Play in literature has not lacked its theoreticians. But, from Freud and Wittgenstein through Huizinga, Caillois, and Ehrmann, notions of play have been expanded, refined, and to some extent confused. At the same time, practical critics (with the exception of sports enthusiasts [End Page 940] and advocates of comically inventive experimental fiction) have been hesitant to apply theories of game and play to novels of this century. In Playtexts Warren Motte solves both problems, sorting out the best thinking on ludics and using it to interpret ten important texts.
For Motte, the texts chosen are “exemplary” and provide grounds for proving his thesis “that play is an essential, if variable, dimension of both writing and reading, and that both those activities may be characterized, more or less globally depending upon the case, as games.” From Huizinga he draws the obvious contrast between play and real life, with the proviso that it is the author of poetic texts who, within the context of real life, retains the spirit of play. Caillois in turn contrasts the ordered with the fictive but also sets fun against constraint, privileging the last term in a manner now seen as “grounded in an uncritical vision of progress and a paternalistic, colonialist perspective upon the world.” Ehrmann’s idea of play as economy is more useful, Motte believes, but adds that each text must be a different ludic economy while all texts are language games.
And what wonderful games they are. In Nadja Motte finds André Breton taking great pleasure attacking the novel as a genre. Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke in turn stages the notion of form, projecting the writer’s obsession onto the reader. With Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a contest for the power of authority is undertaken within the larger text itself, while Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal ventures a critique of the center from outlaw margins—in both cases, a matter of play. Motte’s chapters on La Disparition by Georges Perec and Le Savior des rois by Harry Mathews introduce the combinatory practices of the Oulipo group; whether the author transforms, displaces, and restructures as does Perec, or whether he plays algorithmically as does Mathews in these texts which are more properly poems, the emphasis remains on games played with the materials of composition. The detective novel as ludic system and the playful eroticism of something so unlikely as a butcher shop’s supply of meat motivate the respective games of Rene Belletto’s Film noir and Alina Reyes’s The Butcher, just as Italo Calvino’s mastery of the frame tale allows otherwise illicit narrative possibilities in The Castle of Crossed Destinies. As might be expected, Motte discovers the most comprehensive use of game and play being undertaken by Umberto Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum, for it is here that the reader is invited to play a truly interactive game—never mind that [End Page 941] such an “ideal reader” is in fact a careful construct of the author’s, for that too is part of the game, as Eco’s postscript makes clear.
Playtexts is an important book not just for these interpretations but because its author understands the creatively disruptive power of play. Too many critics have been stuck on the presumed opposition of play and seriousness, and too few scholars have bothered to read widely enough among the more challenging novels of our day. To his great credit Warren Motte can see that playing with language is not a Freudian example of childish irrationality but rather a way of appropriating language to one’s self and that it is this ludic sense of play that animates a universe of idiosyncratic genes. That some of his individual readings have appeared previously as essays does not distract from the very meaningful sense of organization he has given this volume. For him Breton is novel, Gombrowicz is formal, Nabokov is authoritarian; what Sarrazin articulates, Perec finds deadly; Calvino is telling, Belletto is speculative, Reyes is carnal, and, most interestingly of all, Eco is constructive. Seeing how their novels work is not a matter...