signs that bombard him daily, and so he's learned to literally look through words. By looking at words very intensely, he's able to make them meaningless. For example, you can look at the words in front of you and think of them as scribbles across a screen instead of anything meaningful. You can also repeat a word over and over again in your mouth until it just becomes a noise. Go ahead. Give it a try. We'll wait…
"Who do you think would come? Who do you think remembers the Cimmerians any more? In the field of suppressed languages there are many now that attract more attention… Basque… Breton… Romany… They all sign up for those. Not that they study the language: nobody wants to do that these days… They want problems to debate, general ideas to connect with other general ideas. My colleagues adjust, follow the mainstream." (5.82)
Professor Uzzi-Tuzii mentions that his subject—the Cimmerian language—doesn't get studied by anyone anymore. Sounds like pretty much everyone's experience in grad school, right? And sure enough, Calvino is poking fun at institutions of higher learning, which often teach subjects that have little relevance to today's real-world problems. Actually, not only do they teach unimportant things, but they teach these things according to changes in fashion. Example? At certain points, certain dead languages are "cooler" than others. Also, the professor seems to criticize students like Lotaria, who aren't actually interested in learning anything concrete about a language, but only in debating larger, general problems and connecting large ideas to one another. At least on this point, Calvino's with the professor. Though it's not saying much to say that Calvino likes you more than Lotaria.
Crowding behind Lotaria is the vanguard of a phalanx of young girls with limpid, serene eyes, slightly alarming eyes, perhaps because they are too limpid and serene. Among them a pale man forces his way, bearded, with a sarcastic gaze and a systematically disillusioned curl to his lips." (7.25)
The descriptive language of this passage can almost tell you everything you need to know about what Calvino thinks of academic readers. The female students "with limpid, serene eyes" sound like they're under some sort of brain-numbing spell; the pale man who forces his way through them is Professor Galligani, the professional rival of Uzzi-Tuzii. But before you even know anything about the man, Calvino gives Galligani "a sarcastic gaze and a systematically disillusioned curl to his lips." There are several loaded words in this description: for starters, "sarcastic" suggests that the professor prefers to approach the world from an ironic distance that is pretty much the opposite of the innocence that Calvino celebrates in Ludmilla. And the "disillusioned curl to his lips" suggests that the pleasure and wonder of life has been "systematically" bled out of Galligan. What's the system that's done this? Most likely the university.
You are impatient […] but you must wait until the girls and the young men of the study group have been handed out their assignments: during the reading there must be some who underline the reflections of production methods, others the processes of reification, others the sublimation of repression […] others the transgression of roles, in politics and in private life. (7.35)
In order to get a look at a book that interests you, you and Ludmilla sit down with a university study group. You're desperate to get on with the reading, but you have to wait for the students to figure out their personal agendas before listening to the story. All of these agendas are annoyingly intellectual and pointless; the students use them to carve up the book like a dead turkey.
According to Calvino, this desire to dissect and analyze a book completely destroys the pleasure of reading and even leads the students to tear up the book and scatter it over several departments. This physical mutilation is basically just an expression of the symbolic mutilation they commit on the book by the way they read. In other words, Calvino's not the biggest fan of this crew.
"Excuse me, I was looking for the other pages, the rest," you say […]
"Listen, there are so many study groups, and the Erulo-Altaic Department had only one copy, so we've divided it up; the division caused some argument, the book came to pieces, but I really believe I captured the best part." (9.9, 9.12)
After Lotaria stops reading Without fear of wind or vertigo, you ask her if you can see the manuscript so you can continue reading. The class, though, is only interested in discussing the book in academic terms. They care so little about the story and so much about the "ideas" they can discuss through it that they've even allowed the original manuscript to be torn up and scattered over various departments. They feel absolutely nothing of the desire that makes you and Ludmilla want to continue reading. And in Calvino's world, there's no worse perversion that education could produce.
"Oh, you can imagine the rivalry at the university between departments, the two competing chairs, two professors who can't stand the sight of each other, imagine Uzzi-Tuzii admitting that the masterpiece of his language has to be read in the language of his colleague…" (9.60)
You're probably familiar with this whole idea after reading about the fight between Uzzi-Tuzii and Galligani at the university. But what is significant about these comments is that Mr. Cavedagna is the guy speaking them. Cavedagna is a man who truly resents the "education" that he's been given by working in a publishing house. He yearns to go back to the days of his childhood, when he could read with a completely open sense of wonder.
In this scene, you could almost say that Calvino is speaking to us through Cavedagna, insisting that academic readers like Uzzi-Tuzii and Galligani have been corrupted by their involvement with the university, which has taught them to analyze books at the expense of appreciating them, and to wage stupid turf wars instead of celebrating the beauty of literature. Amen.
"I see that my work serves her perfectly to demonstrate her theories, and this is certainly a positive fact—for the novels or for the theories, I do not know which. From her very detailed talk, I got the idea of a piece of work being seriously pursued, but my books seen through her eyes prove unrecognizable to me. I am sure this Lotaria (that is her name) has read them conscientiously, but I believe she has read them only to find in them what she was already convinced of before reading them" (15.83).
Well, this is about as much sympathy for Lotaria as you're going to get out of Calvino. In this passage, Silas Flannery admits that Lotaria is a very serious and conscientious reader. Her problem, though, is that she's had her approach to reading deformed by her education, which teaches her to use books as evidence to prove things she already thinks. After all, isn't this what English teachers do? They ask you to develop a thesis statement and then to find evidence in a book that supports that statement. Calvino insists over and over again that you can't enjoy literature by reading this way. Instead, you have to keep your mind open to all the different directions that a book wants to lead you. So don't feel bad if you're not the biggest fan of reading books for English class. Calvino is with you on that one.
She retorted, a bit irritated: "Why? Would you want me to read in your books only what you're convinced of?"
I answered her: "That isn't it. I expect readers to read in my books something I didn't know, but I can expect it only from those who expect to read something they didn't know." (15.85)
In his meeting with Lotaria, Silas Flannery also manages to articulate Calvino's idea of how a reader should keep an open mind toward books. The problem with Lotaria is not that she's educated, but that her education has taught her to see the world in strictly black and white terms. So when Flannery suggests that maybe she shouldn't be so pushy about the ideas she brings to texts, Lotaria automatically assumes that he wants her to be a passive, idiotic reader who just accepts everything an author says.
Flannery tries to explain that this isn't what he wants. What he wants is for his readers to keep an open mind and learn things from a book that neither they nor the author had thought of before. But Lotaria just can't wrap her head around this idea, and she insists again that Flannery must want her to be an "escapist and regressive" reader (15.87). Calvino is trying to show us that there is a third way to go about reading, a way that doesn't give final authority to either the reader or the author.
"The idea that Lotaria reads my books in this way creates some problems for me. Now, every time I write a word, I see it spun around by the electronic brain, ranked according to its frequency […] I try to imagine what conclusions can be drawn from the fact that I have used this word once or fifty times." (15.104)
After Lotaria has shown how a computer can read and analyze books for her, Flannery becomes troubled about his own writing. Now that he knows that people like Lotaria are out there reading his novels this way, he stresses about what conclusions a computer would draw from his stories. In this sense, Calvino suggests that the academic approach to reading has a way of infecting what it touches and ruining pleasure for anyone who's interested in stories for their own sake. Lotaria's approach to reading is a form of pollution in this book, and even though Calvino gives her approach some credit for the energy it brings to literature, he ultimately finds that it does way more harm than good.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new book, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. (1.1)
Calvino wastes no time in telling you that he's dictating your life for the time being. That right, you are the "You" whom this book addresses from the opening line. It all makes it seem as though the book has some higher knowledge of your life and what you're doing. This feeling will only grow stronger for you as the story unfolds. After all, the book says so.
The sentences continue to move in vagueness, grayness, in a kind of no man's land of experience reduced to the lowest common denominator. Watch out: it is surely a method of involving you gradually, capturing you in the story before you realize it—a trap. (2.5)
When you read a book, you're in charge, right? Wrong. (According to Calvino, at least.) The speaker even warns you against getting too involved in the story and allowing yourself to be manipulated by it. There's a fatefulness to this statement: a sense that the book might always be one step ahead of you, the way that Ermes Marana always seems to be a step ahead of you. But the book doesn't go so far as to say you're totally out to lunch. Rather, you have the ability to make choices in the way you navigate this book, but you need to be careful and attentive about it.
Your attention, as reader, is now completely concentrated on the woman, already for several pages you have been circling around her, I have—no, the author has—been circling around the feminine presence" (2.25)
Once again, you, as a Reader, have been guided along by the author of the book without even knowing it. Every time your reading starts to settle into a comfortable pattern, every time you try to "lose" yourself in the book, some voice like this pops out and reminds you not to get too comfortable. At this point, part of you might want to just shout, "Stop playing God, Calvino! Let me read in peace!" Just saying.
"How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone's ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person!" (15.8)
Silas Flannery, in an attempt to sit down and write, wishes that he weren't involved in his writing at all. Maybe if he were totally passive in his writing, he'd be happier about doing it. But instead, he feels that his possibilities are limited by the fact that he's an individual with free will. If only some sort of larger force could take over his writing, maybe then he could fulfill his fantasy of writing a book that is "true."
"Will I ever be able to say, 'Today it writes,' just like 'Today it rains,' 'Today it is windy'? Only when it will come natural to me to use the verb "write" in the impersonal form will I be able to hope that through me is expressed something less limited than the personality of an individual." (15.34)
In his desire to give up his sense of free will, Flannery thinks of how he might erase himself by changing the way he talks about writing. For example, maybe if he never uses the word "I," he can take himself out of his writing. After all, an earlier section of the book mentions that "I" is just a place holder we use when we talk about ourselves; it can refer to anyone, and maybe erasing the "I" can erase you from language. Think about it.
"Once—the biographers of the Prophet tell us—while dictating to the scribe Abdullah, Mohammed left a sentence half finished. The scribe, instinctively, suggested the conclusion. Absently, the Prophet accepted as the divine word what Abdullah had said. This scandalized the scribe, who abandoned the Prophet and lost his faith" (15.61).
Silas Flannery meditates on a story about the writing of the Qur'an, and ultimately decides that Abdullah was wrong to lose his faith. Flannery later adds: "[Abdullah] was the one who had to deal with the internal coherence of the written language, with grammar and syntax, to channel into it the fluidity of a thought that expands outside all language before it becomes word" (15.62). In other words, because Abdullah was responsible for putting into writing a divine thought that is beyond writing, the task of finding the best way to say it lay entirely with him. He didn't realize the point that Calvino makes throughout this novel: that all writing tries to express something that at the end of the day is inexpressible. There could never be a perfect way of taking down the Prophet's words, because there is no such thing as perfection in writing. Writing always tries to say exactly what a person (or even God) means, but it must always fall short. The important thing for Calvino is that the writer keep striving.
"We're UFO observers. This is a place of transit, a kind of aerial track that has seen a lot of activity lately. They think it's because a writer is living somewhere around here, and the inhabitants of the other planets want to use him for communication." (15.68)
Silas Flannery, encountering a group of boy scouts, hears them say that a UFO is nearby and that aliens have been trying to send communications through the brainwaves of an author living in the area. This author is no doubt Flannery himself, who earlier this same day has been wondering about how he could become a passive conduit for someone else's ideas. Now he learns that he might actually be a conduit and not even know it. His fantasy might have already come true. There's just no way of telling. Classic Calvino.
"Who are you?"
"I am Faustino Higueras. Defend yourself."
"I stand beyond the grave, I wrap my poncho around my left arm, I grasp my knife." (18.102-18.104)
In the final scene of Around an empty grave, the young Nacho realizes that his adventures have been guided completely by fate. Throughout the story, he's heard people speak about when his father came to Oquedal and how a man named Faustino Higueras was killed. At this final moment, Nacho realizes that he is reliving the exact battle that his father had with Faustino. Having seen his young opponent earlier in the novel, Nacho also realizes that fate has been leading him to this moment for some time. In this scene, Calvino plays on the reader's expectation that everything that happens in a book happens for a reason. But what Calvino doesn't give you is the end of the battle; you never get to find out if Nacho simply recreated his father's victory, or if fate had other plans for him.
"I don't know if you believe in the Spirit, sir. I believe in it. I believe in the dialogue that the Spirit conducts uninterruptedly with itself […] To make it live, my reading, disinterested but always alert to every licit and illicit implication, is enough […] the moment I can unbutton the tunic of my official's uniform and let myself be visited by the ghosts of the forbidden." (19.14)
Arkadian Porphyrich, the Ircanian official, tells you about the "Spirit" that he thinks is involved in the process of reading. On the one hand, Porphyrich says that when he reads, he's disinterested. But at the same time, he's always alert to the potential meanings a book could have. In this sense, Calvino uses this scene to speak about the Spirit of reading itself, in which the reader doesn't have free will, but neither does the book fully control him. Instead, there's a dialogue that happens between the two—a dialogue that can only function properly if the reader comes to the book with an open mind.
"I could have told him that this is the limit that even the most omnipotent police force cannot broach. We can prevent reading: but in the decree that forbids reading there will be still read something of the truth that we would wish never to be read…." (19.18)
Ah, the demise of Ermes Marana, a man who once thought he could control language entirely by intentionally filling it with falsehood. In the end, Marana has admitted that "'in reading, something happens over which I have no power'" (19.18). In this passage, Porphyrich claims that this conclusion is not surprising, since he has already realized that just as language can never control what it's trying to say, the police cannot control language by banning reading. No matter what type of free will people try to bring to language, and no matter how much they try to control the meanings of words, there will always be something that escapes them. This is the fate of language, and in a paradoxical way, this fate is what gives humans the free will to always keep striving for better uses of language.
"I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it." (2.10)
The speaker of If on a winter's night a traveler makes a direct statement on his relationship to time and how he wishes he could change it. He'd love to get back to some new beginning, but this is impossible for him, since every attempt to do so just piles up a bunch of new history, changing him and his situation.
It's kind of like what Heraclitus meant when he said you can't step into the same river twice (we all know that reference, right?). Also, the speaker leaves traces in the book even as he wonders about these things; after all, he's also accumulating more and more black ink as your reading eyes move across the page. In this early passage, Calvino gives us a taste of the desire for innocence that he will explore more thoroughly in characters like Ludmilla and Mr. Cavedagna.
"When I got here my first thought was: Maybe I achieved such an effort with my thoughts that time has made a complete revolution; here I am at the station from which I left on my first journey, it has remained as it was then, without any change." (2.35)
The man tries to explain to Madame Marne in the station that he wishes he could make clocks "run backward," or that he could suddenly go back in time and relive his life from the beginning. (Maybe all he really needs is a Ford Delorean and a Flux Capacitor.) Why does he want all this? Because he can't bear to lose out on all of the potential things he could have done with his life, like maybe date Madame Marne when he and she were younger and more beautiful. It's this love of pure potential that makes the man want to go back in time; and this innocent desire for pure potential in how a story might unfold is exactly what Calvino is trying to provoke in you by giving you only the beginnings of novels. For Calvino, this innocent love of potential makes for ideal reading, and this book's major goal is to teach you this kind of reading.
Irnerio's eyes have broad, pale, flickering pupils; they seem eyes that miss nothing, like those of a native of the forest, devoted to hunting and gathering. (5.61)
Ludmilla's innocence is what makes her Calvino's ideal reader, right? But in this passage, you have to wonder if Irnerio is even more innocent than she is. After all, Irnerio avoids reader expectations altogether by teaching himself not to read. In the description Calvino gives here, it seems as if Irnerio has gone beyond innocence and reached a state of wildness, like a "native of the forest." The mention of hunting and gathering specifically refers to a stage of human culture that came before the invention of reading and writing. Calvino uses Irnerio to help his readers stay in touch with the fact that there is a limit to language, and that in order to keep an open mind to reading, we should always keep this limit in mind.
There's a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want […] that's why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for a few minutes. (9.30)
After you and Ludmilla decide that a visit to the publisher is in order, Ludmilla refuses to go with you. When you push her on this, she insists that she doesn't want to get involved with the production side of books. She has an innocence in her that she's trying to protect. In other words, she doesn't want to know the magician's secrets; she just wants to keep thinking of books as things that come to her as fully finished, magical objects.
"I've been working for years and years for this publisher ... so many books pass through my hands... but can I say that I read? This isn't what I call reading.... In my village there were few books, but I used to read, yes, in those days I did read.... I keep thinking that when I retire I'll go back to my village and take up reading again, as before. Every now and then I set a book aside, I'll read this when I retire, I tell myself, but then I think that it won't be the same thing any more...." (9.44)
Mr. Cavedagna, the man from the printing house, entertains the hope that when he retires, he'll be able to return to the reading practice of his boyhood days, when he'd steal away into his family's chicken coop and read (maybe minus the awful smell). He wants to return to a point of innocence the same way that the speaker in the first novel, "If on a winter's night a traveler," wishes he could turn back time to a new beginning. Cavedagna is reasonably fearful that he won't be able to go back, though, since it's not easy to unlearn something you already know.
[I]n this [publishing] office books are considered raw material, spare parts, gears to be dismantled and reassembled. Now you understand Ludmilla's refusal to come with you; you are gripped by the fear of having also passed over to 'the other side' and of having lost that privileged relationship with books which is peculiar to the reader: the ability to consider what is written as something finished and definitive, to which there is nothing to be added, from which there is nothing to be removed. But you are consoled by the faith Cavedagna continues to cherish in the possibility of innocent reading, even here. (11.1)
As a reader, you're depressed by your visit to the printing house. You can no longer think of a book as something you can open, enjoy, then be done with. You can no longer entertain the idea that you've fully "understood" a book once you've read it. When you see books taken apart and put back together in a printer's shop, you realize that words and stories can fly off in different directions. And you also know that Ermes Marana has filled everything you read with uncertainty. Can Ludmilla give you a big "I told you so"?
Flannery has been suffering a crisis. He can't write a line; the numerous novels he has begun and for which he has been paid advances by publishers all over the world, involving banks and financing on an international level, these novels in which the brands of liquor to be drunk by the characters, the tourist spots to be visited, the haute-couture creations […] have already been determined by contract through specialized advertising agencies, all remain unfinished, at the mercy of this spiritual crisis, unexplained and unforeseen. (11.24)
Since Calvino deeply explores the pleasure of reading and, in some instances, writing, the theme of innocence applies nicely to the "crisis" facing Silas Flannery. He's a man who writes books for people's pleasure, but the increasing commodification of his work is starting to weigh on him, taking away from the actual literary value of his craft. The reader can sense the extent to which the corporate world weighs on Flannery through the exhaustive list of products and places Flannery must draw upon as he writes. In a mental sense, the man is being crushed under a mountain of shiny new products and exotic destinations.
Ludmilla.... Isn't it like her to insist that now one can ask of the novel only to stir a depth of buried anguish, as the final condition of truth which will save it from being an assembly-line product, a destiny it can no longer escape? (11.39)
For the first time, you assign some sort of name to what Ludmilla, the innocent reader, asks of the text. The term "buried anguish" seems to offer a "final condition of truth," though it's very difficult to figure out what Calvino means by this statement. Is literature then supposed to uncover something buried, a form of pain and suffering that wells up in us when we read a book with open hearts? You could interpret this passage as basically saying, "the truth hurts, so deal with it." After all, it's pretty tough to make it through If on a winter's night a traveler without a little pain, right?
"How many years has it been since I could allow myself some disinterested reading? How many years has it been since I could abandon myself to a book written by another, with no relation to what I must write myself? I turn and see the desk waiting for me, the typewriter with a sheet of paper rolled into it, the chapter to begin. Since I have become a slave laborer of writing, the pleasure of reading has finished for me" (15.2)
Silas Flannery expresses a desire similar to Ludmilla's and Mr. Cavedagna's, which is for a sort of disinterested or innocent reading. This has been ruined in some ways for Flannery, who cannot read without thinking of his own obligation to write for a living. People who love certain hobbies often find that this love fades when their hobbies turn into jobs, and Flannery is certainly feeling this sort of effect. The obligation to write enslaves him, especially when he has to keep in mind what brand of wine his characters must drink, what type of shoes they need to wear, etc.
"The idea that Lotaria reads my books in this way creates some problems for me. Now, every time I write a word, I see it spun around by the electronic brain, ranked according to its frequency, next to other words who identity I cannot know." (15.104)
You're probably not surprised to hear that Calvino associates education with a loss of innocence. Silas Flannery writes this passage in his diary following a meeting with Lotaria, in which Lotaria told him about how a computer can draw conclusions from his books by analyzing how often the books use certain words. Basically, Flannery wishes he didn't know that this type of reader was out there, because now he finds he can't write without worrying about what a computer will make of his work. Flannery's pleasure in writing has already fallen into crisis, and learning about Lotaria's way of reading only makes things worse. Remember the good ol' days what it was actual humans who read books?