If on a winter’s night a traveler

Italo Calvino, ‘In a network of lines that enlace’
in If on a winter’s night a traveler
translated by William Weaver
(San Diego: Harcourt, 1981)
First published: 1979

The first sensation this book should convey is what I feel when l hear the telephone ring; […] my reaction is one of refusal, of flight from this aggressive and threatening summons, as it is also a feeling of urgency, intolerableness, coercion that impels me to obey the injunction of that sound, rushing to answer even though I am certain that nothing will come of it save suffering and discomfort.


Perhaps the mistake lies in establishing that at the beginning I and a telephone are in a finite space such as my house would be, whereas what I must communicate is my situation with regard to numerous telephones that ring; these telephones are perhaps not calling me […], but the mere fact that I can be called to a telephone suffices to make it possible or at least conceivable that I may be called by all telephones.

The extracts are from the beginning of ‘In a network of lines that enlace’, the sixth story in a sequence of ten interrupted, interspersed narratives within Calvino’s novel. As the title presages, it is about a man (a visiting academic) who feels trapped within a network of telephones which he feels compulsively called to answer whenever he hears one ringing. He does so in a house not his own and is asked to rescue a woman named Marjorie before the house she is tied up in burns down. As he reflects on the best course of action, he reveals there is a student with the same name whom he had a crush on and who now happens to be missing. He rushes to the address, and the reader is made to understand that the student is the kidnapped Marjorie.

The story is itself linked to the following chapter in the novel by a phone call instructing the main protagonist (‘the Reader’) to go to Ludmilla’s (‘the Third Person’), where there is a copy of the novel which will turn out to be the next sequential story, titled ‘In a network of lines that intersect’.

by Laurent Milesi