If on a winter’s night a traveller: written by aliens, read by fictional constructs

00:00 Sun 30 May 1999. Updated: 19:01 24 Oct 2010
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If on a winter’s night a traveller was written by an alien, or group of aliens. Actually, this is not quite true: the novel was written by an alien, or group of aliens, and also by Italo Calvino. Calvino was being used by the alien(s) to communicate some message to Earth. He was not consciously aware of this, but knew on some level, which is one of the reasons why the text is full of questions about how writing is produced.

The proof of this hypothesis lies in the text itself. The main author character is Silas Flannery, whose status in the text is highlighted by chapter eight, which is an excerpt from his diary. Here he is given the opportunity to present himself as I, something otherwise granted only to the characters in the ‘fictional’ passages (fictional must be placed in quotes because the adjective becomes almost meaningless in this particular text). Although Calvino has claimed that he is most like Ludmilla, it is nonetheless the case that Silas Flannery is the character in the book closest to the ‘author’ role. Also, it is possible that Calvino’s claim to be most like Ludmilla was entirely true when he made it, i.e. when he had finished the book, and so was no longer able to alter it as an author, and therefore was simply another reader. When he was writing it, however, he may have identified much more with Flannery. After all, the basis of Calvino’s claim was that he read like Ludmilla—this says nothing about how he writes.

Flannery’s concerns are similar to Calvino’s also: he worries about fakes and where writing comes from. In addition, he is creatively stuck.

The key point is that Flannery, suffering from a form of writer’s block, encounters a group of UFO cultists, who tell him that they are searching for an author suffering from writer’s block. He undoubtedly realizes that he fits the description, but fobs them off (p145)(in the process ensuring that the Reader is unable to finish In a network of lines that intersect(p154)). They tell him that

The book he will write when he emerges from the crisis is the one that could contain the cosmic communications.
… He wouldn’t even be aware of it. he would believe he is writing as he likes; instead the message coming from space on waves picked up by his brain would infiltrate what he is writing.

At the end of the chapter, Flannery gets an idea for a novel, his first of any promise since he entered his crisis. The idea is for a novel that is "composed only of beginnings" (p156) that itself begins with a Reader picking up a book in a bookstore only to find it is defective, and so begins a series of interruptions… This is obviously the plot of If on a winter’s night a traveller. Equally clearly, Flannery’s experience is precisely what the UFO cultists described: he was in a crisis, and he comes up with an idea that he thinks is his own.

Clearly this is a ridiculous hypothesis. However, the reasons why it is ridiculous have nothing to do with literary or critical theory and everything to do with our conceptions regarding alien intelligences and channelling. From an examination of the text, it is a perfectly sustainable argument.

Which is precisely what Calvino (or the aliens, or machines, or whatever is ultimately ‘responsible’ for the text) wants. This episode, like so much else in the book, is designed to force the reader to pay attention to the fact that they are reading a book. More than that, to force the reader to analyze the nature of the medium (the novel) that they are reading. This in itself is a relatively radical move, which influences the analysis the reader is likely to make.

In my view such a ploy is quintessentially postmodern. One of the key components of postmodernism is the foregrounding of the ontological, the drive to make the reader aware of what they are reading and the issues surrounding the relationship between reader and text and author. Such a foregrounding clearly makes ‘escapist’ or ‘readerly’ reading extremely difficult, since the whole point of such reading is to mistake the structure of the text for reality, which cannot be done if the text itself continually stresses its fictional nature.

As well as emphasizing its fictional nature, the text also stresses its structure, in the sense that it causes strain to be placed on that structure. With the Silas Flannery situation, the Flannery writes the text in which he is a character in which he writes a text in which he is a character, and so on, creating a recurring abyss inside the text. The text also seeks to exceed its structural bounds in other ways, such as the second-person narration, which undermines the reader’s sense of strict boundary between real and fictional by deliberately confusing the reader with a fictional construct. The effect here is paradoxical, simultaneously highlighting the fictional and textual nature of the text (particularly by addressing a ‘Reader’) and yet seeking to interact with the reader as if the boundary between textual/fictional and ‘real’ did not exist. This attempt to involve the reader in the text in one of the most direct ways possible (by making the reader the protagonist) combined with constant pointers to the book’s structure and its fictional status (every mention of ‘reader’ brings this to mind) means that the text demonstrates three other typical postmodern qualities: irony, self-referentiality and confusion.

Another way in which If on a winter’s night a traveller seeks to move outside its own bounds is in its identification with other (sub)texts. After all, if the reader never gets to finish the novel that is printed blank after the first chapter, then the rest of that text (also called If on a winter’s night a traveller) is a mystery and must reside somewhere else, presumably somewhere within the universe of the greater text. In other words, the narrative begun in that chapter and in the others extends somewhere, in some direction. These directions are closed to Reader and reader alike, but are nonetheless present, and again serve to draw attention to the text’s somewhat problematic structure.

Calvino’s last major assault on the reader’s attempts to use the text in an escapist way is connected to the alien hypothesis also. Flannery’s aliens also force the reader to think about the author, and the entire concept of authorship. The authors in the text are all undermined by counterfeits, fakes, mistranslations, machines, and aliens. The concept of authorship is one that Calvino deconstructs here, by way of attacking the concept of origin. There are few originals in his works, and since the work itself is made up of a series of unoriginal works, where does that leave it? Where does that leave the idea of origin? The various assaults on Calvino’s authors suggest that the authoring process, rather than the author, is the key to the creation of a text, and also that this process can be separated from the author. The author merely ‘channels’ this process. The implication again is that there is no ‘creation’, merely a filtering of what is already present. The reader, so accustomed to treating books as worlds created by godlike Authors, becomes uncertain about both authenticity and completion/closure, since the lack of a central authorial authority means that defining the end of a text is rather difficult. After all, as stated above the end of If on a winter’s night a traveller is not the end of the first novel in the text, and that may well leave the possibility open for some other writer to write that novel, and it might be difficult to argue that such a novel would have no place in the ‘canonical’ version of the greater If on a winter’s night a traveller.

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4 Responses to “If on a winter’s night a traveller: written by aliens, read by fictional constructs”

  1. Nassib AH Says:

    If someone asked you to write an essay on how to prove that calvino’s story is postmodernist, what would you say?

  2. chrisnbeirut Says:

    What kind of a dumbass are you nassib? Do u know that if i report that to the school administration, it could be considered a plagerism and you could be expelled? i expect an apology in class on wednesday. it better be a good one.

  3. Jakki Says:

    It has all the elements of postmodernism…issues of closure, linearity, intertextuality…
    I have to write one on its representation on reading and its effects. Any ideas, anyone? 0:-)

  4. Hassan Sinno Says:

    Hahahahahaha hilarious chrisnbeirut! :p
    And btw thanks for the review it’s really informative.

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