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Acts of Love

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 urge to read is greater than the urge to read a Calvino.

In fact, as our marvelous storyteller fully demonstrates, the addict can n longer be choosy; we behold him at the mercy of his habit, suffering withdrawal symptoms when the supply is abruptly cut off, unable to break himself of the solitary practice, so easily fallen into, of letting his eyes run from left to right, then right to left on a swift diagonal, dropping down a line, and again left to right, back and forth across any bound sheets of printed white paper so long as order and serial pagination have been respected. And how little it takes, for example, to compel reader-identification with the pronoun “I” in a first-person narrative, no matter where it is supposed to be happening and amid what company—more and more, these days, no introductions are necessary. In the course of this short book “You” will identify yourself with a series of complete strangers, some of whom, like the fellow with the suitcase in the first novel, never even let you know their name and occupation.

As my reader has surely heard if he is tuned in to literary events, If on a winter’s night a traveler keeps turning into other novels, into, finally, nine successive polymorphs that break off at the point where the reader starts to feel real suspense as to what will happen next, the point where in an old movie serial the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks and the engine is coming steadily toward the viewer, who has to wait patiently for next week’s installment not to be sure of the worst. Ten short cliff-hangers (though in some cases the drop is modest), ten contemporary authors (counting the false Calvino), ten titles, ten manners somehow familiar to the ear but by no means parodistic. The confusion begins with a rather common binder’s error, always maddening to the innocent purchaser. By a duplication of “signatures,” as printer’s sheets of four or multiples of four are called, page 32 of If on a winter’s night, instead of going on to page 33, jumps back to page 17, repeating the sequence 17-32, and then, as really can happen, does it again, with the awful effect of eternity or of a stuck phonograph needle.

With the second chapter and the next morning, we are back in the bookstore; the Reader cannot wait to return his defective copy and have it replaced so that he can get on with the story. There, between two rows of bookshelves, among the Penguin Modern Classics, he meets the Other Reader, by name Ludmilla, who has come on the same errand. The bookseller has been telling her, and now he tells the Reader, that unfortunately the signatures of the Calvino book got mixed up at the binder’s with those of a Polish book, Outside the town of Malbork, by Tazio Bazakbal, so that the Calvino is being withdrawn temporarily from circulation with the publisher’s apologies. By luck, though, the bookseller, having checked his stock, finds he has a few sound copies of If on a winter’s night, which he can offer the two disappointed readers. But on the joint realization that it was the Polish book they had started on the previous night, they decline the Calvino. It is the Bazakbal they are now eager to finish.

The Reader goes home with the fresh volume, exhilarated by the thought that he will have a companion in his reading, with whom he can compare notes: he has taken her telephone number. The pages this time are uncut, and he arms himself with a paper knife to hack his way through the new obstacle to his impatience. But he has not advanced a page before it is evident that this is not the book he began yesterday. That one took place in a railroad station, and this one is on a farm, seemingly in central Europe. The style is quite different, too: the other was foggy; this is clear-cut and precise, each character being promptly defined by an attribute, such as gnawed nails, or an implement, like a butter curler, that they are handling.

It is the wrong book but it is a book. The Reader reads on. Soon the story begins to absorb him, even though the names of places and people do not sound particularly Polish, which is odd. And then, as his knife goes ahead mechanically cutting, far more swiftly than he is able to read, his eyes suddenly come upon two blank sheets. Then two printed pages. That is how the book continues: an alternation of blank pages and printed pages. Those binders again. And that is not all. The more he considers the bit he has read of Outside the town of Malbork, the more he is persuaded that it has nothing to do with Poland. The names of a river and a town and the consultation of an atlas suggest that it is set in a locality called Cimmeria, identified by Homer (Odyssey XI, 12-19) as a region of perpetual mist and darkness. And, as if this were not enough, when he telephones the Other Reader to hear whether her copy is the same, the voice that answers is different from hers. It is her sister speaking, a left-winger and feminist, named Lotaria.

There is no halting these metamorphoses; the book has taken on the extensible form of a telescope, with one part sliding into the next. Cimmerian, a modern language which has the distinction of being a dead language at the same time, is guarded by a mild dragon, Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, from infiltration by Cimbrian, spoken by a neighboring people who after the Second World War annexed Cimmeria and became the Cimbric People’s Republic. Outside the town of Malbork proves to really be Leaning from the steep slope, the masterpiece of Ukko Ahti, a Cimmerian author of the first quarter of the century. The fragment Professor Uzzi-Tuzii is reading aloud to the two Readers, translating from the original as he goes, is unfortunately all we possess of Ahti’s fictional work, so highly representative of Cimmerian literature. Upon finishing the first pages. the writer went into a deep depression and succeeded in taking his own life.

Now Professor Uzzi-Tuzii’s little sanctum, already overcrowded with books, is invaded by Lotaria, insisting that the writing is not Cimmerian but Cimbrian. Moreover it is not unfinished. The title was later changed, and it was signed with a different pseudonym, that of Vorts Viljandi, a “complex personality” who wrote in both tongues. At this very moment the entire work is scheduled for analysis and debate by Lotaria’s seminar on the feminist revolution, led by Uzzi-Tuzii’s rival, Professor Galligani. As Ludmilla and the Reader take their places at a classroom table, Lotaria is holding a bundle of manuscript, Without fear of wind or vertigo (the true, postrevolutionary title), from which she will read aloud to the study group in a German translation.

Like each earlier attempt, the session with Lotaria’s study group ends unsatisfactorily; as she cuts the reading short, to open the floor for discussion, she dismisses the Reader’s plea to look at the rest. “The rest?…. Oh, there’s enough material here to discuss for a month. Aren’t you satisfied?” Giving up on the University, the Reader decides to resort to the publisher of the initial defective volumes. There he is turned over to a Mr. Cavedagna, the house pacifier and problem-solver, a little man shrunken and bent, familiar with the complaints of the trade, who leaps to the natural conclusion that the Reader is a writer, whose problem he knows: “You’ve come about your manuscript?”

In his relief at finding a Reader, so rare nowadays, where he had feared a writer, more and more a drug on the market, the small Dickensian being, himself an escapee from a library shelf, becomes genuinely expansive; for once he can be an open book. Behind the unhappy mixup of the signatures, he explains, lay a villain of a translator, a certain Ermes Marana, doubling as a literary agent, who has been selling the firm a succession of specious foreign novels which he purports to have translated, covering his tracks when suspicion arises by a bewildering series of substitutions.

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