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Published April 2022Become a subscriber
In one way or another, most of my life has been a live action rendition of Rumi’s ‘Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have to Take Me Home’, that poem of cosmic bewilderment at having somehow ended up in this world (brusquely described as a ‘prison for drunks’). While it may read as if I’ve randomly decided to fling insults at life, I’m actually aiming for transparency here, trying to clarify the basis for the awe in which I hold the arts – which I consider the greatest gateway to acceptance of the human condition. At this point, even if the spaceship that must have brought me here finally did arrive to take me back, I’d find it very difficult to turn my back on a global civilisation that’s brought forth the plays of Lorca, the Chagall ceiling of Paris’s Opéra Garnier, the paintings of El Greco, orchestral compositions like Josef Suk’s Scherzo Fantastique, the mixed mediums of William Blake and Helena Almeida, the poems of Wisława Szymborska and Gerard Manley Hopkins, TV scripts written by Kim Eun-sook, the Hong sisters and Park Ji-eun, Ildikó Enyedi’s film On Body and Soul, Céline Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, every Wong Kar-wai film, ludic literature (more about that in a bit) and on and on and on…I could reel off lists for months at a time and still only have referred to a tiny sliver of art’s astonishments.
Still, this is the respect, delight and admiration of one who is probably not one hundred per cent committed. Someone who likes human beings, but from some sort of emotional distance. This isn’t a distance that induces feelings of safety or superiority or anything like that. I can’t quite describe what this distance feels like. But it’s always there. It’s neither harmful nor helpful, and just seems to be part of the way my brain works. I can only recall a couple of instances of seeing this distance reflected in writing: the first being the behaviour of Cesminigar the tortoise, one of my favourite characters in Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s solid gold Cadillac of a novel, The Time Regulation Institute, published in 1962 and translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe in 2014. Most descriptions of Cesminigar involve his determined attempts to scramble out of the scene. He doesn’t want to be in the story. The more adamant Cesminigar is about getting out, the more likely it seems that he’s not objecting to the particular story he’s in – it’s more that he simply can’t be in a story. He just needs to be over there somewhere, where there are no words.
This persistent sensation of uninvolvement – and corre-sponding appreciation of the ability to really be present in one’s own life – might be part of the reason why I resist the identification of any functional role for the arts. It’s like this: when we claim that we make things up so as to have holidays from reality, or so as to strengthen our faculties of empathy, or to access higher or otherwise invisible truths or to visit other worlds, it feels like trying to put collars on creatures we were already quite naturally going about hand in hand with almost non-stop, waking and dreaming. Consider the unruly edge to any and every story – the aspect of the story that’s often unavailable to its teller or creator; consider the obscurity of how a story comes to be, or begins to flow, or actually comes alive. That’s the aspect that makes the purpose of stories – if there even is a purpose – impossible to evaluate. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to me to claim that any benefits we may have received from a made-up story are the reason the story exists. Most of us are happier when we feel we’re contributing something, anything, to the greater good, and it’s probably better for overall morale if the time, effort and sheer soul poured into this kind of work is matched by a concrete goal.
For my part I’m not too worried about not knowing what art is really for. And I’m happy when I see and hear made-up stories being accepted entirely on their own terms as opposed to being poked and prodded for themes and such. A big step towards making more room for that to happen would be increased resistance to the temptation to send our arts, or even our sciences, out as scouts in search of the meaning of our lives. Even if a person does come across something that gets to the very heart of them, it’s usually too raw to be digested by anyone other than the one who’s gleaned it. The heart is a lonely hunter indeed. I can see that this set-up is daunting enough to make us scramble to do a bit of outsourcing, halving the burden of processing our own emotions by pushing the rest onto art. But then we end up in a place where it’s insisted or implied that the value of art lies in its seriousness – or that without seriousness (or sombreness, poig-nancy or some otherwise earnest element) the invention we’ve just spent time with isn’t art. Reading for pleasure or for fun is of course fine, but if you’re reading properly there’s got to be some profundity, or at the very least some anguish. Rather than attack this way of reading I want to show some love for writing that is entirely incompatible with the notion that there’s something you should be learning from it, or any sort of cathartic message you should be receiving from it.
In his 1938 book Homo Ludens, the historian Johan Huizinga suggests some key characteristics of play. He observes that the players of any game are bound by a spirit of hostility and friendship combined, that the combative or competitive element of play is an essential component – a component accentuated by alternation and repetition; rounds and roundabouts. Huizinga states the very first characteristic of play: it is free, is in fact freedom (entered into freely) and later adds, almost as an aside, that the plain fact is that play may be deadly and yet remain play.
I want to join Huizinga and others in reaffirming that play is far from trivial, and that games are not without substance. Last year I watched a livestream of a play written by Artificial Intelligence – well, a play scripted via collaboration between a language processing algorithm and a team led by the human playwright and dramaturge David Košťák and the human linguist and robopsychologist Rudolf Rosa. So very broadly speaking we could call this ninety per cent AI authored with five per cent direct input from human scientists and the same amount from human artists. In an early scene a human asks a robot to tell him a joke. The robot replies that there is no joke. Very stern…there can be no joke here in this theatrical milestone. That in itself was enjoyable. I enjoyed the play as a whole, and felt exhilarated by its cellophane-like affect, the organisation of its ideas and the way that those ideas were linked – I wouldn’t call it simplicity, but there was a lightness with which the dialogue and scenarios were connected that allowed the entire body of this hourlong play to walk on its fingertips. A somewhat roguish energy shone through on the part of the director, Daniel Hrbek, and the actors juggled the material with charisma. It was all very compelling, and had I not known that the play was in part a demonstration that AI is able to produce work that a drama fan can appreciate, I wonder what I would have given as the main reason for feeling as engaged as I did. But we can talk about the production some other time. Back to the part of the AI play where the pesky human keeps asking the robot to make him laugh. After repeatedly insisting that ‘there is no joke’, the robot gives in to the human’s request and unleashes his best quip: When you are dead, and your children are dead, and their children are dead, and their children’s children are dead, and their children’s children’s children are dead, I will still be alive.
I still can’t decide if that successfully removed all playfulness from that scene, or if it heightened the unruliness of the exchange. Play antagonism or sustained refusal to play? I found some hope in that ambiguity, and in the offering of it. Hope that there is a spirit of play still afoot in at least some of the stories being made up nowadays.
By no means does it have to be all frolics all the time – any one reader is a lot of people, and variety is the only way to keep all the readers within a reader happy. Some examples from piles of books in a Prague flat: when reading a Mariana Enríquez story I no longer care about frolics – there are so many other things going on. Han Kang’s writing doesn’t really play around either, nor does Rachel Cusk’s, nor Anita Brookner’s nor Kelly Link’s. My rapturous response to the writers mentioned is all about one of them being an exquisite technician, another being a ruthless manifester, one wielding bladelike prose, and then the others combining all three! Setting out in yet other directions that are neither grave nor carefree, I arrive at Diana Athill’s writing, Ali Smith’s, José Saramago’s, Robert Walser’s. And then there’s Yoko Tawada’s writing, and Dubravka Ugrešić’s. There’s Witold Gombrowicz, Anne Carson, Daniil Kharms, Heather O’Neill, Jesse Ball and others I read for thrills, but again, thrills that are quite distinct from the electrical wriggle that animates writing that’s at play. Kharms and Gombrowicz, two authors whose writing personas almost completely oppose each other, do have one thing in common: their stories sometimes give a strong impression of Ludic League athletes. But to my mind the playfulness is a transient effect. The humour is there, as is the combative spark – either as subtext or more explicit confrontation, the narrative equivalent of having sand kicked in your face. These are stories you go towards; they’ll never chase you. So I say they’re not playing. I’ll share a much-loved passage, though; it’s from the final paragraph of Gombrowicz’s introduction to his 1937 novel, Ferdydurke, translated from the Polish by Eric Mosbacher, a masterclass in introductions that are tongue-in-cheek yet simultaneously not really joking: At worst the book will pass unnoticed, but friends and acquaintances when they meet me will certainly feel under an obligation to say to me the sort of thing that is always said when an author publishes a book. I should like to ask them to do nothing of the sort. No, let them say nothing, because, as a result of all sorts of falsifications, the social situation of the so-called ‘artist’ in our times has become so pretentious that whatever can be said in such circumstances sounds false, and the more sincerity and simplicity you put into your ‘I enjoyed it enormously’ or ‘I like it very much indeed’, the more shameful it is for him and for you. I therefore beg you to keep silent. Keep silent in hope of a better future. For the time being – if you wish to let me know that the book pleased you – when you see me simply touch your right ear. If you touch your left ear, I shall know that you didn’t like it, and if you touch your nose it will mean that you are not sure…then we shall avoid uncomfortable and even ridiculous situations and understand each other in silence. My greetings to all.
I want to stick up for stories that play because they tend to be the ones that we’re quickest to lose patience with; since they don’t attempt to draw us in with sorrows and profundities, they’re meant to be relaxing, apparently. I suspect ludic tales may be the ones most abruptly dropped for not behaving as toys ought. We’ll drop the book without a word, but if something does have to be said about it – if a friend insists on knowing why we didn’t keep reading, for instance – we’ll say a book engaged the mind without engaging the heart: a critical formula that may help us avoid confessing that the heartlessness was ours, or that we felt mocked by the authorial voice, the idiosyncrasies of the text, the sequencing of events, the footnotes, all of it, really.
I don’t come across stories that play as much as I used to and want to, and I very much hope that we’re not running out of them. Perhaps they’re retreating from the contemporary English-language book world. Does this language of ours somehow inhibit the conception of something as gorgeous and as formally frustrating as Éric Chevillard’s The Author and Me, a novel-length sentence most wilfully punctuated so as to remain readable without the use of full stops? That one was written in 2012, and Jordan Stump’s English translation, published in 2014, is as much of a feat as the novel itself. Without trying to pigeonhole Sabrina Orah Mark’s writing – the play aspect is not the only part that’s remarkable about it – I’ll mention her short story collection Wild Milk as the only English-language option I can think of at the moment when it comes to fiction that pulses with the spirit of play. This rowdiness is present in the author’s poetry, too, and the seeming effortlessness with which she pulls that current across mediums certainly makes a non-poet wistful. Let’s have some more!
I hesitate before asking that we take a bit more time to think aloud about ludic literature. Past the age of eighteen I avoided the formal study of literature despite an interest in canon and in tradition. I didn’t quite trust myself not to fall into a mindset where the rules of this type of story and that type of story would become so firmly fixed that I would almost automatically be prevented from reading or writing anything fresh and free-floating. Identifying characteristics of stories that play is bothersome in that very same vein. Having cracked the spines of so many different and equally wonderful styles and types of fiction and identified a potential decrease in contemporary tales that play, am I now seeking to increase the quota so we can have the same ratios as there were in, say, the twentieth century? Even if that is the mindset that’s driving these thoughts, the joke would be on me. If there’s any type of story that could never be identified from the portrait on a wanted poster, a story that plays is probably it. Not seeing the game coming could well be part of the MO. And the invitation is to participate in a contest that doesn’t rely on the foreseeability, or even the possibility, of conclusion, but on a back and forth of impressions, ideas, doubts and certainties that call upon as many of our literacies as possible and has us reading all along the breadth and depth of our unexpectedly divided and even more surprisingly united selves. As a side effect, notions of winning and loss get scrambled like eggs in a hot frying pan.
I didn’t read Barbara Wright’s sleek and sparkly 1958 translation of Raymond Queneau’s 1947 book Exercises in Style until I was in my early thirties. I have the good fortune of being friends with the Estonian writer Indrek Koff, and in 2018 I discovered with much glee that, aside from also being a publisher of children’s books, he’s a talented comic actor and quite a splendid trumpeter as well – skills he makes the most of as part of a performance troupe that adapted and performed some of the chapters of Queneau’s Exercises in Style in a chapel in Tallinn. The show was such a riotous enchantment that I got the gist of it all despite not understanding a word of Estonian. And though it’s true that the performers, adapters of the text and the audience were the key influence that night, when I opened the book, it felt as familiar as it did avant-garde. More than that, Queneau’s high-kicking parade of ultra-short stories – each one using a different method of recounting the same altercation spotted on a Paris bus – felt like a benevolent gesture. Possibly one of the most benevolent gestures a writer can make towards a member of the masses. Ninety-nine versions of the same story, and not a single repetition! That’s so loving. Not to mention a tiny bit vicious. I didn’t understand – or even make much of a connection with all ninety-nine of the Exercises in Style. The entries that drew on the properties of an official letter, of dreams, plot twists, class consciousness, reported speech, doubtful neutrality, over confident neutrality, hesitant witness, outright biased witness – those versions won me over immediately. Others – the entry related via negatives, the animist entry, the philosophical entry, the double entry entry, among many others, turned my reading experience into one of curious aversions and affinities, interpretive barriers to leap over, knock down, go around or even creep under. Creeping under barriers is OK; why be unnecessarily prideful when you can be shrewd? I’ll quote the deathless Jára Cimrman, The Greatest Czech, captured on camera in the 1983 film Jára Cimrman, Lying, Sleeping as he advises school children unsure as to how to climb a tricky fence without looking weak in front of each other: Children, in your life you will have to face obstacles. Tyrš says: ‘Jump, climb, but never ever bend down’ but I say: ‘You may bend down too, but then you must straighten up again!’ I was not fond of each and every one of the ninety-nine Exercises in Style, but without exactly that number of entries, I wouldn’t have glimpsed fiction’s frankly miraculous absence of limits – and here I refer to the ways and means of transmitting a story as well as to the ways and means of receiving it.
I’ve heard football described as The Beautiful Game, but reading fiction that plays is the most beautiful game of all. An activity that asks a lot of you; much more than you were aware of even possessing. As you read, your pockets are unstitched and the ludic story pulls endless strings of smoked sausage out of it – or bars of gold, if you’re vegetarian. But there is no defeat scenario; the story is a game, not a battle. That said: it isn’t as if the game or games played in ludic fiction are necessarily pleasurable, or particularly humorous – that isn’t what drives your willingness to subject yourself to its rules. I’m thinking of Ágota Kristóf’s 1986 novel, The Notebook, a book so hard – I don’t mean difficult hard, but diamond hard – that if you shift focus as you hopscotch across the grid of chapters, you could fall and break your mind on a page. Which page? Literally any page. If you’ve read it, I think you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t read it, please do, but I’m asking you to be careful and try to set aside six to seven hours on a day when you don’t have anything else scheduled. The book was written in French and translated by Alan Sheridan into an English with an understated and fascinating throb to it, each chapter a link in a magma chain. This notebook, probably less famous than the bestselling love story, is only 167 pages long and feels much shorter than that – I think adrenaline is a factor. The twin protagonists are young enough to have milk teeth (later shattered when they’re beaten during an interrogation) but they’re studying the rules of life in wartime, and they are not to be sidetracked, fobbed off, or trifled with. When invited to participate in some game or other, these two answer: We never play. We work and study. The boys are only really dangerous to the one person in the story they catch trying to increase somebody else’s truly abject suffering for their own enjoyment. This doesn’t make the boys’ dangerousness any easier to navigate; the character in question isn’t even aware of her transgression, but the boys are aware, and so, reader, are you.
The vastness of fiction’s playground (and the seeming abundance of slides and ladders) makes it possible for the reader of ludic literature to flee the corner inhabited by the kids who don’t play and crash into the hall of King Arthur for all the wonder of Camelot on New Year’s Day. Just in time to witness the beginning of a yearlong game that places itself on some borderline between a deeply erotic puzzle and a mystical riddle, the challenge of the Green Knight who will accept one colossal injury from anyone who dares to strike him, as long as that person is prepared to visit him and receive exactly the same injury in twelve months’ time. Then from fourteenth-century England we can hula hoop over to nineteenth-century Norway and play tag with Peer Gynt as he runs this way and that, trying on the persona of a bride-abducting rascal, a hill troll, a morally bankrupt businessman, a desert prophet, a liar, a psychiatrist’s assistant and a legend…but after a certain point the Gyntish one refuses to be spied on any longer, and pushes us down a mountainside, where there is no reindeer steed to spring across the abyss with us this time. Instead the reader of ludic literature falls into the lap of quite another book, a seduction simultaneously more intimate and abstract than the taut and unspeakable anticipation that runs through the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight. This other book was first published in Italy in 1979, and begins in a manner that makes you feel you’re not going to have any difficulty standing aloof from it:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.
Oh, really? Come on, you scoff. (Well, I did, at first.) But it’s too late. The game is very, very, very much afoot.
Helen Oyeyemi is the author of the story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, along with five novels— The Icarus Girl; The Opposite House; White Is for Witching; Mr Fox; Boy, Snow, Bird; Gingerbread; and, most recently, Peaces. In 2013, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.Read more