One of the two is a productive writer, the other a tormented writer. The tormented writer watches the productive writer filling pages with uniform lines, the manuscript growing in a pile of neat pages. In a little while the book will be finished: certainly a best seller--the tormented writer thinks with a certain contempt but also with envy. He considered the productive writer no more than a clever craftsman, capable of turning out machine-made novels catering to the taste of the public; but he cannot repress a strong feeling of envy for that man who expresses himself with such methodical self-confidence. It is not only envy, it is also admiration, yes, sincere admiration: in the way that man puts all of his energy into writing there is certainly a generosity, a faith in communication, in giving others what others expect of him without creating introverted problems for himself. The tormented writer would give anything if he could resemble the productive writer; he would like to take him as a model; his greatest ambition is to become like him.
The productive writer watches the tormented writer as the latter sits down at his desk, chews his fingernails, scratches himself, tears a page to bits, gets up and goes into the kitchen to fix himself some coffee, then some tea, then camomile, then reads a poem by Holderlin (while it is clear that Holderlin has absolutely nothing to do with what he is writing), copies a page already written and then crosses it all out line by line, telephones the cleaner's (though it was settled that the blue slacks couldn't be ready before Thursday), then writes some notes that will not be useful now but maybe later, then goes to the encyclopedia and looks up Tasmania (though it is obvious that in what he is writing there is no reference to Tasmania), tears up two pages, puts on a Ravel recording. The productive writer has never liked the works of the tormented writer; reading them, he always feels as if he is on the verge of grasping the decisive point, but then it eludes him and he is left with a sensation of uneasiness. But now that he is watching him write, he feels this man is struggling with something obscure, a tangle, a road to be dug leading no one knows where; at times he seems to see the other man walking on a tightrope stretched over the void, and he is overcome with admiration. Not only admiration, also envy; because he feels how limited his own work is, how superficial compared with what the tormented writer is seeking.
On the terrace of a chalet in the bottom of the valley a young woman is sunning herself, reading a book. The two writers observe her with the spyglass. "How enthralled she is! She's holding her breath! How feverishly she turns the pages!" the tormented writer thinks. "Certainly she is reading a novel of great effect, like those of the productive writer!" "How enthralled she is! As if transfigured in meditation, as if she saw a mysterious truth being disclosed!" the productive writer thinks. "Surely she is reading a book rich in hidden meanings, like those of the tormented writer!"
The greatest desire of the tormented writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading. He starts writing a novel as he thinks the productive writer would write it. Meanwhile the greatest desire of the productive writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading; he starts writing a novel as he thinks the tormented writer would write it.
The young woman is approached first by one writer, then by the other. Both tell her they would like her to read the novel they have just finished writing.
The young woman receives the two manuscripts. After a few days she invites the authors to her house, together, to their great surprise. "What kind of joke is this?" She says. "You've given me two copies of the same novel!"
The young woman gets the two manuscripts mixed up. She returns to the productive writer the tormented writer's novel in the productive writer's manner, and to the tormented writer the productive writer's novel in the tormented writer's manner. Both, seeing themselves counterfeited, have a violent reaction and rediscover their personal vein.
A gust of wind shuffles the two manuscripts. The reader tries to reassemble them. A single novel results, stupendous, which the critics are unable to attribute. It is the novel that both the productive writer and the tormented writer have always dreamed of writing.
The young woman had always been a passionate reader of the productive writer and has loathed the tormented writer. Reading the productive writer's new novel, she finds it phony and realizes that everything he wrote was phony; on the other hand, recalling the tormented writer's works, she now finds them splendid and can't wait to read his new novel. But she finds something completely different from what she was expecting, and she sends him to the devil, too.
The same, replacing "productive" with "tormented" and "tormented" with "productive."
The young woman was a passionate admirer, et cetera, et cetera, of the productive writer and loathed the tormented one. Reading the productive writer's new novel she doesn't notice at all that something has changed; she likes it, without being especially enthusiastic. As for the manuscripte of the tormented writer, she finds it insipid like all the rest of this author's work. She replies to the two writers with a few polite words. Both are convinced that she can't be a very alert reader and they pay no further attention to her.
The same, replacing, et cetera.
--Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveller, pgs. 172 to 176.