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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 at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary, he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognize him as himself. Here, however, he seems to have absolutely no connection with all the rest he has written, at least as far as you can recall. Are you disappointed? Let’s see. Perhaps at first you feel a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won’t work. But then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author, it’s the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is.
-- Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, pg. 9
Contemporary philosophers habitually turn to the “short paper” as the form for a wide variety of arguments. These analyses are generally devoid of personal style; they strive for the clearest explanations with language de-saturated of all but the most essential words, and clearest ideas. Martha Nussbaum is a contemporary philosopher who argues against the use of such flaccid style – a style so lacking in character, it has been called the “style-free style.” She asserts that style and form make distinct contributions to the content of a work, and are telling parts of the work as a whole. She advocates on behalf of an “organic unity” between style and content. Whereas dry prose may be suitable for logically difficult arguments, rich style can convey the sorts of emotions that mere words cannot. In this way, literary style – the way in which an author chooses to order and orient his words -- is not only a window into the author’s mind; it is a specialized tool, uniquely capable of expressing those nuances of an argument that cannot be condensed into logical analysis. An example of the unique contributive and expressive powers of literary style is the novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, which uses a playful, meta-fictional style to question the boundaries between author, writer, narrator, and reader.
Style makes a unique statement because it demonstrates the choices an author makes, and suggests something more powerful than words alone; it conveys the sentiment and intention with which those words are chosen. Each individual author makes different choices, and so each has a distinctive style. As readers we are capable of describing differences in style, and in noticing those differences we become affected by the style of a work. The impact that style has on a work is similar to the impact that intonation has on a sentence. For example, there are probably hundreds of ways of saying, Everything is fine. We are capable of differentiating between these various intonations, and we understand that each one carries a different meaning. Nussbaum suggests that the same is true for style: “…any style makes, itself, a statement…about what is important and what is not, about what faculties of the reader are important for knowing and what are not.” In this way, the style that an author chooses to employ illustrates his priorities in writing and conveys the intention behind his words.
In, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Calvino utilizes a meta-fictional style to challenge traditional notions of what it means to be an author, reader, writer, and narrator. His directed narration not only confuses events, but it causes the reader to question his experience as a reader. Calvino writes: “You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it at all.” Here, Calvino the author and Calvino the narrator speak to the reader, directing the reader about how to approach what the historical writer, Calvino, wrote. All of these voices converge to provide the reader with specific instructions on how to approach the work. This is the meta-fictional style at work; it is a style that enables a critique of the work it is a part of. Calvino’s style reveals what he values in a reader: the ability to be self-critical, and question assumptions. Later, Calvino pushes the reader to consider how this unexpected development makes him feel: “Are you disappointed? Let’s see…” Though readers are usually left to consider developments of plot from their own perspectives, Calvino is interested in how the narrator can direct his reader’s thoughts. His novel is an example of a work where choice of style is inextricably linked to message. Calvino’s novel demands this style, and would not be possible without it. Nussbaum would likely argue, as she does when describing philosophical considerations of love, that a traditionally dry style would not be capable of expressing the nuances of Calvino’s inquiry. As such, the style Calvino chooses for his novel is uniquely capable of expressing the ideas he puts forth.
Nussbaum argues further that style makes an invaluable contribution to a work’s content by conveying a dimension of the author that the reader cannot glean from plot alone. An author’s style is a gateway for the reader to discover the intention behind the words on a page. Nussbaum suggests that “the terms of a novelist’s art” – in other words, the style of a work – “can state what James calls ‘the [author’s] projected morality’ more adequately than any other available terms.” While content alone can usually communicate a work’s thematic importance, style reveals the author’s essence and shows readers what he thinks is important, and why. Additionally, style is capable of making distinctly unique contributions to a work. Nussbaum suggests that one way style does this is by committing itself in practice to what it tells us in argument, “alternating between emotive and reflective material in just the way that Marcel holds to be appropriate for truth.” Just as it is often said, “practice what you preach,” a style that reflects the terms of an argument or viewpoint is uniquely capable of strengthening it.
The particular style of Calvino’s novel is so essential that it to change it would undermine the entire work. It is impossible to conceive of a novel that questions the very notions of time, plot, narrator, and author without a style that so directly challenges the reader’s preconceptions. Calvino practices what he preaches, uniting style and message to push the reader past what he is accustomed to confronting in a work of literature. With his style, Calvino demands that his reader be self-referential throughout the entire novel. He sets this up at the end of his first chapter, suggesting that the style of the novel may leave the reader “a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won’t work.” Calvino is an understanding author/narrator, so much so that he tries to direct the reader’s thoughts to his own work. This happens again later in the same passage, when the reader apparently realizes that he “prefer[s] it that way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is.” This method of encouraging the reader to be self-critical – Calvino’s style – is an integral part of the work. Calvino’s words tell us how we should approach his novel, but his style – always questioning how the reader reacts to the novel’s developments – reinforces his vision of the ideal reader, who is critical of preconceived notions of what a novel is or should be.
If we accept Martha Nussbaum’s characterization of an author’s style as his “projected morality,” it becomes difficult to imagine how style could be anything other than an essential aspect of a novel. In our human interactions, we recognize that there is a limitation on what words, alone, can express. We therefore employ our own “style” to communicate what words cannot say – with a gesture of the hand, shrug of the shoulder, or inflection of the voice. The author does the same when he leaves the unique imprint of his style on his work. It is his way of reaching beyond the page, and making whatever stylistic additions to the words on the page that he needs in order to fully express his message. If we declare that style is irrelevant, it is as if we tied the author’s hands behind his back, and as him to speak in monotone.
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