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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.

Thus the Cimbrian or possibly Cimmerian novel by Ukko Ahti was really the so-called Polish novel or can it be vice versa? This impudent sleight of hand, these brazen impostures might have gone on till infinity had it not finally appeared that the swindler did not know a word of those languages; he had merely inserted some appropriate proper names in a trashy text entitled Looks down in the gathering shadow that he had plagiarized from a little-known Belgian author, Bertrand Vandervelde. As a proof of confidence, Mr. Cavedagna offers the Reader photocopies of the opening pages of the real French text to look through in the office. It is a gangland story, a novel of the milieu; the “I” or reader-surrogate is a retired mobster who has gone into the tropical-fish business in the Parisian banlieue and is at present having a hard time disposing of the dead body of “Jojo,” a former associate.

We are now at the sixth chapter, almost halfway through. These numbered chapters, which at first seemed to be mere bridges leading to the narratives proper, are growing longer and more substantial, generating a suspense of their own, spinning their own plot. Around the Reader and the Other Reader, an independent cast of characters has been assembling: the two professors, Lotaria and her Amazons, Mr. Cavedagna, and now, just when he was needed, a villain, the traduttore-traditore of ancient ill repute, Ermes Marana, whose first name seems to link him with the god of thieves. And in the wake of the villain, coolly introduced by him in a series of letters to the publishing house, appears the mythic hero, a Celt of superhuman stature.

Meet Silas Flannery, author of innumerable best sellers that girdle the globe; a Zeus of the realm of book-production; legitimate successor to the old titan, creator of James Bond; at present residing on a mountaintop in Switzerland, in the grip of a majestic writing block, on a scale suitable to his fame and his royalties as well as the Alpine scenery. This sun-like figure’s momentary (it is hoped) eclipse is spreading grief and terror among publishers, agents, banks, advertising firms, sponsors of the brands of liquor to be drunk by his characters, the fashions they are to wear, the tourist spots they are to visit, all stipulated by contract and now in jeopardy. Not solely the powerful giants of the West but the infant economies of small developing countries expecting to be “put on the map” by a brief stopover of the old Irish author’s imaginative progeny on their beaches or coral reefs. As in the case of Demeter grieving for Persephone, a whole world or, rather, industry is in mourning for the stricken creator who does nothing but write in a diary and observe through a spyglass a young woman in a deck chair on a terrace at the bottom of the valley who is reading a book.

Our first acquaintance with Silas Flannery (other than the gossip relayed by Ermes) is made through a text, In a network of lines that enlace The “I” of the narrative is an elderly jogger, a visiting professor at an unnamed university who, if I am not mistaken, has some of the lineaments of Nabokov’s Kinbote. It is only a shadow, though, as one might say “Shades of Charles Kinbote,” or, as the words “Belgian,” “Bernadette,” “Jojo,” in conjunction with the previous narrative, make one wonder whether a cloud called Simenon has not passed overhead. There is no question, I repeat, of parodies here. There are faint resemblances, delicate reminders, some so evanescent that they cannot be pinned down to any one author or even school (Why do I sense that Ukko Ahti has something to do with Hungarian literature or just with the way Hungarians talk about Hungarian literature?), while others, for instance the Japanese novel, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, do seem to represent a whole distinct class of book. That “magic” effect, however, as Calvino (the real one) modestly lets us see, is produced by the manipulation of certain key words such as ginkgo tree, moon, waterlily, leaves, and certain stage properties such as suki-yaki and the kimono.

In general, though, what we are offered is ten volatile distillations of the novelistic essence bottled in ten diverse scent-containers. The little narratives are evocative in the same way as the white butterfly that flies across the valley from the book page the young woman is reading to alight on the page Silas Flannery is writing. What makes the white butterfly so poignant? What does it evoke? Literature, I suppose, because it is softly telling us that it is an author’s device, a symbol; we are given an almost stolen glimpse of the author putting in a symbol. But, beyond symbolizing a symbol, it also evokes the errant, fluttery nature of communication, the perishability of message and messenger (it is an ephemerid), and conceivably the old lepidopterist, Nabokov, still haunting the Swiss peaks and valleys where he spent his last years, yet if there is such an allusion it is less an omaggio dell’autore than a smiling acknowledgment of a presence.

A presence that in my opinion is wrongly evoked in connection with Italo Calvino, even though I have just been guilty of doing so, led on by the white butterfly. In the first place, I cannot escape the feeling that Calvino is no admirer of Nabokov, who likes to treat the reader as an adversary in a one-way hide-and-seek game. In the second place, I can see no influences at all at work on “the new Calvino,” even of writers he has quoted admiringly in his critical prose, no literary genetic imprint, no trace of Borges, for example; if there is a hereditary line to be found, it winds back, surely, to the Orient, where all tales come from. There is an overall congeniality with Queneau, but that is a matter of a shared playfulness, on the one hand, and a shared interest, on the other, in the possibility of literature as a semi-mathematical science, with laws to be detected.

In any case, we get to know Silas Flannery through the narrative of the old jogger, and, when we get to know him in person in Chapter 8, which is composed of extracts from his diary, we can distinguish autobiographical elements, quite recent ones, in In a network of lines that enlace having to do with “for-getting himself” in the presence of young women. And this in turn allows us to distinguish the real Silas Flannery from the false one; there are two sets of pages signed with his name, the second, In a network of lines that intersect, being the handiwork of his devilish counterfeiter, Ermes Marana.

When we examine the counterfeit, a curious literary phenomenon comes to light. If embarrassing autobiographical elements, creeping into the first fragment, seem to vouch for its authenticity, the counterfeit reveals itself as such in a not dissimilar fashion: the personality of its true author has “bled” into the work, which is volubly preoccupied with kaleidoscopes, with the “polydyptic theatre” (in which numerous small mirrors lining a large box turn a bough into a forest, a lead soldier into an army, and so on), and finally with a financial empire based on catoptrics, i.e., done with mirrors. In these involuntary revelations we are encountering the phenomenon known to medicine as ecchymosis (to use a Calvino-like word): an oozing of blood into the tissues as the result of a bruise. In other words, the wound and the bow. Ermes Marana’s obsession with the dark arts of imitation, seeping into In a network of lines that intersect, betrays it as a forgery, just as in the old jogger’s fragment a misfired pass made at a girl student proves it (unless we have to do with a very clever and knowledgeable copyist), to be a genuine Flannery. Thus a work can be “read” as an Identikit portrait of the author lurking inside it, unaware of giving himself away.

Of course there is nothing really new here. This kind of literary detection was initiated many years ago by Miss Caroline Spurgeon, who was the first to count the images in Shakespeare’s plays, paving the way for a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s own image (“Others abide our question, Thou smilest and art still”) as a deep, fathomless person. And it was early in the century when Freud induced Leonardo to betray his secret. These are all modes of “reading” that many of our contemporaries vastly prefer to the older “passive” kind. Lotaria, as a matter of fact, is still working the Spurgeon territory, drawing up lists of words used in a given novel or group of novels in order of the frequency of their occurrence; her computer has proved invaluable to her in her labors, whose purpose is to catalogue novels in terms of atmosphere, mood, social background, and so on, thereby eliminating the wastefulness inherent in traditional reading habits. She is writing her thesis on Flannery, who finds himself unnerved by the prospect, unable to write a word in case it be “counted” against him by the electronic brain.

Meanwhile, in the seventh chapter, we have come upon a fresh kind of reading. The Reader, invited by Ludmilla to wait for her at her apartment, is seen “reading” the apartment in order to read Ludmilla. Nothing of course is more common. Who has not “read” a house, a set of bookshelves, a medicine cabinet, in the owner’s absence? It is true that the objects in Ludmilla’s house—or anyone else’s—are “elements of a discourse.” But with this reading of Ludmilla’s house something different is starting to happen. This is at once felt by the pronouns, which suddenly shift places. Here at Ludmilla’s, the “You” familiarly addressed is no longer the Reader; it is Ludmilla. “Calvino” is now speaking to her directly, over the head of the Reader, who has become a “he,” that is, almost an intruder. And this reversal of the pronouns presages another, sweeter event. Before you can say Jack Robinson, they are in bed together, having metamorphosed into a “You,” second-person plural, a single two-headed “Voi,” two young heads on a pillow. And now half this plural is “reading” Ludmilla’s body, her fleshly envelope, as, before she came home, for want of better, he was reading every crevice of the container that is her apartment. And Ludmilla is reviewing his body but more cursorily “as if skimming the index.” The plot has thickened.

Separation, naturally, follows. He travels to Switzerland to find Silas Flannery. We learn of his visit from entries in Flannery’s diary—another mold in which the novel may be cast; we have already had the epistolary form in Marana’s letters to the publisher. From the diary, too, we learn of another of Marana’s diabolical machinations—his arrangement with a Japanese combine to pirate Silas Flannery’s complete works. Not exactly pirate, though—copy the model, using native workmanship. As Marana has explained to the old writer, “the great skill of the Japanese in manufacturing perfect facsimiles of Western products has spread to literature.” Without revealing his own part in the fraud, he shows Flannery a book signed “Flannery” that Flannery has never written; a firm in Osaka has managed to get hold of the formula. Now the flood of imitations re-translated—or, rather, translated—into English will be indistinguishable from his personal output.

It is a nice touch that the Japanese novel that takes up the next pages should be, if not a perfect facsimile, at least a fair imitation, plausible enough to pass inspection in a drugstore paperback rack. Only two more samples remain to be exhibited. The Reader and the Other Reader after a number of vicissitudes are about to be reunited. We readers have seen pass in review, like a series of floats, to our cries of delight and recognition, a parade of the types and varieties of narrative experience, many of them in native costume with flags borne by persons having names like Ponko and Arkadian Porphyrich.

It is better than a parade. It is a Summa fictionis of scholastic rigor and, like all glorious codifications of divine mysteries, it has to do with love. The act of reading, when finally consummated, is seen to be parallel to the act of love. And at the same time, lest the foregoing seem too awesome for a book so sweet-natured and shyly merry, there is something here suggestive of an old-fashioned small-town garage (maybe an old Fiat place) with a car inside that has the hood up and a jack or so underneath. An inventor in a white coat, the top mechanic, is lovingly tinkering with it, tuning the engine and listening like a doctor. Just about every part of it is worn out and begging for replacement. It is a lovely piece of junk. And yet when the inventor shuts down the hood and takes his place at the wheel of the contraption, removing his white coat (or maybe he is wearing a white short-sleeved jump suit), it actually moves, responding to the slightest touch of the accelerator pedal. And what does it run on? I think that must be suspense, an organic natural product that nobody, not even (so far) our inventor, can tell us much about. If I can try to read his mind, I guess that written down there is the idea that it has some connection with sex.

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