The Novel pp 309-329 | Cite as

The Pranks of Hermes

Italo Calvino: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller


Reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller at this point creates the curious impression that the text has been prefigured by almost all the others in this enquiry. Through the prestidigitations of Ermes Marana it presents a notion of language-as-translation which appears to continue from where the Don Quixote left off. (To translate, we are reminded by de Lauretis (1987:74), ‘is to carry beyond, to convey, to transport elsewhere’.) In addition, the novel as a whole is constructed as much upon strategies of postponement, interruption and avoidance as Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. But it also exploits the possibilities of language as infinite quotation, already anticipated by Middlemarch. It presents the conflict of different discourses we have encountered, in other guises, in Madame de Lafayette and Thomas Mann. In the games it plays we are reminded of an early predecessor like Jane Austen. Various aspects of the struggle of language against silence have already surfaced in George Eliot and in Kafka, whereas the unmasking of ‘character’ as a construct of language has already been noted in Moll Flanders. Startlingly different forms of ‘death by language’ have already been presented by Madame Bovary and Le Voyeur, whereas the experience of vertigo when confronted with the void behind — and within — language has also been discovered to permeate the fiction of Mann and Robbe-Grillet.


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© André Brink 1998

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