If on a winter’s night a traveler
by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 260 pp., $12.95
Calvino is a wizard. His last work of fiction, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, was inspired by two packs of tarot cards. The hero of the latest work is “the new Calvino”—in other words, itself. The novel the reader has opened is the same novel a Reader inside the cover has gone to a bookstore to procure, having seen an item in a news-paper announcing that a book by this author, the first in several years, has appeared. Everything fairly normal so far. Calvino’s Reader—the one inside the story—is a reasonable updating of the “dear reader” of the old fictioneers. As one might expect, relations have become more informal, to the point of getting familiar: right away the author is calling him “You” (“tu,” “ti,” “te,” in the original). which is like getting on a firstname basis at the first handshake. “Calvino,” a hospitable figure, is concerned that the new owner of his book should have optimum conditions for the enjoyment of it: good light, a comfortable position, no distractions (“No, I don’t want to watch TV!”), cigarettes and an ashtray if he smokes.
What may strike the reader (small r, you or me, not Him) as possibly a bit odd is the insistence on the Reader’s anticipation, as though this were an arsamoris and the whole first chapter, in which we meet author and reader but not yet the book, were the foreplay, stimulation of erectile tissue prior to the act of reading as recommended by a rather permissive sex manual. The Reader is instructed to “Relax,” “Concentrate”; we watch him, alone at last with the desired object, sensuously postpone his pleasure, turning the volume over in his hands, glancing through the jacket copy, while the author, also watching, approves, up to a point: “Of course, this circling of the book,…this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure,…but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimum duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.” This should be a hint of what is to follow: consummation withheld—a series of beginnings, ten to be exact, ten novels that break off just as they are getting interesting, ten cunningly regulated instances of coitus interruptus in the art and practice of fiction.
From the start, from the very first lines, like a barely heard alarm-bell, “the new Calvino” induces slight anxiety in the Reader preparing himself to recognize the “unmistakable tone” of the author—one of the small initial sensations, highly pleasurable, of opening a volume by an author one already knows. But now the awaited sensation fails to materialize: this new one does not read like a Calvino. There seems to be no connection with any of his others. Nonetheless the Reader persists, swallowing his first disappointment. In one who is hooked on the potent old drug, the …