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Reviewed by:
  • Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary Literature
  • Walter E. Broman
Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary Literature, by Warren Motte; 233 pp. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, $31.50.

When readers early encounter such stuff as “Thus in the category of agôn, for example, hide-and-seek would tend toward paidia, whereas chess would tend toward ludus” (p. 7), they suspect that this book will be a rugged and humorless read, in spite of the fun hinted at in the title. Much of the book turns out to fulfill this dread. There is no escaping the sour smell of academic jargon: “to privilege,” “to foreground,” “to marginalize,” “diegetic frame,” etc., or the tangled infelicities of academic prose.

Professor Motte sets out to examine a series of texts, “. . . each text considered a different ludic economy with its own rules and norms, but all texts defined as language games” (p. 15). While struggling through the discussions of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, André Breton’s Nadja, or Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal, one catches glimpses of a book that might have assumed sumptuous flesh. This is especially true in the chapter on Nabakov’s Pale Fire, which is quite interesting and well written. Nabakov’s is “an agonistic game that pits Kinbote against Slade, the Sladeans against Kinbote, Kinbote against us the readers, Nabakov against Kinbote, we the readers against Nabakov” (p. 81). This is a game in which Nabakov offers his readers “a full partnership in the creative process” (p. 82). I was forced to recognize that I had enjoyed reading Pale Fire, all the while only being aware of a minim of these ludic convolutions!

A major problem with this book and with the books Professor Motte discusses can be shown most vividly in the chapter on Georges Perec’s La Disparition, where the game is to write an entire novel without using the letter “e.” This “literary machine” is supposed to be geared for expressing the iron impositions of life and its ineluctable loss and lack. I suspect that this semantic juice is squeezed out only by critical legerdemain. The discussion merely succeeds in convincing me that this literary tour de force might be suitable for Guinness’s Book of Records, but would likely be a boring read. It reminds me of a Rube Goldberg contraption or of Johnson’s dog walking on its “hinder legs.” Calling this a lipogram linked to Greek antiquity does little to rinse away the sweaty scent of useless exertion.

Professor Motte includes a quotation from Eco referring to Swift’s book-making machine in the Grand Academy of Lagado, which provides a sinister and ludicrous image of much of this ludic literature. Eco sees the text as a “combinatory, ludic machine” (p. 191). This literature as machine and game is remarkable for its lack of any concern for the reader: “. . . the game is finally less vital for us than it seems to have been for Gombrowicz” (p. 68). Compare this with Dryden who took it as axiomatic that the audience’s “concernment” is of vital importance. Now, though, the readerly text is supplanted by the writerly (p. 163). René Bellato builds up “a narrative technique based on the systematic [End Page 243] frustration of the reader’s expectations . . .” (p. 166). A kind of apex of readerly boredom is devised in Harry Matthew’s literary machine “Matthew’s algorithm”—exemplified by the permutational poetics in Le Savoir des rois, where the same verse is given endless alterations of word order. There lurks a sniffy implication that if you don’t go along with this sort of game you aren’t a good reader. I don’t mind straining to be a good reader if the reward is commensurate with the effort. Professor Motte never explains why we ought to bother.

Professor Motte presents various interesting theories of play, as diverse as Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Freud, but his own position is not easy to discern. He seems to be sympathetic with Calvino’s notion that “all literature is play” (p. 142). For this to be true, the definition of ludics or play would have to have a Humpty Dumpty squishiness. It would have to be ample...

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pp. 243-244
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