Literature and meta-literature have never been so close before as they are in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Considered as one of the most important representation of postmodernism in literature, If on a Winter’s Night… is a compelling and challenging jigsaw puzzle that Calvino creates and invites the characters, the readers, the you-reader and the author himself to play.
Salman Rushdie said when he wrote the book review that it is almost impossible to talk about Calvino, as he said all there was to say about him through his books. And indeed he did. His narrative universe says everything there is to be said about its author and completely annuls any other wording that could describe better Calvino’s work.
The first paragraph of the novel has become very famous due to its direct style through which the author/narrator directly addresses the Reader as in a sort of acknowledgement of the act that is about to happen: start reading. I only quote here, once again, this first paragraph as it summarizes, in just a few sentences, the whole style of the novel: “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.”
One of the main features of the postmodernism according to Umberto Eco is the “meta-narrative” of a text, feature that can be defined as the capacity of the text to talk about itself, to acknowledge what it is and its purpose. This can be noticed from the opening phrase of the novel, through which the text is recognized as a novel that requires concentration and relaxation and it is written by a fictional author called Italo Calvino. The first chapter is almost entirely focused on describing the act of reading and its effects, but reflections about literature and reading can be found throughout the novel as Calvino’s text is a continuous dialogue with and about itself.
The novel has 10 chapters that are each one the beginning of a different novel and that still manage to follow a homogeneous path and form a coherent narrative piece. In one of the novels, the “author” (written like this because it is not the real author, but a fictional voice that serves as a guide, giving the main directions on how to read the novel – meta-narrative and dialogue of the text, again) states his intention to write a novel that would only have beginning, incipits, as he craves for preserving that state of expectation and unknown, where every reader is allowed to let his imagination run wild and image what will happen next. “Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.”, is said somewhere in the novel. Nothing more accurate and more real has ever been said about reading.
Umberto Eco also stated as main feature of the postmodern literature the “double coding”, understood as the capacity of the text to mix the elite readers and the mass-readers, to incorporate elements that pretend to add intrigue to the text and attract the readers in the style of a best-seller and, at the same time, to give hints to a more mature public, able to grasp the reflections that hide behind the “story”. This “double coding” and the “meta-narrative” are present throughout the novel, representing its main attraction and its greatest reason of bewilderment. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler manages to imagine 10 different beginnings of novels, to reflect on writing, author and creation, literature and reading and create a “pseudo-love story” between The Reader (one of the characters of the novel) and Ludmilla, the female Reader.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a continuous pretext for experimenting with literature, for reflecting on writing while writing, on life while living and for decomposing a text and reordering it without losing any part of its meaning.
“Today each of you is the object of the other’s reading, one reads in the other the unwritten story.” – Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler