Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Italo Calvino A couple of days ago, I finished Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. It’s a remarkable book about reading, and to some extent about writing. And it’s quite unconventional, particularly in terms of form.

It made me think about form versus substance in fiction. For every subject matter there are infinite forms, and some forms allow for suggestion of inexpressible things. I believe Calvino manages to say things about the experience of reading which would be difficult to express in a more conventional book.

I also thought about the conventional versus the unconventional. An unconventional book has, obviously, fewer established conventions. Fewer codes. It needs to go further to establish its context. And the unconventional books and films I’ve read and seen that most effectively establish their contexts seem to do so largely by suggestion. They give you tiny but rich bits of information, and for each one its like when you play Minesweeper and uncover a large mine-free area with a single click. (I thought of this as I watched Spirited Away recently, which is an excellent example of this.)

A few favorite passages:

One of the chapters is from the diary of one of the characters in the book, the writer Silas Flannery. One of his notes is about the compositional process of the Koran. “There were at least two mediations between the whole and the book,” he writes, “Mohammed listened to the word of Allah and dictated, in his turn, to his scribes.” He continues:

Once – the biographers of the Prophet tells us – while dictating to the scribe Abdullah, Mohammed left a sentence half finished. The scribe, instinctively, suggested the conclusion. Absently, the Prophet accepted as the divine word what Abdullah had said. This scandalized the scribe, who abandoned the Prophet and lost his faith. He was wrong. The organization of the sentence, finally, was a responsibility that lay with him; he was the one who had to deal with the internal coherence of the written language, with grammar and syntax, to channel into it the fluidity of a thought that expands outside all language before it becomes a word, and of a word particularly fluid like that of a prophet.

“It is only through the confining act of writing,” continues Flannery, “that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible, that is, through the uncertainties of spelling, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen.” Even if the scribe were to make a mistake, Flannery writes, he would be “wrong to be scandalized” if what he wrote was preferable.

Also in the chapter of Flannery’s notes, something that seems to describe how I feel about blogging:

If I think I must write one book, all the problems of how this book should be and how it should not be block me and keep me from going forward. If, on the contrary, I think that I am writing a whole library, I feel suddenly lightened: I know that whatever I write will be integrated, contradicted, balanced, amplified, buried by the hundreds of volumes that remain for me to write.

Later in the book, the protagonist (which is in the second person, but it works, and it is one of the formal aspects of this book which makes it so rich) meets other readers at a library, and one of them says:

Reading is a discontinuous and fragmentary operation. Or, rather, the object of reading is a punctiform and pulviscular material. In the spreading expanse of the writing, the reader’s attention isolates some minimal segments, juxtapositions of words, metaphors, syntactic nexuses, logical passages, lexical peculiarities that prove to possess and extremely concentrated density of meaning. They are like elemental particles making up the work’s nucleus, around which all the rest revolves.

And a few chapters earlier, the protagonist of one of the books Calvino’s protagonist reads (yes!), talks to a Mr. Okeda about sensory perception:

To shift the conversation to different ground, I tried to make the comparison with the reading of a novel in which a very calm narrative pace, all on the same subdued notes, serves to enforce some subtle and precise sensations to which the writer wishes to call the reader’s attention; but in the case of the novel you must consider that in the succession of sentences only one sensation can pass at a time, whether it be individual or general, whereas the breadth of the visual field and the auditory field allows the simultaneous recording of a much richer and more complex whole. The reader’s receptivity with respect to the collection of sensations that the novel wants to direct at him is found to be much reduced, first by the fact that his often hasty and absent reading does not catch or neglects a certain number of signals and intentions actually contained in the text, and second because there is always something essential that remains outside the written sentence; indeed, the things that the novel does not say are necessarily more numerous than those it does say, and only a special halo around what is written can give the illusion that you are reading also what is unwritten.

It’s a great book, and I can’t recommend it enough. If you are Swedish and intimidated by the above quotes (I would be), the Swedish translation is very accessible.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on July 9, 2004. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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