How is it possible to defeat not the authors but the functions of the author, the idea that behind each book there is someone who guarantees a truth in that world of ghosts and inventions by the mere fact of having invested in it his own truth, of having identified himself with that construction of words?I'm reading Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, what I'm told is an experimental postmodernist novel. The novel is built around a couple of formal conceits, one being that chapters alternate between the story of a reader trying to find a complete copy of the book he's begun to read but who is frustrated and encounters instead the opening chapters of nine other novels (which are found in the alternating chapters). Metaphors of Ulysses' voyage or Dante's trip through the circles of Hell can be easily applied here, especially if you take into consideration the trope of the protagonist pursuing a love interest. Let's not forget the Scheherazade angle, either. So it's clever, is what this novel is.
In brief, this is the story of a reader who picks up the latest novel by Italo Calvino, a book called If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and begins reading, only to discover that he is not reading a book by Italo Calvino. If On a Winter's Night a Traveler is by someone else, an author the reader has never heard of. Well, that's fine, the reader thinks, it's a pretty good novel. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the book: parts of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler have been bound with parts of a different novel, and it's impossible to finish If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. At this point, a reader might think of ETA Hoffman's Tomcat Muir. In any case, Outside the town of Malbork, the book that interrupts If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, seems pretty good, so the reader decides to read it instead. But Malbork is interrupted by a third novel, and so it goes, on and on as the reader attempts to finish any of the serial novels he comes across. After a while it becomes impossible to say who is the author of any of these books, and if any book has a "true" author once it's been processed through the machine of the publishing industry, about which Calvino appears to have some axes to grind.
So as well as being a novel that implies the fragmentary nature of reality and ridicules the artifice of fiction with self-contained constructions of reality and author-imposed order and closure, this is also a commentary on reading and writing and the publishing/academic worlds that surround books. A lot of ideas, and possibly there are too many things going on at once which may be deliberate on the part of Calvino, or it might just be sloppiness. I haven't decided, and if an author sets out to write a novel that illustrates the chaotic nature of reality, who am I to insist upon formal unity, right?
Alternatively, there are unities within the novel:
If on a winter's night a traveler, Outside the town of Malbork, Leaning from the steep slope, Without fear of wind or vertigo, Looks down in the gathering shadow, In a network of lines that enlace, In a network of lines that intersect, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, Around an empty grave, What story down there awaits its end?The paragraph above is constructed of the titles of the chapters with actual names, which alternate with numbered chapters. The titles seem to form a story, a kind of logical internal frame for the entire work Calvino presents us. A novel is a machine the produces possibilities, not endings. A novel is not a closed system, it is a gaze outward or inward or both, a network of lines that enlace and intersect.