Home / Literature  / If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino (1979, Tr. 1981)

If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino (1979, Tr. 1981)

Let’s imagine a book which ceases to be a book. Of course it possesses all the physical characteristics a so-called “typical novel”

Lautréamont once came up with a comparison of beauty – extremely prophetic for the shape of things to come in the field of art and literature of the 20th century – which says that it is the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. Nowadays, almost 150 years later, in the epoch of titillating multitudes of accelerations, you are reaping the harvest of what this quotation has sowed: the rye of innumerable chimeric theories, the oats of rhetorical fusions and divisions, and the barley of socio-economical constructions, deconstructions, reconstructions as well as many other cultivars of combinatory relations, which names begin with “multi”, “neo” and “post” prefixes. Struggling inside this hectic jungle, your imagination is bound to long for something completely different during those unique and sudden outbursts of its – let’s say – ‘self-awareness’ even more feverishly, ferociously, fiercely than in the era of the author of Songs of Maldoror. In those moments, so much similar to micro-sleep, or rather – micro-awakening, with your eyes purer than the newborn child’s innocence, you dream about ‘deontologizing’ yourself even more to achieve a state of maximum openness, a plasticity of blank slate to imbibe at least one single flicker of The New (you cannot say “something new”, because you would be automatically ‘anchored’ in the being again), which would leave you stunned beyond comprehension. My very own eyes have recently stumbled upon the above mentioned flicker, and now, ultimately enthralled by its unearthly other-worldliness (taken positively here), I am going to try and recreate a symbolic fraction of its magic for you.

Let’s imagine a book which ceases to be a book. Of course it possesses all the physical characteristics a so-called “typical novel” – a spatial object from within the world – should possess: a cover, pages, a spine, a gutter, a flyleaf, a table of contents, a dust jacket, etc. – palpable guarantees of a whole bunch of concrete percepts inside our head. A body of text – this paradoxical, part tangible, part invisible edifice of evanescence – is also there with many magnificent wonders waiting to be discovered, uncovered, recovered by a sharpness of your hawk-eyed sight. However, by means of the unknown, due to the ultimately abstract whatchamacallit from the outside of the outside, thanks to something that transcends even the ‘from-beyondful’ area of sheer speculation, you find yourself more and more absent, imperceptible, non-existent from the ontological point of view, when you are entering the ever-increasing ‘gravitational field’ of If on a winter’s night a traveler. Calvino leads you through his ‘rabbit hole’ where letters literally (‘sentencially’ and ‘paragraphically’ too!) take over the potential of reality to exist per se. No ordinary ‘rabbit hole’ indeed! It is like a combination of Cheshire Cat’s grin, a wormhole, squaring the circle and a dump truck full of the highest possible metaphysical intensity. No sweat, I will show you around!

At first glance (the one that the book allows you to perceive while you are still within your everyday reality), you are nesting yourself inside a story of a bibliophilistic investigation. From the very first page, a certain meta-level narrative, changing swiftly from the second-person to the first-person perspective, somehow splits you into two versions of yourself. The first one is going along the plot and blending in with the body of the novel, while the second is staying outside this freshly conjured inter-dimensional inside (outside?) of you #1 and the book. At the same time, Calvino is hazing you #2 with his dashing reflectivity and smashing vagaries so effectively that it ends up soaring high up into the no man’s land of the unknown, the fresh, The New. Meanwhile, as you #1 is getting upset by the seemingly random set of occurrences, which prevent it from finishing the book it began reading in the opening, you all (the you – the protagonist – from the novel, the you #1 who is reading the novel, and the you #2 who is outside both of you – all three mixed together!) are gradually transforming into a bookworm-ish sleuth, who is entering a ‘reality’ where even calling its arché “something that appears in our universe as if it were ‘oozing’ from letters” simply won’t do any justice at all. What is this ‘reality’ then? Under the circumstances, is it even possible to ask any questions at all?

Trying to whisk off from the obscurity of thought (and of multilocated you’s) as far as I can, I am going to go with the flow of Calvino’s arché. The ‘beyondness’ of ephemeral phenomena emerges when you – an aggregate of replications – are being more and more absorbed in futile attempts to read the novel, which repetitively turns out to be not the one it seems to have been in the first place (as a result of supposed printing flaw, publisher’s alleged red tape, purported takeover of literature due to war turmoil, etc.). The above ‘beyondness’ must have been probably grounded in… the indescribability of silence! The moment you (still as a bunch of reproductions, each one on a different level of the novel, yet somehow intertwined together!) succumb to machinations performed by some elusive, spy-like fanatic, whose aim is to overflow the world with double-bogus novels in which a fake artificiality doesn’t reveal the truth – it just squares the falsehood, leaves you speechless owing to the pristine quality of ‘primordial’ experience all three of you’s combined together are exposed to. It seems almost like you have been permitted to witness God’s breath preceding one of the most symbolically powerful utterances of all time: “In the Beginning was the Word.” Your simultaneous outburst of sudden awareness, enlightening consciousness, transcendental revelation of how many more possibilities are condensed in the…hmm… ‘spatiality-to-be’ of letters in general, what kind of potential relations can they conceive as a wild variety of functions, means, meanings, interactions, intersections, etc. – all of this, taken as some kind of new, unnamable ‘poli-wholeness’, enters a circulatory system of your spirit. Shortly after this infusion, you know, without the slightest trace of uncertainty or doubt, that you have just set out on an astonishing journey throughout the kaleidoscope of endless phantasmagorical alternatives and portmanteau qualities!

Coming back to our good old universe, Calvino’s diamond, being the novel about reading a novel, presents a characteristic cut of self-reference that reacts with The New in a spectacular combustion, leaving you hungry for answers to loads of intriguing questions. In what way apocrypha can broaden the sense of writer’s identity? What can be distinguished as an essence of a difference between a negative fact and a positive fact? To what extent a heteronymous mode of writing can alter concepts of difference and multiplication? Are we able to detail a mutual inspiration of philosophy and literature? These and many more brain-racking issues await all of you out there, whose eyes are sparkling with the yearning for the ultimate escape during those scarce moments of the micro-awakening I mentioned in the first paragraph. Personally, I have never been taken so far away by any other book of such a conceptual charge. What’s more, I have never roamed around the outback of the metaphysical speculation regarding a ternary association “writing-language-reality” that long. Only Nabokov’s Pale Fire was inflammable enough to set me off in quite a similar manner inside this boundless realm, however it is a whole different story…

If on a winter’s night a traveler, which in virtually no time has become my personal favorite to win the “What book would you take with you on a desert island?” contest, is truly a jewel in the crown, which has been richly incrusted with many precious, postmodern stones, mainly during the second half of the XX century. The jewel so brilliant, it would outshine even those of Lautréamont’s abstract comparisons of beauty, which he had never managed to pen. You should feel lucky that the gemstone mine called “Literature” still not only gives evidence that its deposits are far from depletion, but also sets up new directions for all sorts of miners to boldly dig, drill and sift where no prospector has dug, drilled and sifted before. So you’d better pack your pick into the bag, steal some drills from the nearby DIY store and retrieve a sieve from your neighbor’s tool shed – the mine is waiting. But first, don’t forget to fuel your safety lamp with the beautiful, everlasting shine of Calvino’s grandest ornament!

Amonne Purity


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