A Study in Second Person: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
You, the reader, think that no one can sustain a second-person point of view novel, however you are proved wrong by Italo Calvino. You feel like a snowball when you read the novel, going downhill, picking up momentum and girth, and then when you’re at the bottom you flatten the Reader and they never knew what hit them. But it goes beyond that – into a realm you’ve never explored before—the metafiction that makes you puzzle about the stylistic choices of the writer and the relationship between fiction and reality and you begin to question your own existence because you may be living in the Matrix.
There are two “you’s” in this novel. The first you is you the reader. Calvino writes: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought” (3). From the beginning, the novel is sink-worthy, the you loves it because the author is talking directly to you and you’re not quite sure what to make of that. You can’t help it, you dive in. After all, Calvino says, “Well, what are you waiting for” (3). Then the other “you” comes into play—the male protagonist shows up and is the other you (25). Every other paragraph has dots and hearts and stars beside it indicating your level of entertainment.
But a book entirely about “you” and for “you could be taxing. Calvino shores up the novel by involving different novels as story blocks and jumping-off points which involve “you” the male protagonist (and by extension you the reader) in the plot. The first such instance is the second half of chapter one—If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (10). Calvino made you comfortable with the introductory section and now he’s bringing you into the mood of the piece, replete with “befogged glass” and a line about “the pages of a book [which] are clouded like the windows of an old train” (10). You can’t help but be charmed by the enticing language and mystery of the setting. You almost miss the idea that you’re supposed to be reading a novel and you’re not quite sure what the novel is about yet.
Calvino continues the back-and-forth from chapters to book excerpts and you get frustrated when you realize—along with you the protagonist—that you aren’t going to get the whole book and are just as frustrated as he is when he can’t track down the rest of the book excerpt. But you don’t do as the you-protagonist does, “You fling the book on the floor” (26), instead you see the enticing words in the next chapter. You keep reading. The hilarious moment hits you when you are reading the next page:
You can’t wait to get your hands on a nondefective copy of the book you’ve begun. You would rush to the bookshop at once if shops were not closed at this hour. You have to wait until tomorrow. (27)
It’s hilarious because it’s after midnight and you’re wondering if this book is like that strange Russian novel you read last with half the pages upside down. You are so concerned, you email a friend who lives in England who you know read the book and ask if this is normal. You almost throw the novel out the window when she says yes, this is a real copy and you should just shut up and keep reading. You hate it when she’s right. You plug along. You read a delicious line which must have taken Calvino a month to write: “The novel you are reading wants to present to you a corporeal world, thick, detailed” (42). You secretly wish to poke his eyes out with a fork because that’s all you’ve ever wanted from a novel and he hit the nail on the head and doesn’t bang his thumb like you do when you write these sentences.
Then you continue along the journey with you-the-protagonist and realize you’ve been in almost every situation he has been in and especially when he gets lost at the university while waiting for Ludmilla and “nobody knows the department you are looking for” (47) just as you are “lost in the book with white pages, unable to get out of it” (47). You keep reading, you’re hooked and cannot go to sleep. You giggle until your roommate tells you to be quite after reading a reference to Slaughterhouse-Five on page 80 and then go back and forth between the books to see which was published first. Then you realize your copy of Slaughterhouse-five was borrowed by a friend who hasn’t returned it and you go online to the library website and borrow the Kindle version just to see the print date. Your copy of Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969 and reprinted in 1997. You flip to the copyright page of Calvino’s book, which was published in 1979 and translated in 1981. You are vindicated and feel even more like the protagonist in the novel because like him, you are a researching Goddess. You give yourself a mental thumbs-up and go back to reading. You wonder what other Eggs are hidden in the novel. You’re too tired, but promise to look in the morning. And then you see a reference to Homer (101) and you realize you wish you had thought of doing that—you love finding Easter eggs in literature and if you do, other readers like you would like it too. You think about changing your entire novel tonight, but then you are slightly depressed when you realize you are not Calvino and your novel is not If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. You read.
You stumble, as the you-protagonist does, on a line that makes the world stop: “you can waste hours looking for the right place to burn up a corpse” (105). You have never actually done it, but you realize if the police, significant other, or mother looks at your research history on your laptop you would be in serious trouble…the FBI would start a file on you if they haven’t already. Then you realize it is out of your control and there is no other evidence…you log on and delete your browser history before you stumble back to your reading chair with a cup of coffee and the novel, gulping both, until the protagonist’s story ends.
5 Stars. Calvino is amazing. Please read his work – he’s fantastic and can teach us so much!
Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. William Weaver, trans. New York: Harcourt,
Inc. 1981. Print.