The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Metafiction

BEFORE

1615 In the second part of the novel Don Quixote, by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, the eponymous fictional hero is aware that the first part had been written about him.

1759–67 Anglo-Irish novelist Laurence Sterne’s fictional autobiography Tristram Shandy contains so many digressions that the author is not born until Volume III.

1944 Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones plays with the nature of fiction in a series of enigmatic and mesmerizing short stories.

AFTER

1987 US author Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy twists the form of the detective novel and makes the reader question the tropes of the genre.

The term metafiction was coined by US writer William H Gass in 1970 and refers to a fictional form of writing in which a series of literary tools are employed by writers to draw attention to how fiction and reality interrelate, emphasizing the nature of the text as a constructed work, an artefact of the author. While largely associated with the fiction of postmodern writers, many examples exist from earlier eras, including the 17th-century epic of Cervantes’, Don Quixote, and the 18th-century hilarity of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is acknowledged as one of the metafiction novel’s finest modern incarnations, with a mesmerizing narrative plot that not only challenges traditional narrative forms but also asks the reader to interrogate the actual process of reading.

As with the finest examples of metafictional texts, the opening words of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller immediately demand that the reader undertake a process preparatory to actually commencing the “story”: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”

The self-reflection by Calvino in the first sentence is a typically metafictional device. Half the first chapter is a guide to “you” preparing for the very real task of reading this book; it is a somewhat mesmeric world – reminiscent of the metafictional playfulness of Jorge Luis Borges’ work – as though Calvino has some insight into the processes of each reader’s mind as they embark on reading his book.

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A novel about novels and points of view, Calvino’s book interweaves excerpts of imagined books from different contemporary fiction genres; the titles of these 10 books form a complete sentence.

A fantasy of fictions

After the meditative beginning, Calvino proceeds to plunge the reader into what appears to be a more traditional narrative plot. A character (“you”) keeps starting a book, but due to various circumstances cannot continue; in his quest to finish the books he meets a female reader who he (“you”) falls in love with. He also discovers a conspiracy to render all books false and meaningless. This rather strange narrative tale is fractured by further metafictional reflection: the reader is questioned about their reaction to the book, and thereby invoked as one of the novel’s protagonists.

A distinct structural form runs through the novel. Each chapter is in two parts: the first is written in second-person form (“you”) and concerned with the very process of reading; the second part, being the beginning of a new book, is seemingly an original narrative. The influence of the Oulipo – a group of French writers who experimented with new and demanding literary forms, which Calvino joined in 1968 – is evident in these structural constraints.

A narrative maze

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller introduces the reader to imaginary writers of fictional works that do not exist, to fabricated biographies, and even to countries that are invented – all are common traits of metafiction. The reader is guided into a narrative maze by a masterful storyteller – one who delights in playing eccentric postmodern games. The experience is utterly captivating.

"One reads alone, even in another’s presence."


If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

ITALO CALVINO

Italo Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 and was two when he moved to Italy with his parents, who were returning home. Having settled in Turin during World War II, Calvino fought for the Italian Resistance, before turning to journalism at the war’s end, writing for the communist paper L’Unità. Not long after the war, in 1947, his first novel, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, was published.

Calvino left the Italian Communist Party in 1957, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In 1964, he married Esther Judith Singer, resettled in Rome, and focused on the short stories that would form the collection Cosmicomics.

Calvino moved with his family to Paris in 1968, where he joined the group of innovative writers known as Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”). He died in 1985 from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Other key works

1957 The Baron in the Trees

1959 The Nonexistent Knight

1965 Cosmicomics

1972 Invisible Cities

See also: Don Quixote • Ficciones • Hopscotch • The French Lieutenant’s Woman • Midnight’s Children