Writer’s Authority, Reader’s Autonomy in Italo Calvino’s "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller"

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2012

29 Pages, Grade: 1.0




What happens when Readers take over?

Praise for the ‘natural’ Reader/Criticism of Academic Reading

Narrative Strategy: Desire and Frustration of Readers’ Expectations

Textual Play: Reflections on Literature and Language

Last Page: Where authorial Control ends

Projection of the Author: Silas Flannery

Critique of the Culture Industry

Power of Literature versus Poverty of Language




In a close reading of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1981), Mariolina Salvatori examines how Calvino’s meditation on writer's authority versus reader's autonomy – understood as a battle between production and consumption of text or, in common parlance, the experience and difficulties of writing a novel opposite reading one – influences our understanding of the text. Focussing on how framing devices affect the reading of the novel as a whole, Salvatori poses pertinent questions about readers’ autonomy. The following essay follows up on her insights and proposes that within the novel is buried a stringent critique of postmodern theories, especially deconstructionism, that dominated literary discourse in the nineteen-seventies.[1] At that time, postmodern theory stressed the role of the reader and critics assumed that reading creates meaning from the text, independent from writerly intention. If texts are said to have no inherent meaning, there follows the extreme conclusion that any text can mean anything, depending on the manner in which it is read.

One argument for reading Calvino’s novel in this manner is still prevalent: embedded in a novelty form of fictional arrangement, the book is preoccupied with the metaphysical struggle for dominance between supposedly antagonistic forces: readers and writers; literature and literary industry. By putting the case for each side, Calvino implicitly questions who is ‘master’ and who is ‘slave’ in the production and consumption of texts. Considering the importance of the role of the reader in the interpretation of a text that constitutes meaning, it seems that Calvino deliberately adopts the position of a decentred authorial role under the post-structuralist premise that his influence has been reduced to that of a ‘scriptor’.[2]

Following the postmodern transformation of an "authorial self" into a "textual self", the novel explores the relationships between readers, writers, their books and the ideas they engender, however ludicrous or possessive those ideas might play out. The plot is driven by the meditation on the nature of reading as much as on the nature of writing. By use of juxtaposition, Calvino ironically explores extreme opposing positions in the spectrum of reading and different groups of readers’ expectations toward texts. Extremist attitudes regarding the production and consumption of books form the basis of an exploration of the general suggestion that there has been a reduction in the authority of the literary author. The ability of a writer to seduce and manipulate readers through a tightly controlled narrative strategy is examined to assess the extent of a reader’s autonomy. As a writer of fiction whose fiction is clearly about the writing of fiction, Calvino uses game-playing within the aegis of meta-fiction to demonstrate writers’ ability to exercise control by destabilizing text and confusing readers.

The novel’s ostensibly postmodern technique to allude to its own fictionality creates uncertainty about the role of the author when Calvino refers to himself throughout the novel and constructs multiple reflections of himself in the novel: The self-torturing fictional novelist Silas Flannery is preoccupied with writing the one true book that would eclipse all other books; the devious translator Ermes Marana creates works of pastiche, books confusing and false, in which each story would merely serve to lead into the next. Both characters contain elements of writers’ desire to exercise complete control over their creations as well as writers’ anxiety when faced with readers’ expectations.

Calvino is as fascinated by the process of storytelling as by the story itself and the novel is a triumphant vindication of the power of storytelling to negotiate `reality'. The conventions of romance and detective story structure the metafictional plot; they are the main themes that seduce readers to follow the quest of the two protagonists: the unnamed “Reader” searches for the book that he wants to finish reading, which soon overlaps with his search for the attractive “Other Reader,” Ludmilla. At the very end of the novel, Calvino presents the apparent situation of a benevolent offer of reassurance to his readership – an offer which ostensibly could only be made if the writer were in full control of readers’ motivations, their desire and anticipation for the text.

The connection between literature as a powerful humanistic enterprise that reflects reality, and reality as a construction of literature, are questions that Calvino explores. Arguing that the author still has the power to control readers’ responses and reactions to the novel, this essay investigates Calvino’s playful interrogation into the dichotomy between reader and writer and tries to determine on the basis of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: “Who is Master and who is Slave?”

What happens when Readers take over?

The novel is an extended contemplation on how and why the act of reading should be privileged over the act of writing, but Calvino also presents a struggle against the dispossessing of authorial role. He considers the premise that texts can only come into being if and when they are read and moreover, if in the act of reading the reader’s interpretation dominates over the writer’s intention. A character in the novel, Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, understands books as a threshold to the beyond in the minds of readers:

Reading [...] is always this: a thing that is there, a thing made of writing, a solid, material object, which cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead.[3]

But meaning in books has to be mediated by a sign-system: words make up the very nature of language. An intrinsic feature of language-signs is that the signifier and the signified are never in accordance, which invariably results in the destabilization of any fixed meaning intended by the writer; signs never settle on a final meaning, but keep connecting with each other, endlessly. Words, therefore, are empty signifiers; their only meaning lies in their difference to other words such that meaning that is constantly deferred.

In the Derridian sense, meaning is limited to différance, a neologism, which “joins the spatial notion of difference with the temporal notion of deferral.[4] Consequently, the meaning of a text remains open to various possible, including conflicting readings; texts can be read in different contexts irrespective of what the intention of the writer may have been. The act of reading, as a unique personal experience, results in each reader becoming the author of his/her own text, in which perceived meaning is different from that of any other reading. Furthermore, with each re-reading the reader is able to produce a different perceived meaning. Calvino confirms the primacy of reading in this process when he states that “any written text must submit to reading, an act that distorts as well as integrates, creates as well as reflects; ... the reader becomes the author of a new and different text.”[5] The dynamic of the reading process shows the transformative power of readers whereby, every time a text is read, it is simultaneously rewritten, with the effect that “one literature differs from another, past or future, less because of the text than for the way it is read” (Weiss 133). This is corroborated in a sense by Calvino himself, who, upon the publication of the English edition of his novel in 1981, stated that his original intention was to write “a book in which the reader would not be reading the text of a novel, but a description of the act of reading per se” (Weiss 168). The depth and proliferation of reflection on the act of reading forces the reader of WN constantly to readjust to different perspectives, situations, indeed different texts, as the novel continually changes from one narrative to another. The act of reading becomes itself the principal subject matter of the novel, and its most sustained narrative charts the developing love affair of the Reader and the Other Reader. “This multiplication of ‘the Reader’,” writes Docherty, “(and the confusion of the character of the Reader with ‘real’ readers of the text) is an analogue of what happens to characterization in postmodern narrative generally.”[6] In short, postmodern characterization breaks down the implicit assumption that there is a definable relationship between Self and Other, between readers and characters.

Just as there is not a single definition of reading, only possible definitions, the novel gives a comprehensive spectrum: The seven readers in the library form an encyclopaedia on the art of reading. They exemplify the variety of possible readership with different expectations from and responses to texts. Some of these readers emphasize the importance of reading a text more than once – a literary device with which Calvino stresses the act of reading as an individual process: One reader says “I read and reread, each time seeking the confirmation of a new discovery among the folds of the sentences,” whilst another one states that “at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book for the first time” (WN 255). Reading constantly engages the reader with the text and the reader’s role in the creation of meaning increases to such an extent that, according to Weiss, Calvino suggests that “the reader more than the writer is the real author of books; the author is replaceable, the reader is not” (133) – a statement of degree, which refutes the passive reader and active writer dichotomy. Calvino does not pass judgment on these seven ways of reading but shows doubts about the traditional view that the writer’s role must necessarily be regarded as the superior one.

As an example of post-structuralist writing, Calvino follows Roland Barthes’s notion that the concept of author as the prime authority has been made obsolete by the power of the reader. Building on the premise that the function of the author is limited to that of a mediator, Calvino is then able to take a closer interest in the narrator, in the reader, and in the abilities of language to create different levels of reality. According to post-structuralist theory, the author has been succeeded by the ‘scriptor’ for whom “writing consists no longer in narrating but in saying that one is narrating, and what one says becomes identified with the very act of saying.”[7] Calvino’s self-conscious role of ‘scriptor’ mirrors the self-consciousness of his readers, who are aware that they are reading about reader(s). By replacing the psychological person with a linguistic entity, defined solely by his/her place in the discourse, Calvino creates a new category of readership with the role of protagonist also being assigned to the reader, an unstable position with the possibility that “at times the actual reader may coincide or may not coincide with the person addressed by the narrator; at times they are distinct, synonymous, or overlapping” (Weiss 169). The result is that the reader finds him/herself functioning implicitly as an element of the narrative situation, at once outside and inside.

However, even as early as in the first two chapters, Calvino actually stresses his role as creator by referring several times to himself as the author of WN: he invites the reader to participate in a game of detection: to “recognize the unmistakable tone of the author,” (WN 9) he refers to authorial “intentions” and “virtuoso tricks,” (WN 25) and on page 28, mentions his own name, in the context of author, no less than three times. This insistence on his authorial presence vis-à-vis the reader suggests that the idea of the absence of the author must not be taken too much at face-value. In fact, the author exerts his controlling influence throughout the novel. Calvino’s argumentation for the process of reading being superior to the process of writing is a deliberate self-defeating paradox, because he uses a written text to validate reading as supreme over writing, whilst writing is the essential means used to rank reading above that text .

Praise for the ‘natural’ Reader/Criticism of Academic Reading

To explore how far the autonomy of readers can extend, Calvino considers two diametrically opposed reading positions:

Firstly, with his tongue in his cheek, he detects submissive impulses in some readers – an example is Ludmilla, the ‘Other Reader’ – who seek less interaction with the text, but rather look for enjoyment by passive consumption of stories. On the first pages of the novel, Calvino tells us that reading is pleasurable; it is an activity of protected time, space, and consciousness: "having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read" (WN 3). Furthermore, it is an activity that places trust in the author to enchant and to promise deliverance from boredom: "this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn't serious" (WN 4). Ludmilla’s preferences for different types of texts are fluid, but each can only be gratified by an author and Calvino immediately responds to her wishes by successively introducing incipits as examples of the genre she would most like to read. Ludmilla’s desire to let the narrator take over control reaffirms authorial power, with her open-minded anticipation of entertainment further reducing the level of any claim of reader’s independence. Calvino presents his ideal reader as one whose disposition should consist of total immersion in a text, which, in the case of Ludmilla, means “stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice …” (WN 239). With her display of explicit compliance, Calvino adds support to the idea of the author’s function being the ultimate guarantor for reader’s fulfilment.

Secondly, is the position of Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, who shows a completely opposite view regarding the purposes of reading. Lotaria's deconstructive approach appears as a negative example, showing what can happen when theorizing and critical commentary violate the text and attempt to conform any meaning to interpretive practices. The notion of the author as the privileged transmitter of meaning becomes thus eroded and any textual authority is subverted. In her university study group, Lotaria subjects texts to a thorough analysis “according to all Codes, Conscious and Unconscious, and in which all Taboos are eliminated, the ones imposed by the dominant Sex, Class, and Culture,” (WN 45) in order to extract hidden ideological meanings. Calvino’s use of Lotaria, who studies literature as political data, also overtly ridicules academia, with its selective use of texts in a variety of conceptual discourses, as a fashionable intellectual approach intended to limit reading for the critic’s own ends, which, ironically, would leave behind nothing more than “pages lacerated by intellectual analyses” (WN 92). Lotaria sees text as "codes" which must be analysed by "dehumanizing" the text through a series of pattern recognition; she has no interest in reading per se. Her efforts to substitute both readers and writers with computer-based text-production and -analysis are Calvino’s sarcastic criticism of all forms of intellectual misuses that would undermine literature’s basic function as an intrinsic humanistic enterprise .

In contrast to Lotaria’s clinical dissection stands Ludmilla’s sensuous approach. She reads for enjoyment and seeks pleasure: “The novels that attract me most, are those that create an illusion of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure, cruel, and perverse as possible” (WN 192). She is an insatiable reader who demands constant change and, although she likes to read several books at once, in order to avoid being caught by the disappointment that any story might cause her, she is not only continually dissatisfied with her reading, but is also desperately searching for an impossible literary accomplishment in the form of a book which she describes as the one “that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world” (WN 243). This search for a text that could encompass everything and transcend the world clearly goes beyond the possibility of what literature can achieve and only to a limited degree does Calvino go along with Ludmilla and her preparedness to be completely subservient to the writer. Her constant, insatiable desire for a new book, an ever better book, or the ultimate book, goes clearly beyond the capability of any author.

Narrative Strategy: Desire and Frustration of Readers’ Expectations

WN is concerned with structure, with the act and art of storytelling. Calvino uses a narrative strategy which acts as a game of seducing readers’ expectations with the promise for a complete text that, in reality, remains elusive throughout and even after the finish of the book. By stepping outside the conventional narrative frames, the narrative voice abuses the reader's confidence in traditional narrative authority and manipulates him/her to adopt a new perspective on reading. Calvino deliberately frustrates readers’ essential search for the original and complete novel, by first tempting them with tantalizing beginnings and then breaking each one off at climactic points. The novel has a mise-en-abyme structure, an endless play of signifiers and frames. Each chapter veers off into another narrative which interrupts the previous one, obeying Ludmilla's desire for a novel that "should have as its driving force only the desire to narrate, to pile stories upon stories" (WN 92). This reader-driven wish is granted by the author in the ludic play of ten disrupted narratives.


[1] Joe Moffett writes that “Calvino met a number of members of French philosophical and literary circles such as the theorists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, as well as members of the experimental groups Tel Quel and Oulipo. The influence of the literary theories of the time, particularly the work on narrative by Barthes and the ideas of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure on the "sign' (the word and that to which it refers), would inform Calvino's thinking and writing.”

[2] In his 1977 essay “The Death of the Author”, Roland Barthes claimed that “Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred."

[3] Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1981), trans. William Weaver (London: Vintage-Random, 1998) 72. Further references will be given in the text as WN

[4] Jacques Derrida’s “différance” builds on the idea that words can only have meaning because they are different from other words, an idea developed firstly by Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes. At the same time, a word’s meaning is constantly being deferred to other words and meanings, for example, if someone were asked what a word meant they would answer by using other words. Meaning is always unstable because of the very nature of language.

[5] Beno Weiss, Understanding Italo Calvino, (Colombia: U of South Carolina P, 1993) 168.

[6] Thomas Docherty, Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996) 57.

[7] Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature, (Orlando: Harcourt, 1986) 7.

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Writer’s Authority, Reader’s Autonomy in Italo Calvino’s "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller"
Durham University
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ISBN (Book)
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Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night, deconstruction, signifier, signified, role of the reader, role of the author, postmodern, Derrida, differance, Roland Barthes, post-structuralist, narrative strategy, ontological confusion, death of the author
Quote paper
Dr. Sabine Mercer (Author), 2012, Writer’s Authority, Reader’s Autonomy in Italo Calvino’s "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/431158


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