Breaking Down the Tower of the Absolute Authorship: Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

© Claude Monet, Train in the Snow, oil on canvas, 1875

Metafictional narrative is one of the most significant features fusing the reality and the fictional world together in postmodern literature. The metanarrative of one of the most influential postmodern novels, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979), plays with the boundaries between ‘tangible’ fiction and ‘elusive’ reality. Calvino intertwines the reader’s quest for the ‘real’ book and the tales he encounters, and the multiplicity of authors and texts complement each other to break down the absolute panopticon model of the authorship to dismiss the search for a solid narrative.


© A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book

Speaking through various characters, Calvino decentralises the authoritative power of the author. In Chapter 8, for example, Silas Flannery appears at first to be only an author-character who seeks to write a book that is “the written counterpart of the unwritten world.” However, his observation of the reader in the deck chair and his feeling that someone is controlling his writing indicates a sense of incompleteness and involves the reader as an essential part of the constitution of texts. Later, his ‘translator’ Marana’s comment on the fraud of Flannery’s fiction, that “artifice is the true substance of everything, the author who devised a perfect system of artifices would succeed in identifying himself with the whole” questions the role of the author: he considers “a literature made entirely of Apocrypha of false attributions, imitations, counterfeits, and pastiches as an ideal form.” Towards the end of the novel, it is revealed that both of them are under the influence of the same reader, and that Marana attempts to prove that written pages are void while “she reads to catch a voice that comes from somewhere beyond the author.” The relationship between the author(s) and the reader(s) become inseparable as the two main narratives fall into partial images and plural fragments.


By the end of the novel, the ‘ending’ of you and the other reader almost finishing reading the same book leaves “you” a sense of defeat in ‘your’ quest for a solid narrative, which signifies that the pursuit of a truth beyond mankind’s articulation is doomed to failure. Calvino states that we all come all the way to hunt a counterfeiter of novels, and we find ourselves “a prisoner of a system in which every aspect of life is a counterfeit, a fake.” In this novel, then, we all fall into an abyss, looking for a truth which does not exist. Trapped in a metafictional narrative constituted by different ‘authors’ and ‘readers,’ the roles of the two poles merge, and leave us to the question of the artificiality of the nature of narrative in the “never-ending” novel.

By Chan Tsz Yan Audrey

Categories: Books, Modernism and Postmodernism

Tags: , , ,

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