“Oh, no, I write,” he answered; “it’s now, only now that I write, since I have been watching her. I do nothing but follow the reading of that woman, seen from here, day by day, hour by hour. I read in her face what she desires to read, and I write it faithfully.”
“Too faithfully,” Marana interrupts him, icily. “As translator and representative of the interests of Bertrand Vandervelde, author of the novel that woman is reading, Looks down in the gathering shadow, I warn you to stop plagiarizing it!”
Flannery turns pale; a single concern seems to occupy his mind: “Then, according to you, that reader . . . the books she is devouring with such passion are novels by Vandervelde? I can’t bear it. . . .”
Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a collection of broken-off novel openings threaded together by a narrative about a frustrated, second-person Reader making his way deeper and deeper into an absurdist conspiracy whose goal seems to be to reduce all works of fiction to broken-off openings, for the purposes of fostering a state of perpetual political upheaval. It’s at the same time the most blatant and the most guileful work of metafiction I’ve ever read, and the fact that I didn’t just give up reading after the third aborted cliffhanger in a row is a testament to the power of Calvino’s stylistic virtuosity. Every time, my annoyance at having vested myself in a set of characters and then been yanked out of their narrative is outweighed by my desire to get drawn into the next set of characters—I’d rather read another broken-off Calvino opening than a complete one by anybody else. Especially since every new story is written in a slightly different style from the last, though they move in what almost seems a logical progression, and all treat with similar themes centered around the problem of attempting to immerse oneself in the life and story of a stranger.
Every one of these novel openings includes some kind of love triangle—sometimes several—with varying degrees of metaphorical and literal desire. The framing narrative has at least four. We get a variety of settings and situations: academia, war, revolution, political intrigue, idleness, religion, crime. And the really enlightening thing, the lesson I take away in terms of how to go about accomplishing this sort of thing in my own writing, is the opportunity to observe what changes and what stays the same between openings, how much variety he can pull off when in fact altering relatively little.
“Alex Zinnober,” I introduce myself. “I don’t know if I can be called a lieutenant. In our regiment, ranks have been abolished, but orders change all the time. For the moment, I’m a soldier with two stripes on his sleeves, that’s all.”
“I’m Irina Piperin, as I was also before the revolution. For the future, I don’t know. I used to design fabrics, and as long as there’s a shortage of cloth, I’ll make designs for the air.”
“With the revolution, there are people who change so much they become unrecognizable, and other people who feel they are the same selves as before. It must be a sign that they were prepared in advance for the new times. Is that the case?”
She makes no reply. I add, “Unless it’s their total rejection that preserves them from changes. Is that your situation?”
“I . . . You tell me first: how much do you think you have changed?”
“Not much. I realize I have retained certain points of honor from before: catch a woman about to fall, for example, even if nowadays nobody says thank you.”
“We all have moments of weakness, women and men, and it isn’t impossible, Lieutenant, that I may have an opportunity to return your kindness of a moment ago.”
How does the dialogue contribute to all this? Aside from the fact that it is uniquely occupied with the question of understanding and the perpetual incompleteness of understanding, desire and the impossibility of completely achieving of desire, Calvino’s dialogue does what good dialogue does in other strongly-themed, character-driven stories that do have endings and middles. Which is to say, at least two things at once: develops character; shows us facets of the central idea, interpretations, to which we would otherwise not have been exposed; illustrates desire and the obstacles, both internal and external, to achieving that desire. At times it provides or withholds information for purposes of building suspense or furthering plot—and there is a surprising level of suspense throughout, considering every plot is aborted in its infancy.
“Cimmerian books are all unfinished,” Uzzi-Tuzii sighs, “because they continue beyond . . in the other language, in the silent language to which all the words we believe we read refer. . . .”
“Believe . . . Why believe? I like to read, really to read.” It is Ludmilla who is speaking like this, with conviction and warmth. She is seated opposite the professor, dressed in a simple, elegant fashion, in light colors. Her way of living in the world, filled with interest in what the world can give her, dismisses the egocentric abyss of the suicide’s novel that ends by sinking into itself. In her voice you seek the confirmation of your need to cling to the things, to read what is written and nothing else, dispelling the ghosts that escape your grasp. (Even if your embrace—confess it—occurred only in your imagination, it is still an embrace that can happen at any moment. . . .)