Closing Thoughts on If on a winters night a traveler

There is a classic children’s picture book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. The book is made up of a handful of haunting images with a title and a single line from a story. The idea was to encourage young readers to imagine — or write — the rest of the story. The one shown here is called “The Third Floor Bedroom” and the line to start the story is, “It all began when someone left the window open.”

Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is a novel in the same spirit as the Van Allsburg book. Traveler defies any conventional plot structure.  Instead of a picture and a single, haunting line of narrative, Calvino gives us the false starts to ten novels. He is interested in what makes us love reading. His conclusion seems to be that, more than anything, we love the start of a book. That initial plunge into imagery and character, scenes, scenarios, possibilities – this is what brings us back every time for new stories. The farther along a story goes, the fewer directions it can take — if it is following the old rules (rising action, climax, resolution). The romance and excitement of the beginning is lost and the audience awaits the inevitable ending. The hero succeeds or the hero fails. Either way, we’ve seen it many times before. Either way, it is as old as storytelling itself. (I’m reminded of the old rule about Shakespeare. If in doubt as to whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, look to the end. Comedy’s end with marriage; tragedies, with death.)

The most striking thing about finishing traveler was how much Calvino fought against those literary conventions. The frame story of traveler amounts to an international mystery over a handful of books. Is someone writing all these books under different names? Are the books clues to a government conspiracy? Etc., etc. Calvino makes it clear that he really doesn’t care what the answer is. He cares so little that the story keels over at the end and the hero (“You”) decided on impulse that he must get married. He does. And, a happy ending achieved, the book is over.

This is just lip service to the tradition of storytelling, though. The real meat of traveler is in the ten “books” the reader finds throughout. Like with the mysteries of Harris Burdick, they are beginnings to stories that, as far as Calvino is concerned, have no end. This is what he loves about novels, about stories in general. We and Calvino love books for their possibilities. Traveler, therefore, is a love letter to the possibilities of a novel. At its beginning, it could go anywhere, do anything, discover everything. Every novel fails to meet the ultimate hype that “This book will change everything.” For Calvino, that is the lesson he wants us to glean: The greatest story told is the one that is not yet finished.

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Comments
2 Responses to “Closing Thoughts on If on a winters night a traveler”
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