If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino's version (and anti-version) of the nouveau roman, fits the conditions for "proper art" proposed by Dedalus/Joyce: "The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing." It is a wonderful piece of work, labyrinthe and convoluted, informed by a deadpan humor and pastiches, imitations, and parodies of an entire battery of modern and postmodern literary techniques.
It begins with an almost conventional storyteller's address to the reader: "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." We immediately see that "Italo Calvino" is somebody other than the author, and as we read, discover that "you" is not the usual foil, the time-honored figure to whom the narrator tells, in the first- or third-person, his story. "You" is the second-person protagonist of the novel, and he is, above all other things, a Reader. What he does, or wants to do, in chapters that detail his adventures, is read. The chapters dealing with "you" alternate with the chapters that he is reading, but through error, carelessness, chance, design, conspiracy, these chapters (10 of them) are not from the same book; they are the first chapters of 10 different books, and each breaks off at the point of crisis or suspense: they are cliff-hangers.
What is Calvino up to? I think that he is doing what the practicioners of the contemporary novel have been doing for at least a quarter-century, putting into practice an idea succinctly stated -- in 1923! -- by the Formalist critic, Victor Shklovsky: "The ideas in a literary work do not constitute its content but rather its material, and in their combinations and interrelations with other aspects of the work they create its form." The "content" of Calvino's novel is precisely the material from which he makes the form that we hold in our hands as this book. This novel's splinterings, ambiguities, contradictions, distorted mirror images, thematic variations, off-key fugues are as absolutely representative of objective reality as the linear plotted, sequential narrative of the conventional novel, the latter as much an invention, and as totally artificial as the nouveau roman, and with the equivalent relation to objective reality: none.
We have learned, over the years, to read the signs that a Dickens or a Conrad use, but they are only signs, manifestations of invented techniques. The books in which they are deployed use "ideas" as "material" just as Calvino does (or Beckett, or Robbe-Grillet). That we insist that Dickens' "ideas" constitute his "content" is our problem and critical failing. His novels are as strange and as artificial as the one under review. fCalvino's novel more bluntly insists that the world of the book equals the world of the book. If, as Mallarme says, "everything in the world exists to end in a book," then "everything" must stand for material, to be used by the writer to make forms that are those of literature, not reality.
Calvino's strategies are so numerous that I can do no more than point out a few of them: The first-person narrators of the 10 chapters from the 10 different novels are different, yet they all have curiously similar affinities and problems; the protagonist-Reader, "you," has adventures that seem, at times, to be blurred reflections of the adventures of the 10 narrators; a writer, Silas Flannery, who has (perhaps) written one (or two, or none) of the chapters that "you" reads, keeps a diary in which he writes: "I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted," and so we read a novel by "Italo Calvino" in which a novelist considers writing the novel in which he already exists; the Reader meets six other readers to whom he tells his difficulties in continuing the novels he has begun. To the 10 titles he adds another, suggested by the conversation, a "relic of some childish reading," that he feels should be included in the list, then gives the list to one of the other readers, who reads aloud: "if on a winter's night a travelor, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave -- What story down there awaits its end? -- he asks, anxious to hear the story." He thinks that this is the first paragraph of the novel that "you" would like to continue, but cannot find. "You" protests that these are but titles, to which the other replies: "Oh, the traveler always appeared only in the first pages and then was never mentioned again -- he had fulfilled his function." This is precisely what happens to the traveler in "Calvino's" first pages, except that the traveler is not "Calvino's" traveler, but a character in a novel that a character in a novel has been reading.
This is a brilliant work of great imaginative power and artistic authority. With it, Calvino has, in Shklovsky's phrase, "ripped things from their ordinary sequence of associations."