Examining characteristics of postmodern fiction depicted within Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
Casey Robertson (202306117)
HUX 581: Key Periods and Movements, Philosophy: Philosophy and Postmodernism 07 27 2012
When discussing the genre of postmodern literature, Italian author Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel titled If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is definitely a work worthy of examination within this realm. While ascribing attributes of postmodern fiction to a given work can at times, prove to be a task of both challenging and controversial nat ure, Calvino’s novel exhibits several notable literary devices that employ “key characteristics” postmodern fiction as described in parameters outlined by Tim Woods in his publication Beginning Postmodernism.1 With this stated, the following discussion will attempt to illuminate some of the postmodern characteristics present within Calvino’s novel, as well as examine the author’s application and execution of themes such as gender and identity.
Before discussing Calvino’s novel, it seems appropriate to provide a brief sketch of the criterion which Tim Woods describes as embodying the key characteristics of post modernism. According to Woods, a work of postmodern fiction often demonstrates a preoccupation with the viability of systems of representation, the decentering of the subject by discursive system, the inscription of multiple fictive selves, along with narrative fragmentation and reflexivity, narratives which self-consciously allude to their own artifice, and interrogations of the ontological bases of and connections between narrative and subjectivity. 2 Woods also describes additional postmodern characteristics such as the abolition between the cultural divide of high and popular culture, explorations of how narratives mediate and construct history, and finally the displacement of the real by simulacra, which depicts how the original has always been already linguistically constructed.3
To begin the discussion on Calvino’s novel, one might note that as a distinguished “foreign member” of the French Oulipo literary group,4 Calvino’s evolution as an author exhibited a willingness to abandon what he described as “serious” formal literary structure, and
embrace more abstract constraints and techniques such as combinatory game-oriented stories. 5 By the date of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’s publication in 1979, Calvino had developed a writing style by which embodied what scholars such as Federico Federici describes as being “playfully clever literate”.6 While the extent of the influence of t he Oulipo upon Calvino’s creative output is a separate topic more extensive than suited for this particular discussion, his membership definitely establishes his forward-thinking that would embrace the following postmodern literary devices to be examined.
Perhaps the first apparent postmodern device at play in Calvino’s novel is that of metafiction. From the beginning of the story, the author partakes in a type of combinatory narrative experiment that he later would describe as generating a “hyper-novel” aimed to give the essence of a novel by means of concentrated form. 7 To carry out this concept, the twelve chapters are interpolated with ten fragmented portions of other novels which are framed into the plotline; diverging within the conceptual framework from a common crux. With this said, one might describe this particular work as essentially a novel about novels or a fiction about fictions. Much like Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, Calvino’s use of metafiction is a pivotal role in the narrative of this work as Calvino refers to the reader as “you”; making it abundantly clear from the first pages to the reader that they are experiencing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler within a metafictional context: “You are about to...