Tag Archives: Italo Calvino

“Beyond the page there is the void”

I was in Seattle this past weekend.  For the return flight I occupied a middle seat in a very full aircraft.  On one side of me was a friendly Iranian woman who kept offering me dried cherries with pits in them.  On the other side was a muscular fellow about my age reading a giant hardbound volume titled Modern Reloading, which describes the process of reloading firearms to a degree of detail I would have thought impossible.  I felt a little womanish seated beside him fingering my copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

But it was while flying to Seattle, two days before, that an odd conjunction occurred.  I had been seated in the terminal at my gate for perhaps a half hour and had just finished a chapter of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I replaced the book in my carry-on and boarded the plane.  As soon as we had taken off and reached an altitude sufficient to convince me that the plane really could fly all by itself, I took out my book again and opened it to the next chapter, which was chapter nine.  (Now before I quote the passage which so surprised me I should explain that Calvino’s book, a post-modernist classic, is written largely in the second person, which is to say that you, the Reader, are often addressed directly and play an active role in the story – a trick which Calvino manages to pull off fairly well.)  This is the first paragraph I read:

You fasten your seatbelt…  To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration which is itself a void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and the when in which you had vanished.  Meanwhile, what do you do?  How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world, and of the world from you?  You read; you do not raise your eyes from the book between one airport and another, because beyond the page there is the void…  You realize that it takes considerable heedlessness to entrust yourself to unsure instruments, handled with approximation. (But are you reflecting on the air journey or on reading?)

I read on with rapt attention, worried.  But I was comforted to learn that the flight passes without incident and the Reader’s plane makes a safe landing.  And it did.

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Marginalia, no.43

It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book.  You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything.  There are plenty, younger than you are or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store.  But not you.  You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst.  This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and in general matters, even international affairs.  What about books?  Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe that you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.

~ Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Cheap thrills.  Jules Renard said that “it is when faced with death that we are most bookish.”  If that’s so, it’s not because we hope to find between the pages of our novel the universal cure to all pathologies.  It might be that the morbidly bookish are looking for some kind of philosophical-aesthetic perspective on what it is they’re about to lose. But more likely, I think, it’s because staring down the Grim Reaper for any length of time can leave us particularly keen for distraction.  We want a little joyride before Dad takes away the keys.  And a book, as a vehicle for hopeful distraction, tends to get better gas mileage than most.

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