Friday, January 29, 2010

On Calvino

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm teaching Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler to my undergraduate class on postmodern literature. I'm teaching it following a week of Borges stories, so it is at once a natural follow-up, and at the same time, overkill, especially for young (mostly female, in this section) readers raised on the funnel-cake-and-cotton-candy diet of Rowling, Meyers, and Sparks.

I didn't read it until I was an MA student, right after taking a narrative theory course that I loved. So the pump was primed, so to speak. And for someone who loves formal play, Calvino's novel is pure joy. The second person narration begins with a near-perfect mapping of narrated Reader and the flesh-and-blood reader, and slowly but inexorably spins into pure fictional world, ending up in the literary police state of Ataguitania. And then there is the series of ten novel beginnings the reader encounters, each one a pastiche of a literary style or even a particular author (I can pick out at least Kawabata and Marquez). Add to this winking references to perversions of the 1001 nights, ingeniously contructed mise-en-abymes (an author in the book imagines writing a book that looks exactly like the book we're reading), and some striking metaphors for reading-for-pleasure.

In fact, this last idea is the central argument for the novel: that pleasure is the one pure-and-true motive for picking up a novel. In fact, he ties reading to not only physical pleasure, but sexual pleasure throughout: sex becomes an ongoing metaphor for reading, and when it happens, reading becomes a metaphor for sex (a trope Jeannette Winterson improves upon in Written on the Body). This, of course, was the way in to the most successful lesson with this class so far. Since the Other Reader of the novel is also an ideal (and idealized reader) the frame story of the novel is something of a love plot between the Reader (you) and the Other Reader (Ludmilla), even as it is a quest narrative to find the end of one of the frame stories.

So the idea of reading for pleasure and sex for pleasure are conflated into the same plot, and of course, the novel ends (a full narrative after all) with "you" and Ludmilla married. yay, and all.

The thing is, this idealized plot is peppered all the way along with bad readers: Irnerio, the sexually ambiguous non-reader who only sees books for their value as beautiful objects; Professor Uzzi-Tuzii, the shriveled, dusty professor of a dead language who is caught up in grammar, syntax, and punctuation; the general of Ataguitania, who uses his control of access to books as a means to power; Cavedagna, the hurried little publisher who has lost the pleasure of books to the bustle of putting books together; and most disturbingly, Lotaria (a purposeful re-gendering of the Lothario, who is in it not for the love of it, but for the chase). Lotaria is Ludmilla's sister, and is as passionate about books as her sibling. But Lotaria is a ball-breaking, militant feminist, who reduces characters, settings and situations to "general concepts" (and a litany of academic jargon is inserted here). Later in the novel, she reduces writing down further, processing it electronically to garner word frequency, thereby deducing the major themes.

Now it's hardly coincidental that Calvino's book, which doesn't hold up too well to feminist scrutiny, chooses a feminist for his radical academic target. But add to this the fact that each of these bad readers is, in some ways made either sexually undesireable or sexually suspect, and the critique gets a little more vicious. The insinuation (and I might, under such a reading, be compelled to take this personally, as a somewhat sexually ambiguous, feminist, professor of literature) is that folks who read in these bad ways, are both undesireable as readers, and therefore ineligible for the pleasures of reading.

Well, harrumph.

The thing is, those students in my class, the ones who both identify as "pleasure readers"--they were the students who inevitably complained about the novel's frustrated beginnings: a string of coitus interruptus if you will. They complained that they were so frustrated with the stops and starts that had it not been for class, they'd have never finished the novel. Conversely, the students who enjoyed the novel found themselves mocked via the figures of Lotaria and Professor Uzzi-Tuzii.

I wonder whether, in much of today's reading climate, Calvino hasn't created a novel that can only (or mostly only) be loved by those it mocks, while it shuts out those readers it adulates. That is, I first read this novel for pleasure. and every time I've read it since, I derive a kind of pleasure in it. But I've also always seen my own reading practices mocked somehow.

But perhaps I am the audience. Perhaps Calvino is invoking the Lotarias and Uzzi-Tuzii's of the world, and reminding us that there is still pleasure to be had in books, not just politics, or even a livelihood. I'm not ready to renounce my politicized interpretive strategies or even my pickiness about grammar, but I do need to remind myself now and again that not every book needs to be the subject of my teaching and writing. Unfortunately, I've got enough of a backlog on that, that the pleasure reading will wait.


Anonymous said...

I like your point that the novel "can only be loved by those it mocks while shuts out those readers it adulates." That seems exactly right. He's also excluding himself, of course. Anyone involved in writing or book production is automatically suspect.

This post delighted me because I teach a similar set of texts, and for similar reasons. I start with a translated version of the Thousand and One Nights, Poe's "Thousand and Second Night" and Barth's "Dunyazadiad" preparatory to a chunk of Borges. (The latter makes the sex/reading connection interestingly but incredibly explicit, which prepares them for Calvino's lighter handling of that dynamic.)

My students react to Calvino with the same range of love and frustration as yours; they think they've figured the novel out by Chapter 6 or thereabouts, so they stop investing in the last few novel fragments and declare that their interest has shifted to the frame story. My strategy is to ask them to revisit the formal schematic we developed at the beginning; it becomes obvious that the stabilizing borders between "frame" and "fiction" have blended, and that the temptation to compartmentalize that way becomes impossible exactly when they think they've got it all taped out. I also ask them to predict how it'll end. Sometimes that nudges them out of frustration.

Lotaria's a problem, isn't she? Calvino's bizarrely ungenerous treatment of her perplexes me too. For what it's worth, I don't think it's an across-the-board condemnation of academic reading, especially since a lot of literary criticism creeps into the first few novel fragments (criticism which seems to be of the "right kind"). Ludmilla's expressed desires for a particular sort of novel are always dutifully met by the fragment that follows (or precedes), then exceeded, first by the novel (in which characters perversely start analyzing themselves) and then by the proliferation of "plots" which threaten to overturn the outer universe of the novel. Too, the Reader longs to have a conversation with Ludmilla about the literature (a conversation that could never help but be analytical), and that never happens. Even at the end they're reading separately. The fantasy is at least in part about togetherness in reading---a togetherness that gets achieved, at least metaphorically, when the Reader and Lotaria end up having sex wrapped up in the pages of a book.

You're right that Calvino puts us in a double-bind: he encourages us to be Ludmillas but structures the novel so that we CAN'T be anything but Lotarias since---fight as we might for a complete experience---we're never (for example) *allowed* more than a fragment of a particular "novel." (And that's all that Lotaria and her academic group claim to need---they happily butcher books into chunks and distribute them for analysis without caring about the integrity of the whole.)

On the other hand, Ludmilla disappears because she's too boring, and Lotaria becomes the authoress of all kinds of conspiracies/plots. Ludmilla might be the muse, but Lotaria is the engine that makes story happen. (Oops---ran out of room—will continue on another comment.)

Anonymous said...

Lotaria's also an interesting test case for a particular kind of teaching problem. After we read the bit about Lotaria reading books according to word frequencies, I give my students an article on how Facebook is being used to measure the mood of the nation based on frequencies of word usages on particular days. They're pretty taken with it; it's science, after all. I ask them whether they think it's possible to actually read people this way, and the extent to which what people write on Facebook correlates with their actual state of mind. I love this moment because they usually unload on all the literary sneakiness they feel they've been subjected to. "People have no reason to lie!" they say. They imply that SOME sick minds (Borges, Calvino, *cough*) might think that it's worth leaving the most important thing unsaid or whatever, but that by and large human beings are nice truth-telling creatures.

The study's methodology is sound, they say. They're less comfortable transferring that conclusion over to Lotaria's model of reading, but because they've agreed to the validity of statistical averages as a means of extracting information, they usually admit that she might have a point.

Their homework is to run a Facebook Statistics analysis program on their own (or a friend's) status updates. This tells them the 6 words they most frequently use. They have to analyze it the way Lotaria would, and then say whether she's right.

Thanks for this post---it was a pleasure of the unpoliticized kind.


Horace said...

Wow. I'm totally going to steal some of this stuff--especially the facebook status aggregator stuff. I approached that idea with the idea of wordclouds, which seemed to invoke both Lotaria and Irnerio at the same time. Not enough of them recognized wordclouds(!!!) to find that connection useful though.

Sisyphus said...

Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo has another reading/sex paralleling that I really like ... and, unfortunately, some of the same "evil feminists" biases. (at least his other books do.)