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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Italo Calvino

Writing is always to some degree about artifice. Even journalistic narrative is still an exercise in representation — wanting to represent truthfully, usually, but also wanting to represent artfully. Nobody wins a Pulitzer Prize for mere sequential exposition of facts; people win Pulitzers for artful arrangements of facts that show us some greater truth beyond the facts. All writing strives for it; some writing succeeds at it.

And in some writing, the artifice is more important than the story it tells. An Italian sonnet must be a sonnet. You can’t slip an extra line in if there’s something else you remembered that you wanted to say. The greatness of a successful sonnet is that it says what you wanted to say while adhering rigidly to a form that exists independently of the content.

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler works a bit like that. Calvino has a clever form that he’s created for himself. The challenge that he’s created is to try to tell a story within that form, such that the form becomes the story. It’s the sort of experiment upon which Calvino has built his literary reputation. As an experiment, it is clever — a book about a book that is never finished, but becomes a different story every time the reader picks it up. Calvino writes with the second-person pronoun, so ‘you’ are the protagonist, and ‘you’ are reading a book about the book that you’re reading.

While it is clever, I don’t know that it’s actually all that readable. It’s all form and so little story. The problem with the second-person narrative is that it’s impossible to build any empathy or antipathy for the protagonist, because you are the protagonist. It has the unexpected effect of actually making it harder to relate to the character.

Too much cleverness can be a bad thing. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a book that gets wrapped up in itself, in the vanity of being a book about itself, and it ends up missing the sort of base sincerity that would actually draw me in. It’s like the kid who awkwardly uses big words just to show that that he knows big words. Give me a pure heart and plain speech, and I’ll pick that almost every time.