Humor as a Device to “Lighten”
As a work of meta-fiction (a story within a story), author Italo Calvino (1923-1985) presents the beginnings of ten different novels framed by the singular account of the ‘Reader’ who encounters the beginnings and his journey to find the rest of the books. The stage is set by Calvino in Chapter One with, “So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it all.” From there, Calvino pulls ‘Reader’ through a maze of stops and starts (9). Admittedly, if you pick up this book and are not warned in advance of its structure, you, reader, may get very lost. However, it is worth the rambling journey.
Humor in literature may include irony, satire, parody, sarcasm, etc. Humor provides tension relief, describes a ludicrous situation, mockery, or explains character among other purposes. It’s cautionary to mention that one person may find something funny that another person does not view in the same way. Concerning Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, it is occasionally necessary to perceive his particular notion of comedy through the lens of cultural, historical, and sometimes individual backgrounds. His wit is brusque at times but stick with it.
Writing humor isn’t easy. Not everyone has the timing or the perspective to write funny. Calvino refers to humor as “lightness,” a principle explained in his posthumous publication Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988). Indeed, without comedic relief, some of the intricate prose in Traveler would be cumbersome. To lighten the load on the reader of deep subjects like murder, Calvino inserts comedy, which give reader-me time to relax, take a breath, or smile before moving on into the complicated but exhilarating narrative structure of the novel.
This example from Traveler illustrates his ability toward the absurd:
- Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback: and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. (3)
The image is comical and the addition of “…or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness…” adds to the ludicrous tone and visuals. This is a pattern in Traveler: approaching serious topics from the light-hearted direction.
Take this additional example. To illustrate the nervous, comedic feeling experienced when trying to impress the opposite sex, this served the purpose:
- Hmm, perhaps you could have coordinated it a bit better, but you have at least expressed the main ideas. Now it’s her turn. (29)
It is facetious the way he chastises the ‘Reader’ with internal dialogue, i.e., “You’re a screw-up, but at least it’s out there.”
Among the variety of topics in Traveler, Calvino mocks academia and the publishing world with exaggerated scenes implying that both groups regard themselves in high esteem. It’s been said that this may be due to Calvino’s frustrations with the publishing world of the early twentieth century.
For example, when the origin of a text is questioned:
- “It’s a fake!” Professor Uzzi-Tuzii cries. “It’s a well-known case of forgery! The material is apocryphal, disseminated by the Cimbrian nationalists during the anti-Cimmerian propaganda campaign at the end of the First World War!” (73)
The overzealous, arrogant professor who uses bombast to dismiss a challenge to something he has based his whole existence on is easily recognizable. We’ve all been in that classroom. There are several passages where Calvino takes accurate jabs at academic haughtiness, competitiveness, and presumption.
Dark humor is evident in Chapter Five, “Looks down in the gathering shadow” and surprises with its comedic events of killing a man then discarding the body in Paris.
- It was all very well for me to pull up the mouth of the plastic bag: it barely reached Jojo’s neck, and his head stuck out. Another way would be to put him into the sack head first, but that still didn’t solve the problem, because then his feet emerged. (103)
Putting someone headfirst into a plastic bag is not funny at first glance. However, some readers may see humor or lightness in the image of feet sticking out.
A particularly funny moment during a dark situation is evidenced here:
- At that moment the gas that accumulates in the belly of corpses is expelled noisily; the two cops burst out laughing. (105)
The craziness of the sex scene in the car consummated while also holding a corpse upright in the back seat stopped me in my tracks with its rueful tone and hilarious descriptions:
- Meanwhile with one hand she was holding the dead man and with the other she was unbuttoning me, all three of us crammed into that tiny car, in a public parking lot of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. (Calvino 111)
The contradiction of deadpan language for a ridiculous yet sad scene aptly demonstrates Calvino’s sense of using “lightness” to soften the blow of difficult material. He notes this tactic about his writing:
I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. (3)
It appears that the notion of anyone being offended by such treatment doesn’t burden Calvino.
It concerned me to poke fun at some very serious business such as mental illness, education, and murder, then I read Six Memos and his thoughts about lightness. Traveler made more sense. Calvino’s remarks about lightness versus weightiness in science, philosophy, literature, and language helped me read behind the print on the page. Similar to the sweet details in Agatha Christie’s works, Calvino writes If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler to confound yet confirm his principles about writing fact and fiction. There is satisfaction in paying attention to the details whether one is reading Christie or Calvino.
Calvino artfully begs a reader to trust him, a writer, even though his method flies in the face of conventional fiction writing wisdom, which is grab the reader within the first five pages. But it works for Calvino to save the epiphany for the end where all great resolutions should reside. There’s also his choice to employ a second-person point-of-view which adds another dimension that is too much to consider in this post.
I encourage you to spend one of these chilly nights with If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler and Calvino’s particular sense of humor.
One more note. If you’re a poet, you will love this book…
Calvino, Italo. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1979. Print.
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.