If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler
by Italo Calvino
1979

2003  (from my old blog)

To whomever is interested,
These are the notes I made while reading Calvino’s “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” for the third time. (She’s nuts, we know it now).

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There are very distinct and interesting links between what is happening in the frame and the subsequent story. Except for a few cases, I don’t think that the stories link between themselves except thematically.

All stories seem either to be in the first person and use a traveler or a person in temporary situation as that character.   There is a sense of movement in all the stories. Many characters are moving,  temporary or in transit.  Also the idea of hidden people, places and things is a very common motif,  maybe a theme.  The idea of chasms and voids is definitely thematic.  All the stories are heavily emotional and immediate, written in the present tense.  A male named Kauderer who is associated with graves, but he’s probably not always the same character,  pops up in at least 3 early stories.  The women are generally attractive,  animated and approachable persons.

Chapter 1: Reader 1 gets the first book (Calvino’s) and settles in for a good read.

Story 1: We find the hero at a train station with luggage which he is supposed to get rid of but can’t quite. (Is the baggage symbolic of a reader’s personal ideas?) He ends up HIDING behind a train and we don’t know if he gets on or not.  (Suspense?)

LINKS: getting settled for a good read is like boarding a train,  but readers and travelers have baggage which they bring to the text or the trip.

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Chapter 2: Reader 1 trades the unfinished, repetitive book in and gets a new one. While in the shop he meets Ludmilla, the Other Reader.   Story 2: A first person in transit is temporarily in a highly sensory kitchen with many people and many names and a feeling of impending chaos.   It’s somewhat like a Russian novel. The first person, author and reader get mixed up as well as a character.  This results in a feeling of identity loss.  There is a photo of an attractive girl.  There is anger and violence.  The first person is leaving. (Suspense?)

LINKS: Reading two books at the same time can result in a complex of names and mix-ups.  Attractive girl.

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Chapter 3: Reader 1 finds pages are not cut, he cuts them to find blank pages. Frustrated, he calls Ludmilla,  but gets her political sister (another Reader type). Finally Other Reader (Ludimilla) and Reader 1 agree to see a University Professor. En route Reader 1 meets Inero, a Non-Reader and finally gets to University professor. The story that the Readers are now engaged in is Cimmerian (any of a mythical people described by Homer as dwelling in a remote realm of mist and gloom) and not finished because Cimmerians don’t finish their stories on paper.  They are finished somewhere else.  So the professor finds a Cimmerian book and translates the story from the dead living Cimmerian language.

Story 3: The story is that of an ill young man, a temporary resident of a seaside town, looking for unwritten signs, symbols, messages and HIDDEN meanings. He is trying to translate the world and he keeps a journal of his efforts. He is a temporary resident of a seaside town. He meets a young woman artist and a weatherman named Kauderer. The first person takes Kauderer’s place at the weather station and befriends the young woman by trying to provide a grapnel and rope. That is problematical however because of feared escapes from the local prison. He meets Kauderer HIDING in the cemetery. He helps someone escape, someone probably related to the woman artist. Power with the weatherman stuff, a rent in the universe at finding his predicament. (Heavy plot!)

LINKS: Untranslatable stuff in both frame and story. Cimmerian is a dead language in the frame and the 1st person meets someone suspicious in the cemetary. The “somewhere else” where the Cimmerian stories are finished is where the rent in the Universe can possibly be. Both the frame and the story are somewhat occult.

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Chapter 4. Professor is reading/translating aloud to Reader 1. Ludmilla arrives. Story ends abruptly, author committed suicide. This text is famous for what it HIDES. Professor HIDES. Tells them that Cimmerian is the unwritten language of the dead. Readers discover there is an unwritten language of the living. (g) Reading uses material books against which to measure ourselves against; but our insides can only be thoughts which belong to the past. Ludmilla sees books as links to future. Sister (future) breaks in and to invite them to a feminist political rally where they have the ending of the book just begun. But is it a fraud, so says the professor. The Readers go to the rally.

Story 4: Revolution and characters being herded across a bridge over an abyss. First person a soldier, helps a woman, who is afraid of the voids. She disappears and reappears at his friend’s. Woman turns into a femi-nazi.

LINKS: All characters in the frame are engaged in the story. Professor is the friend. 1st person is the soldier, Ludmilla is the woman but turns into her twin sister.

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Chapter 5: Enormously busy and disorganized publishing company has screwed up, blames translator, Marana Ermes.

Story 5: Con man has too many stories, a corpse and a woman.

LINKS: All the stories of the publishing company. There is a con going on with some corpses and women.

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Chapter 6: At the Publishing company the Reader is perusing the very disordered correspondence from the translator, Marana. There are many tales relating to the origin of stories, including Homer who is HIDING these days in a cave in the Andes. But Silas Flannery, a popular novelist is introduced in the letters and the translator is captured while transporting the author’s latest novel. His captors are from the Organization of Apocryphal Power which he himself founded, for President Butamatari, in Africa who wants Flannery to write a justification for the leader’s activities. But commercialization has taken over Flannery’s works while he has hit a serious writer’s block. Marana is found in Arabia with a Sultana who is a reader but keeps HIDING. She is supplied books by Marana (translated unnecessarily) to her hubby’s specification (and the marriage contract) and thus avert a revolution. But she has to keep reading so Marana keeps translating not unlike Scherazade. And he inserts the start of a new novel just at the most suspenseful part of the last one to keep her reading. Other women readers entranced.

Marana finds that Flannery is plagiarizing. A woman reader is mentally examined in depth for interests. Ludmilla’s face keeps appearing to the Reader as the woman. Texts seem interchangeable. Falsification rampant. Lies are truth. The Organization of Apocryphal Power has the woman, some manuscript.

Reader gets Flannery’s novel (plagiarized?) and goes to meet Ludmilla

Story 6: A teacher runs. He has a phobia about unanswered telephone rings. He wants to answer every phone he hears on his run. He contemplates doing this. Hysterically funny paranoia. He finally does enter a home and answers a ringing phone. The call is about a certain Marjorie who is held captive and the address given. He knows a woman with that name. He goes to class and finds his Marjorie is absent. He goes to the home where Marjorie is held captive and releases her. She swears at him.

LINKS: “every breath I take…” it’s an obsession. It’s the phones or a face. Either the truth or the reader or the lover is held captive, as well as Marjorie.

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Chapter 7: Reader goes to Ludmilla’s house and enters. Pause for Other Reader (Ludmilla) bio, Irnerio walks in. Is Irnerio a critic??? Marana has been there, translating stuff in the back room. Flannery novel. Marana is lies, Reader 2 has links to Flannery. They land in bed. Inero disappears. Readers read each other. Are they making parts up to suit themselves? Marana, the translator has insinuated himself as truth. But he is deceits. A reader must know who the author is. The author will know which book is the real and which is the fake. Reader will visit. But the book is yet another new one, not a fake.

Story 7: unscrupulous businessman, paranoid of kidnapping, has a mistress and a wife. Divides and splits himself with copies, fakes, intrigues, which is real is the problem for the kidnappers. Finally wife kidnaps him and he doesn’t know which is himself.

LINKS: Someone very intimate is appearing and disappearing. Two truths, two loves. Reality becomes seriously compromised.

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Chapter 8: Journal of Silas Flannery. He is watching woman read. He wants there to be direct communication from himself and story to the reader. But even then his own presence interferes. Also, what is the subject matter for book, already happened or is impossible in reality? Interdependence between the unwritten world and the book. butterfly interrupts reader and unwritten world climaxes. Story of writers, productive one and tormented one. tormented writer envies productive one. productive one envies tormented one. They both want to be read the way that the woman is reading a book. They each give her their work. several alternative endings.

Author wants to be able to say, “it writes,” impersonal. “Only the ability to be read by a given individual proves that what is written shares in the power of writing, a power based on something that goes beyond the individual. The universe will express itself as long as somebody will be able to say, “I read therefore it writes.”

The first sentence says it and then the author stares at the void of the blank page. How to keep the first few sentences going, the incipit. He begins to copy. He likes copying, it is impersonal. The translator comes in with a Japanese version of a book, he cannot read it. It’s not his book, says translator. It’s a factory reproduction, but better. ambiguous reaction but says, I will sue. Authors are fictions, made up as authors. To become one with the whole, create an artifice, a fake.

But what is the truth? Only this instant. How to write of the unwriteable? Don’t Write one total book. Or write all books. The Koran is from Alla to Mohammed and from Mohammed to his scribes. His scribe gets it wrong and, Mohammed accepts it and the scribe defects. Wrong. Because the written word was his responsibility. It is on the page, not before, that the word becomes definitive. (It does not exist as written before this.) Alien input? Recorded by Flannery? Decoded by kids? What is a novel now? Where is the source of the written word? Lotaria brings thesis on F’s work, theories, work, fit. But the she has brought her own information to the text, she read what she was already convinced of. Flannery wants readers to find something he didn’t know but he can only get this from readers who expect to find something they didn’t know. Ludmilla didn’t come because she doesn’t want to know authors. She has invented her authors. Flannery likes that.

Reading books by word index.

Marana “for whom literature is more worthwhile the more it consists of elaborate devices, a complex of cogs, tricks, traps.”

Ludmilla arrives. She wants to see if Flannery lives up to her ideal. “who writes books “as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins.” Being absolutely ordinary, he does. She sees him as a channel. He tries to rape her. Then Flannery is depersonalized by Ludmilla and he is decimated.

Story 8: First person in Japanese home as intern who yearns for daughter and ends up with Mom. The daughter is watching the sex act but the Dad is watching the girl. The action is 3 or 4 translations from the reality. The action goes from the first person and mom to the girl to the Dad and then back to the first person watching the Dad.

LINKS: What is the reality of the text/situation? What is the meaning of text/sex? Is it the author’s (seducer’s) meaning, the reader’s (seduced’s) meaning, the translator’s (observer’s) meaning? The word machine’s (observer’s observer or second reader or ???) meaning? There may be a cycle here.

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Chapter 9: 1st person is in Ataguitania and his book is confiscated. Everything is fake, fake within fake. Taxis and police are fake, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, plots within plots. infiltrators and separations from reality. Lotaria is inquisitor? Uniforms over dresses over body which is a uniform for war. where is reality? names are fake. the two end up making love and being photographed. It’s not Lotaria? Reading in terminal Sheila erases the book.

Story 9: First person goes to South America seeking the mother he has never met. Courtyards go out and out. No one will tell him who his Mom is. They all look alike. Whites marry Indians and vv but never outside class. All is possible. He goes to make love to someone and others are panicked. Is it his sister? Come to find out his father killed Faustino in a fight to the death over a grave and had to leave. Later the grave was empty but the ghost lives on and comes to fight the First person.

LINKS: No one will tell the truth. The truth is a paradox.

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Chapter 10: in a prison with censorship and discussing it. First person finds book, tells Ludmilla, she says she wants a book about everything after the world (etc)

Story 10: Everything after the world. erasing the world, what is left of the written world? A blank sheet fit only for abstractions. Concrete nouns are prohibited by virtue of stylized formula.

LINK: is apparent

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Chapter 11: 1st in library. Meets other readers and finds out how they read. Different readers read in different ways. Sometimes the beginning, sometimes the end, sometimes the anticipation. For ideas. For the total effect. 8 ways. Arabian Nights mentioned. Names of stories read as though the first lines of a book.

All stories are unfinished. In ancient times there were only two ways to end a story, marriage or death.

Chapter 12: Readers get married.

Last chapters are wonderful. 🙂

  • Reader 1: a reader for info
  • Reader 2: a reader for escape, fun, life-affirming
  • Non-Reader: lives life doesn’t read. Is he a critic?

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that’s it. (lol) I’m not sure what to make of it all.

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