I recently finished Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, in William Weaver’s translation. It’s a novel about trying to read a novel of that name by Italo Calvino–a difficult and even perilous task, since the book is constantly being mixed up with others, stolen, or fraudulantly exchanged. Ten of the chapters are the beginnings of novels that the protagonist (“you”) try to read, hoping that they are continuations of what you have read so far. Each is a parody of a particular type of literature and a genuinely suspenseful story that breaks off just when your interest is most aroused.
Calvino’s writing has an aspect that I have never seen before, although it could be viewed as a radical extension of “free indirect discourse.” That is the technique of describing something in the omniscient third person, but in such a way that it seems to take on the perspective and language of a character within the book. A famous example from Austen’s Emma:
She had ventured once alone to Randalls, but it was not pleasant; and a Harriet Smith, therefore, one whom she could summon at any time to a walk, would be a valuable addition to her privileges. But in every respect as she saw more of her, she approved of her, and was confirmed in all her kind designs.
Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, graceful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by anyone she looked up to. Her early attachment to herself was very amiable; and her inclination for good company and power of appreciating what was elegant and clever, shewed that there was no want of taste, though strength of understanding must not be expected. Altogether she was quite convinced of Harriet Smith’s being exactly the young friend she wanted — exactly the something which her home required.
Literally, that is the narrator’s description of Harriet Smith mixed with some of Emma’s thoughts–but the two are inseparable. The whole narration is suffused with Emma’s voice. It is Emma, for example, who sees Harriet as “not clever.” Emma’s patronizing attitude is presented with delicious irony.
Calvino takes this technique a step further. He describes what books would be like if they told particular stories. He uses such descriptions of imaginary texts as a means of story-telling. Examples:
A fight scene from the chapter entitled “Outside the Town of Malbork (p. 39): “The page you’re reading should convey this violent contact of dull and painful blows, of fierce and lacerating responses; this bodiliness of using one’s own body against another body …” As you read about the description of a fight, you visualize the actual struggle–but through the eyes of a book that Calvino regards with irony.
From Calvino’s parody of Magical Realism entitled “Around and Empty Grave”: p. 225: “I pass through a series of places that ought to be more and more interior, whereas instead I find myself more and more outside; from one courtyard I move to another courtyard, as if in this palace all the doors served only for leaving and never for entering. The story should give the sense of disorientation in places that I am seeing for the first time but also places that have left in my memory not a recollection but a void.”
Calvino flagrantly violates the rule that writers should show and not tell. He tells us what the story is about and thereby narrates it.