‘The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” From Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, quoted in the film Stranger than Fiction.
I first encountered If on a winter’s night a traveler when I was stationed in Japan onboard USS Blue Ridge, reading voraciously during my free time at sea in an effort to prepare myself for college once my hitch was up. Published in Italian in 1979, Calvino’s masterpiece had just been translated into English. Did I come across it on a visit to the foreign literature section of Maruzen bookstore in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district? Did my sister who was working on a master’s degree in literature send a copy to me? I don’t recall. But by the time I was a few chapters into it, I sensed that I was reading a book that would endure among the important works of postmodern literature. An “anti-novel,” some have called it, for the rules of narrative it challenged and broke. When writers and literature professors caution that readers should avoid asking the question, “What is this piece of writing about?” this is the kind of writing they have in mind.
As such, the fragmented journey Calvino takes readers on is not everyone’s cup of tea. An otherwise positive 1981 New York Times review concluded by pouting that the book contains “…a sadness of its central subject, the absence of the artist, Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky…” whom the reviewer appreciated for the more linear plots they crafted.
Nevertheless, notice the names on the list Calvino’s work was being compared to: Giants.
Some years ago Barbra and I came across the film Stranger than Fiction, the story of one Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who comes to realize that he has become trapped in a novel as the protagonist and that his life is being whimsically determined by the novel’s author. In his attempt to extricate himself from this predicament, Harold ends up in the office of literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who, swinging on the pivotal phrase “Little did he know…,” offers Calvino’s observation that ‘The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: The continuity of life, the inevitability of death'” and observes that Harold’s first task is to figure out whether the novel in which he is entangled is a comedy or a tragedy. This is one of our favorite films, and I suspected that Barbra would love Calvino.
And so we finally got around to reading If on a winter’s night a traveler, taking turns chapter by chapter against a Chignik Lake background of darkening fall nights, hot cups of tea and a little chocolate.
If on a winter’s night is packed with quirky juxtapositions, startlingly inventive metaphors, precise language, a metaphysical examination of the act of reading and light romance. These elements are masterfully woven together, if not by a plot, exactly, then by threads that pull the reader ever deeper into a literary mystery about a literary mystery. There, I used the word “about.” That’s enough. This is a book that will delight and fascinate readers who love to read.