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.
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.