In the past, fairy-tales have been a major form of writing for the great minds of the imaginative authors of the world. In search of cultural roots, much of Europe focused on its folktale and fairy-tales. However, Early Modern and Contemporary Italy took its tales and changed, manipulated, and combined them, having dissimilar concerns as the other societies of Europe. Influenced by his nation's overall approach to its heritage, Italo Calvino, in his novel If on a winter's night a traveler, is blatantly provided with a fundamental structure, plot, and theme through his use of the fairy-tale.
"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade." (Calvino 3). Calvino's opening sentences, even the first couple pages, exemplify what the reader would be told by a storyteller, as a young child would hear, cuddling within his or her warm, blanket-covered utopia, while mother's contiguous body not only provides comfort and security, but a fairy-tale incipit; the child's ear drums focus in on a lulling frequency incessantly flowing from the mother's fatigued mouth. The didactic beginning of this novel is a mechanism Calvino utilizes to ensure the reader that a fantastic, adventurous story is about to begin.
The "Once upon a time" cliche that has dominated the first sentence of fairy-tales in the past is replaced with "So, then, you..." where the actual plot then begins (Calvino 4). The Reader takes the first steps on his quest for a final, complete text. Within those few initial steps, he begins his double quest for his princess, the female reader, Ludmilla. Searching for a complete text, Ludmilla and the Reader experience a most precarious adventure through ten incipits. In each incipit, they encounter animosity, hardship, and even danger. They venture across novels from Belgium, Ireland, Japan, Latin America, and three fictitious countries. In each novel, they are obstructed by conflicts created to stop them from reaching their goal. This is a representation of the magnified efforts of evil to curtail the valiant persistence of the hero and heroine.
"On the whole, the world of the Italian tale is gentle; its favorite theme is love (both boy-girl love and family love)" (Guton 91). Love, in this sense, is shown not only in the frame story, but in the microcosmic world of each of the incipits as well. One of Calvino's implications in If on a winter's night a traveler is to accept and understand the intricacies of the world through love.
In the Reader's quest for Ludmilla's love, he once again faces conflicts which interfere with him reaching his goal. Silas Flannery, who also wishes to gain the heart and love of Ludmilla, tempts the Reader in an effort to influence him to digress from his cause. Silas Flannery places upon the Reader the obstacle of resisting the Female Reader's sister Latoria. In order to win his princess, he must first outdo the writer's obstacles and finally thwart the writer's plot. "in Italian fairy-tales: 'Marriage is a triumph. Not that the poor country maiden marries a prince but that she marries.'" (Votteler 55). At the end of the novel, Calvino writes that the Male Reader and the Female Reader "are man and wife, Reader and Reader." (Calvino 260). This merger of spirits rekindles closes the door to the representation of fairy tale love in the novel as a whole.
In each incipit, there exists a love relationship that exemplifies the boy-girl love and/or family love that are expressed so commonly in Italian fairy tales. "It was at this point that my mother clasped her hands and said, "Holy Virgin, will our Gritzvi be in danger? They won't take it out on him?" (Calvino 41). This quote from "Outside the town of Malbork" shows the family love of fairy tales. The first concern in this type of love is wellbeing of family members. "She is a girl you might say appealed to me a lot..." is a representation, from "In a network of lines that enlace," of the boy-girl love fairy tales most commonly involve. Simply the professor's attraction to Marjorie is enough to show this association exists. In "On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon," both boy-girl and family love are depicted. "...grasping my back, she pulled me down with her on the mat and with rapid twitches of her whole person she slipped her moist prehensile sex under mine, which without a false move was swallowed as if by a sucker, while her thin naked legs clutched my hips." This is an example of fairy tales' boy-girl love. "I have no idea how long Mr. Okeda had been there. He was staring hard, not at his wife and me but at his daughter watching us. In his cold pupil, in the firm twist of his lips, was reflected Madame Miyagi's orgasm reflected in her daughter's gaze." Of course fairy-tales are rarely this graphic, but Calvino's writing is not for a child. This quote depicts a father's love for his child, family love. These examples of both kinds of love found in Italian fairy tales represents some of the similar qualities that the novel has with fairy tales.
"...they [Italian fairy tales] are extraordinarily rich in characterization-partly an effect of the considerable length and episodic complexity of many of the tales..." (Guton 91). The episodic complexity of Italian fairy tales is especially pertinent when referring to If on a winter's night a traveler. Considering only the structure of this novel, its similarity to Italian tales is obvious. Woman, within each of the incipits as well as within the frame story, are the instigators and aggressive type. Having roles parallel to those in Italian fairy tales, this is how the female characters throughout the novel are portrayed. "...Italian fairy-tales, which always depict the woman as 'active, enterprising and courageous.'" (Votteler 55). Madame Miyagi is the sexual aggressor in "On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon." It may also be inferred that she is the dominating half of her family [husband and wife]. Her family acknowledges her many lovers as though it is unanimously accepted. "I realized at that moment that he [Mr. Okeda] would not interrupt me, nor would he drive me from his house, that he would never refer to this episode or to others that might take place and be repeated..." (Calvino 208). This emphasizes Miyagi's family's apathy. Ludmilla, likes to make all of her decisions on her own and holds firm with her opinion, often dogmatic. This is why she "possesses exactly the attributes of a fairy-tale maiden" (Votteler 55). Ludmilla is depicted on the way that woman in Italian fairy-tales are.
"Calvino's collection stands with the best folktale collections anywhere." (Guton 91). Many attributes of the novel If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino bare a striking resemblance to the fairy-tale. The structure, plot, themes, and even characterization of the novel exemplify its similarities to a tale. Regardless of how the book is critically approached, the fact that Calvino, influenced by his national culture, wrote the novel as a fantastic tale will always remain firmly planted in his readers' view.
Calvino, Italo. If on a winter's night a traveler. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981.
Guton, Sharon and Sline, Jean. Contemporary Literary Criticism.Volume 22. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1982.
Votteler, Thomas. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Volume 73. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1993.