The Art of Fiction: Discovering Truths

My only exposure to Italo Calvino’s writing is the first two chapters of his “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” We read it in the same English class that we read “The Library of Babel” in, and I was instantly hooked on these fantastic, well-structured stories.

“I start with a small, single image and then I enlarge it,” Italo Calvino explains.

He uses a certain idea to revolve his stories around, and the result is a fantasy world that is both captivating and confusing.

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I was drawn to this post, and not Jorge Luis Borge’s (the writer of the Library of Babel), because it was broken up into three parts: a memoir written by a literary critic who knew him, his thoughts before an interview (like an excerpt of his journal), and a transcribed interview. Not being too familiar with the author, it was nice to have a biography, a piece of his writing, and the question and answer session.

As I read, I wrote down ideas and phrases that struck me. In his thoughts before an interview, he talks about how he feels obligated to prepare for interviews, because he wants to answer questions in a different way each time. He thinks that his answers should evolve so that they reflect the context that he is currently situated in.

“This could be the basis for a book,” he concludes. You take a set of questions and make each chapter of the book contain the answers given at different times. So then the changes would be the “story that the protagonist lives.”

This post provided me with a look inside of his mind; I got to see how he was inspired. I also find it fascinating that the architecture of his stories is more often than not his main purpose. I’ve never written like that, but it’s something that I want to try. I like the idea of writing something with a certain structure in mind, working through ideas as I go. Calvino describes this as “discovering truths.”

The interviewer also asked interesting questions, and it felt more like a dialogue than some of the other interviews I read. It seemed as if he were changing his questions to follow up and move the conversation along, which felt more natural than sticking to a prescribed list of generic questions.

He asks, “Are novelists liars?” and Calvino says that he writes fiction because “lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth.” The first two chapters of “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” are terribly confusing, because you can’t decipher reality from the book that the protagonist is reading. I liked being confused, and I liked that his writing was almost whimsical, but I’m not sure what he was trying to reveal. I went to the library and requested the book, so maybe once I finish it I’ll have an aha-moment about the meaning behind the story. But I also don’t think that revealing something is necessary in writing. I feel like it’s enough to write something that provokes thought and imagination in readers.

3 thoughts to “The Art of Fiction: Discovering Truths”

  1. Hey Emily,

    I think it’s really interesting how Calvino described the way he prepares for an interview as a structure that could also be used to write a book. It’s a pretty outside-the-box idea, but it would definitely be interesting to approach a story that way. I was similar to you in terms of why I liked the interview I chose — they were much more interesting when the interviewer helped bring out a writer’s personality or “provided a look inside his mind” as you put it. Was Jorge Luis Borge interviewed? I didn’t notice but thought it was kind of interesting that you chose Calvino over the author of a book you’ve read and enjoyed.

    And while I prefer for something to be revealed in writing, I do agree with you that it can be enough to provoke thought and imagination in readers.

  2. Hey Emily!
    It’s cool that your interview featured a biography as well as a piece of his writing before the actual interview. I wish mine did that. Sounds like a nice way to introduce the interview!
    I think it’s interesting that he writes stories with a certain structure in mind. How structured does he start out? Is this structure similar to an outline? Is this structure more focused on physical structure of the work, like how many chapters, how long, what type of writing it is? Or is the structure a more abstract thing focusing on ideas, the plot, characters? He probably didn’t answer all of that, but I’m just wondering a little more about his “structure” approach to writing; sounds interesting!

    I also agree with you about how the interviewer seems to be having more of a conversation (mine seemed to do that too). It felt a lot more natural and was a lot easier to read.

  3. Hi Emily!

    The quote you chose to include, stating, “This could be the basis for a book… You take a set of questions and make each chapter of the book contain the answers given at different times. So then the changes would be the story that the protagonist lives,” really struck me. I am actually thinking of writing a few questions in my mini-notebook to answer now and revisit intermittently so as to see my own change in this way. Could be interesting.

    I also wanted to address your final claim that revealing something is not necessary in writing, since I completely agree. While that certainly is an important power of the written word, I do not think it to be essential either. As you said, writing something that provokes thought is likely enough, at least in my eyes.

    Lastly, I am wondering if after reading this interview you are planning to read any of Calvino’s work? You said you were drawn to the post due to the three-part structure, so I suppose I am curious as to if what you learned in these different segments satisfied your old interest in Calvino or not.

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