Tuesday, December 13, 2005
What I've been reading lately: If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (a postmodern essay.)
To open a book is to invite the fictional world in. Readers always know when they are reading fiction. There are conventions and codes, an author to listen to, reading is a way to understand and think. The most challenging feature of postmodern writing is its insinuation of the fictionality of the world we live in. Readers are challenged when overt metafictional writers, such as Italo Calvino, choose to display the fictionality of their novels. This essay will focus on Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. It will explore metafiction, a type of postmodern writing and examine the conventions of fiction, deconstruction of language, the notion of an author and their precursors and the relationship between reading and writing. All this will reveal the fictionality within postmodern writing.
Italo Calvino is deliberate and determined to convey the notions and the intricacy in preparing a text. It is never forgotten that we are reading a book. There is an author, a scene set, a plot and characters to be met. Calvino intentionally allows the book’s contrivance to be seen. He asserts this from the very beginning in his opening chapter: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel” (Calvino, 1998, p.3), and later: “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” (Calvino,1998, p.10).
Although we are reading, we are never directly able to read for ourselves, someone else reads each narrative and this allows Calvino to highlight the novel’s constructs and conventions. “We are never allowed even the illusion of direct access to these stories: they are all mediated, which is just another way of saying that they are fabricated” (Brink, 1998, p.317). Through the eyes of others such as, the narrator; professor Uzzi-Tuzzi; Lotaria and Silas Flannery, we are made aware that this is a book and it has been made. Furthermore, we are told that even these readings have been read before, translated by the infamous Ermes Marana. The novel has been previously read, previously interpreted and constantly mediated.
Jacques Derrida, a postmodern theorist, examined the use of language. He saw language as deconstructed, disorderly and unstable. Language viewed this way allows for interpretation. Disorderly and unstable means that when language is used to represent, to each person that language can be different, therefore destabilised and unstructured. An author may have the best intentions to use language to represent one particular view, but this may not always be the case. Calvino emphasises this further in his novel.
“[The] act of reading…becomes simultaneously an act of radical destabilisation of language. Each of the readers in Calvino's novel reads the ‘same’ novel, yet experiences it as a ‘different’ novel; the whole process of reading unsettles fixed meanings” (Brink, 1998, p.314).
Derrida also used the theatre as an analogy to writing, to convey this idea.
“[An] author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or meaning of representation…He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actor, enslaved interpreters who…more or less directly represent the thought of the ‘creator’” (Ritzer, 2003, p. 584).
Similarly in fiction, language represents the thoughts of the creator and the reader is the interpreter. This is an important concept in postmodern writing. Also is the notion of previously read, previously interpreted, mediated, represented and then interpreted again and again. It is the idea of precursors. An author has read before. An author allows these ideas to influence their writing. The ideas are consequently mediated or represented and the reader, in turn, re-interprets these ideas. If the reader is also a writer, the cycle continues.
Calvino's If on a winter’s night a traveller uses the premise of precursors and portrays it through his novel by different chapters. The “novel offers an increasingly, dizzying experience of reading, with each chapter acting as supplement to what has gone before and as a preface to the next” (Brink, 1998 p. 320). Precursors are important to the idea of the author when it is explored. It questions the notion of ideas mediated, authors influenced, akin to Derrida’s notion of representation.
Calvino uses his character Marana to display this, where he deems authors irrelevant. (Calvino, 1998, p. 101) As if to say it is everyone’s and anyone’s idea.
“Marana often misrepresents what he sends to publishers, submitting manuscripts incorrectly titled and attributed and sometimes passing off insignificant works as major works. Marana is a kind of anti-authorial terrorist" (Gaggi, 1997, pp 56-57).
Michel Foucault examined the idea of author-function. Foucault, another postmodern theorist, looked at the way writers would seek to write what they believed to be an individual voice. However, Foucault asserts that the reading of any given text allows for inevitable interpretation. Multiple readings, changing an individual voice into a fractured voice:
“that the author-function is a construction that imposes ideological constraints upon the reading of a body of texts identified as being by a certain ‘author’…the subject of the author in particular – is a product of discourse rather than the origin of discourse” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 57).
A good illustration of this is Calvino’s idea of two writers, each struggling to write, and while imagining the other writes better, each begins to write as they imagine the other would, and consequently they write the same book.
Calvino goes on to include computers in his novel that are working to emulate the work of famous writers. Here he is “demystifying literature and the author” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 62). Calvino’s novel shows that an author's own discourse is a product and cannot be described as original, he shows it to be ‘fictional’.
Calvino allows the authorship of his own novel to be ambiguous. Calvino himself, a real author, allows himself to be a character. This questions the idea of what has been written and by whom? Marana’s deliberate attempt’s to steal, forge and misrepresent texts ensures that “reading will be freed from the constraints imposed on it by the aura of authorship” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 57). Roland Barths, also a postmodernist, asserts that in writing there is the ‘death of the author’. “The more the author appears, the less he or she exists. The more the author flaunts his or her presence in the novel, the more noticeable is his or her absence outside it” (Waugh, 1984, p. 134). Certainly Calvino is doing just this in his novel, and by doing so he is breaking the conventions of fiction writing.
“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 the author towards her” (Calvino, 1998, p. 20).
If on a winter’s night a traveller is metafiction. Fiction about fiction, stories within stories. Linda Hutcheon writes about metafiction and she calls this narcissistic text. She talks about reading narrative and expectations a reader has. When these expectations are not met, she says writers know full well that they are overtly being self-conscious in their writing and the subverting and breaking of novelistic codes show this. (Hutcheon, 1984, p. 139) Thus far, Calvino has unsettled the author, the novel’s conventions and used the notion of precursors and this easily falls into Hutcheon’s theory of narcissistic text.
The book does not conform to a linear fashion. Instead Calvino allows it to be multi-linear. One story or chapter can lead to the next, but it can also lead to others, all at the same time and even re-trace itself back. An example of this is when the book’s narrator goes in search of the famous author Silas Flannery. Flannery describes his ideal reader, clearly evoking the character of Ludmilla. This image of Ludmilla connects her to the reading of all the previous chapters as well as future one’s and also within Flannery’s own writing. Indeed, Ludmilla’s character is a good example of portraying the novel as being multi-diagetic, where “stories successfully frame other stories often to the point of infinite regress (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 2 of 7)
As well as being multi-diagetic it has been argued that Ludmilla personifies the male reader’s erotic desire. There are three quests running alongside each other. The quest for Ludmilla; the quest for the desired perfect reading experience and the narrator’s quest to find his elusive narrative. Reading is spurred on by the desire to see what comes next. Ludmilla’s character is a metaphor for sexual conquest. (Cotrupi, 1991)
Calvino elaborates on the different types of readers. Ludmilla and Lotaria are contrasted.
“Ludmilla, the named and described female reader, clearly personifies the ideal reader in pointed contrast to Lotaria’s pseudoscientific, ideologically motivated, devalued, and degenerated readings of the texts” (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 3 of 7).
Further, Ludmilla talks of there being a boundary line for the reader when she refuses to accompany the narrator to the publishers. Ludmilla prefers to be just a reader on a quest within the fictional world only.
“There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other 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 (Calvino, 1998, p. 93).
Calvino’s manipulation lays bare all the literal conventions of the novel and reveals its interior constructs, and also its exterior constructs. Many protagonists in the novel belong to the literary world, the realm of books. The writer; the reader; the publisher; the narrator; the bookshop owner; literary agents; the academic; the librarian; the plagiarist and the translator. He has incorporated all these into his storytelling. Writing fiction and the ‘real’ players all at once.
“Through these innovations Calvino has added another layer to the semantic density of fiction, incorporating within the narrative text not only an awareness of its own status as literary artefact or verbal construct but also an explicit self-engagement with its role as literary text, as the locus of human creative, perceptual and hermeneutic activities” (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 2 of 7)
Calvino exposing literary construction allows the book to be an overt metafictional novel, a narcissistic text. Calvino subverts the notion of the author, and deems them irrelevant. Where writers can write the exact same thing, but readers can read the exact same thing differently. For Calvino’s metafictional novel to succeed, he must alleviate the void between the fiction of the book and the real world. The reader must never forget that they are reading a book. Calvino does this by the ever-present reader reading over the shoulder of another. When a novel is opened and narrative begins, readers have expectations, but postmodern writing challenges this. Italo Calvino has succeeded in insinuating fictionality into his writing.