In an interview conducted in January 1978, one year before the publication of his novel If on a winter's night a traveler (Iown), Italo Calvino responded to a question about his future writing plans with these words: "What I keep open is fiction, a storytelling that is lively and inventive, as well as the more reflective kind of writing in which narrative and essay become one" (Calvino, Hermit in Paris 190). Calvino created this very type of fiction in Iown, a novel that consists of a metafictional narrative that frames the beginnings of ten unique novels. This type of structure allows Calvino to satisfy his needs as a storyteller, and at the same time it allows him the opportunity to insert his own thoughts and opinions on theories of reading and writing. Ultimately we have the sense that this is a novel where Calvino is in total authorial control, not only in the sense that he controls the characters, the plot, the structure of the novel, etc., but also in the sense that he controls us as readers of the novel. He does so by creating a novel that is a game, complete with virtual reality-like settings where his characters act out their adventures with seemingly little control over their own destinies. Calvino acts as the ultimate game-creator/game-master who controls both the characters he creates and the real players of this game-like novel, the readers. As readers we become caught up in Calvino's playful language and his narrative tricks, but on another level we are subject to Calvino's metafictional discourse. As the true readers of Iown we cannot ignore the sections of the novel that deal with aspects of writing, authorship, and publishing in ways that unabashedly reflect Calvino's own opinions and feelings. By speaking his opinions through his characters (who we as readers naturally identify with) Calvino is persuading us to identify with him, and is therefore able to maintain his position of control and authority. Thus, through the playful use of metafiction Calvino can achieve the creation of a novel that is both self-consciously reflective and "lively and inventive."
Iown is carefully structured much in the way a video or virtual reality game might be set up. The protagonist (the Reader) is on a quest of sorts—he seeks the resolution and the sense of satisfaction that comes with finishing an interesting story that has been abruptly cut short. The Reader then embarks on different mini-quests (the beginnings of the ten novels) in an effort to continue on towards his goal of resolution, yet he is defeated after each sequence, cut off from the battle as if his game character had been defeated. As each new novel sequence begins to reach a point of climax, Calvino stops the story and leaves both the Reader and his readers hanging:
The game strategy emerges clearly [. . .] by creating suspense the author captures our interest, but he keeps deferring the consummation of our curiosity [. . .] In Calvino's game we, the readers, risk frustration: letting ourselves be dragged into the story, we are bound to suffer from aroused and dissatisfied curiosity. (Fink 3)
Calvino continues this strategy throughout the novel and as a result he encourages his readers to join in and take up the quest with the Reader for a complete novel that has not been compromised by a devious translator or an erring publisher. Yet each time the reader "traverses" a new beginning, he is denied access to an "authentic" novel and cannot "complete the reading experience" (Cotrupi 2). This continual deferral of resolution and wholeness begins to indicate that the reader is seeking something that is unattainable and that the goal of the game is not to find an "authentic" novel. By seeking "authenticity" and wholeness the reader has not been following the "rules" of Calvino's game. Throughout the novel the Reader has been confronted with clues that would lead one to believe that the modern reading experience is not, or does not have to be, whole, complete, and accurate. In the case of each novel there has been some error in printing, translation, binding, etc. that has compromised the integrity of the "whole" novel. The readers that the Reader meets in the library tell him that he is in search of something that does not exist:
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 (Calvino, Iown 259).
In essence this seems to be a sort of sinister warning to the Reader that if he continues his quest he will die. Realizing this he decides to continue his own life by marrying Ludmilla, ultimately a more "authentic" and meaningful conclusion than death:
He realizes that literary wholeness may or may not be attainable. It appears that he finds that wholeness is temporary in either realm, literature or real life, and he abandons his immediate search for literary wholeness for a temporary wholeness with in marriage to Ludmilla. (Carter 135)
Calvino cleverly leads his readers on the same empty quest that the Reader is on so that at the end on the novel we find that we were totally under his control the whole time. We are not merely observers of Calvino's game, but active participants who become trapped by our natural identification with the Reader and his desire for resolution:
Although it might seem as if we are watching the game from a safe place outside the discourse, we are nevertheless the ones for whom it is intended: through identification with the characters and our (erotic) desire to discover the mystery we deliver ourselves into the hands of the author, who wins the game by drawing us into the narrative almost against our will. (Fink 2)
While Calvino does bring us into the narrative game he does not do so in an overt manner. As the author/game-master he uses linguistic tricks to lure his readers into novel and away from a safe point of observation. As the novel begins, Calvino seems to be speaking to us as readers: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If on a winter's night a traveler" ( Calvino, Iown 3). We are immediately drawn into the novel only to find out that "you" refers to the Reader, the male protagonist of the novel. By using the second person point of view to address Reader as "you," Calvino makes it difficult at times for the real readers of the novel not to insert themselves into the role of Reader:
This book so far has been careful to leave open to the Reader who is reading the possibility of identifying himself with the Reader who is read: this is why he was not given a name, which would automatically have made him the equivalent of a Third Person, of a character [. . .] and so he has been kept a pronoun, in the abstracts condition of pronouns suitable for any attribute and any action. (141)
While this invitation is intentional on Calvino's part, (he wants to control the readers of his novel so that they will identify with the second person male Reader), he does so in a subtle and tricky manner so as keep the readers under his influence. He not only controls the game of the novel, but he plays games with us as readers. We feel that at times Calvino is undoubtedly speaking to us, leading us to invest a more personal interest in his topic, yet in the next instant we are forgotten and he has gone back to addressing the Reader. To further complicate things, Calvino uses the first person point of view in each of the ten beginnings of novels, and as a result we are never sure who the protagonists, "I," are. Each of these beginnings acts as a mini-game sequence in which the "I" character could potentially be played by anyone, as if it were a virtual reality game. By establishing this sense of anonymity within these sequences Calvino leaves them open for us as readers to project ourselves into the "game:" "this is simply because I am called "I" and this is the only thing you know about me, but this alone is reason enough for you to invest a part of yourself in the stranger "I" (15). Here we feel that Calvino wants us to identify ourselves with the "I" figure, but before we can do so he goes on to tell us that the "I" figure might represent Calvino himself:
Just as the author, since he has no intention of telling about himself, decided to call the character "I" as if to conceal him, not having to name him or describe him, because any other name or attribute would define him more than this stark pronoun; still, by the very fact of writing "I" the author feels driven to put into this "I" a bit of himself, of what he feels or imagines he feels. (15)
With this we become more confused because suddenly Calvino is saying that we should identify with "I", but that "I" might also be Calvino. The author is obviously trying to trick us in some way, especially when he goes on to say that maybe no one should identify with "I" because we don't know much about him (15). Calvino's manipulation of pronouns is also his tool for manipulating his readers and characters. By both drawing us in and then alienating us we become actors in his game, waiting to be put into action once he gives a verbal signal: "as the novelistic plot develops, the reader moves to the sidelines of the discourse and assumes the position of an observer, but he/she is nevertheless bound to the Reader by the magic of the second-person pronoun" (Fink 4). We see that he also does this with the Reader in chapter seven. Calvino switches his attention from the Second Person male Reader to the Third Person female reader, Ludmilla, without any sort of regard for the Reader. It is as if once Calvino stops addressing him, his character goes inactive. The reader can only be reactivated through Calvino's verbal cue "Reader, prick up your ears" (Calvino, Iown 147). Thus, the verbal games Calvino employs throughout the novel interact with and enhance the game of the novel.
Beyond the level at which we as readers are subject to Calvino's linguistic games, we are also made to be the subjects of his metafictional commentary on the nature of writing and reading. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as "a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality" (Waugh 2). Part of the control and authority that Calvino has as author/game-master comes from his use of metafiction as a device to influence the actions and opinions of the readers and the Reader. While many aspects of the narrative are too fantastic or outlandish to be considered representations of reality, the sections of metafictional commentary that relate to publishing, authorship, and writing bear striking resemblance to Calvino's own experiences and opinions. Using the theories of Carla Benedetti and Roland Barthes, we see that Calvino plays with Benedetti's notions of "author-image" and "author-name" in relation to Barthes theory of the "death of the author" in an effort to show that while there are ideal conditions for writers and readers, in modern reality these conditions interact with one another in a constant state competition, a game.
Roland Barthes' theory of the "death of the author" states that with the simple act of writing, an author should disappear behind his work, or "die," thus allowing the text to come to the foreground. The author's role is essentially unimportant, and if anything he limits the impact of his text. For Barthes, it is the reader who plays the more important role, acting as the site on which writing is focused:
Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. (Barthes 148)
While Barthes sees the role of the reader as transcending the role of the author, Benedetti argues that that is all a myth. By looking at the way in which the modern media and publishing industries treat authors and build up their image and name without giving much attention to their actual texts, Benedetti refutes Barthes claims and argues that the "author without text" is the more accurate condition of modern authors:
All [literary theories] do is repeat over and over that authors have been eclipsed by the anonymous presence of texts and by "creative networks"; that what counts for the reader is not the author but the text, in its internal architecture and in its references to other texts. And yet things seem to be going somewhat differently. What reaches the reader by means of the intricate circuits of communication is not the text without author, but rather the author without text. (Benedetti)
This battle between theories of authorship is played out in Iown through Calvino's self-conscious metafiction. The character of the obsessive author, Silas Flannery, constantly struggles with his own personality and style and sees them as limiting forces that restrain his writing capabilities:
How well I could 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! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognizable as mine seem to me a cage that restricts my possibilities [. . .] It is not in order to be the spokesman for something definable that I would like to erase myself. Only to transmit the writable that waits to be written, the tellable that nobody tells. (Calvino, Iown 171)
Much as Barthes talks about the "mediator" or "shaman" in ethnographic cultures whom narratives passed through without any notion of them being authors or originators (Barthes 142), Flannery seems to wish that he could be an autonomous vehicle through which words are transferred to the page—"a severed hand that grasps the pen and writes" (Calvino, Iown 171). Yet when Ludmilla describes her ideal conception of Flannery in similar terms, he is offended by the conditions of his own authorial anonymity: "I feel a stab of pain. For this girl I am nothing but an impersonal graphic energy" (190). The irony of this situation leads us to wonder if these are Calvino's own thoughts concerning his role as an author. While Calvino has said that he believed the ideal condition of the writer is something "close to anonymity," might he also feel disappointed once he has disappeared behind his text? (Calvino, Hermit in Paris 170). Or does he simply feel limited by his own recognizable style and the signification that comes with his name? In the beginning of the novel the reader remarks that he can't recognize the "unmistakable tone" of the author, Calvino, but then decides that Calvino is an author who is indeed known for not having a recognizable style. Thus, like Flannery, Calvino's tone still plays a role in limiting the reader's experience of the novel even though it cannot be defined.
It appears that idealistically, Calvino sides with Barthes conception of authorship, but he realizes that this is an ideal condition that cannot survive in the modern world. In contrast to Silas Flannery, Calvino presents a modern notion of the author that is very similar to what Carla Benedetti argues. The "author-name" and "author-image" take precedence over an author's written text. Modern authors have not disappeared, but rather they have become more visible because of the media, advertising, and publishing house practices. It is instead their texts that have disappeared. This feeling is best expressed by the character of the publishing executive in Iown, Mr. Cavedagna:
And so it is with authors: he deals with them every day, he knows their fixations, indecisions, susceptibilities, egocentricities, and yet the true authors remain those who for him were only a name on a jacket, a word that was part of the title, authors who [. . .] existed and didn't exist at the same time [. . .] The author was an invisible point from which the books came. ( Iown 101-102).
This longing for a time when an author's name didn't matter so much because there was no readily available image to attach to it is what both Cavedagna and Calvino feel: "I believe that writers lose a lot when they are seen in the flesh. In the old days the really popular writers were totally anonymous, just a name on the book cover, and this gave them an extraordinary mystique" (Hermit in Paris 170). Calvino's metafictional commentary on authorship allows us to infer his true opinions, yet by interspersing his novel with his own famous "author-name" he is acknowledging that sentimentality is anything but modern. Calvino plays with the literary theories he refers to and sets them against each other in the spirit of competition and in accordance with his narrative game strategy.
Through the game-like qualities of If on a winter's night a traveler Calvino creates an irresistible work of fiction/metafiction that draws his readers into the game of the novel, thus securing for himself an audience on which he can impose his own linguistic "tricks-of-the-trade" and his opinions of literary criticism. As true readers we can identify with Calvino's character readers who are seduced by the world of drama and suspense that Calvino creates. Only at the end of the novel/game do we discover that Calvino has been expertly controlling both his characters and us the whole time, and if we too want to escape his dangerous game, we must play by his rules, for he is the game-master.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana/Collins, 1989) 142-148.
Benedetti, Carla. "Is the Author Dead?" The Shadow of the Author [L'Ombra lunga dell'autore], trans. William Hanley (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1999). http://www.public.asu.edu/~dgilfill/texts/benedetti.shtml.
Calvino, Italo. Hermit in Paris. (New York: Pantheon, 2003).
- - - -. If on a winter's night a traveler, trans. William Weaver. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1981).
Carter, Albert Howard III. "If on a winter's night a traveler: Fantasy and Reading." Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy. (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1987) 125-137.
Cotrupi, C. Nella. "Hypermetafiction: Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler." Style. Vol.25:2 (Summer 1991): 280-292.
Fink, I. "The Power Behind the Pronoun: Narrative Games in Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler." Twentieth Century Literature. Vol.37:1 (Spring 1991): 93-105.
Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Concious Fiction. (London: Methuen, 1984).