Today is Emily Bronte’s birthday (thank you, internet), which reminded me that I have just a few more chapters to read in the Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson. One of the gems of this book—which is a quick read, as Introductions usually are—is the mention of how much Dickinson was influenced and affected by Bronte. Until recently, I did not always pay attention to timeline and it hadn’t really occurred to me how many of the authors I consider classic were contemporaries. Anyone born in the 1800s or earlier I’ve often lumped into one great category called Dead Writers and had not bothered with the fascinating way in which these writers interacted or influenced one another.
But what this really got me thinking was that without realizing or intending to do this, I’ve read a good number of literary biographies recently. And thoroughly enjoyed all of them. This all started with Lyndall Gordon’s Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, and then her Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, and then I read Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose. (Although come to think of it, it actually all started with Houellebec’s long essay on H.P. Lovecraft.) I started reading Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector, but had to return it to the library and haven’t gone back to get it again. I’d like to finish this, but other projects got in the way. I will, perhaps strangely, go ahead and put Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and Anne Carson’s Nay Rather into this category as well. I then read Catherine Dubuis’s A Femme Entre les Lignes: Vie et Oeuvre de Clarisse Francillon. And somehow made my way to Wendy Martin’s Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson.
But what I’ve noticed is how much I enjoy reading these, and I’d love some suggestions. I’ve made a short list already, but please do leave a comment if any of you have a favorite literary biography you think I’d enjoy. I admit that I’m really only interested in biographies of “dead” writers at this point, so with that in mind…
- Lyndall Gordon – Lives Like Loaded Guns: A Life of Emily Dickinson
- Barbara Johnson – A Life with Mary Shelley
- Elizabeth Hardwick – Seduction and Betrayal
- Benjamin Moser – Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
- Nancy Milford – Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Milley
I’ve seen there is a biography of Frantz Fanon by David Macey – has anyone read this? Or what about Lawrence Jackson’s book on Ralph Ellison? If someone has the inside scoop that there is a biography out or coming out on the Haitian writer Marie Vieux Chauvet, I’ll be forever grateful.
I was away this weekend in Burgundy spending a few days doing (a much-needed) nothing, just walking about with my family and visiting small villages, some wine tasting, and plenty of good food. While on this small trip, I read Anne Carson’s short essay “Nay Rather.” Then I read it again. And this morning, I’ve read it a third time. Such a beautiful essay (and the accompanying poems are a treat as well). It’s about translation and so speaks to much of what I love to think about—untranslatability, how language works to create pause (in thought, in communication, in understanding), how language attempts (and/or fails) to replicate experience. Carson uses several examples to talk around these ideas—the trial transcripts of Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon’s artwork and how he rejected narrative, and Friedrich Hölderlin’s extremely literal translations of Antigone.
I read parts of “Nay Rather” to my daughter on Saturday when none of us could sleep while a very bad musician played LOUDLY on the street corner outside of our hotel, and she loved hearing about Joan of Arc because last year we stayed with friends in a place where Joan was supposed to have spent a night once (and my daughter first heard a version of Joan‘s story from a friend who is an inveterate storyteller). My daughter absolutely loved this line, “The light comes in the name of the voice,” as well as many of the lines from Carson’s poem “By Chance the Cycladic People”—her favorite being, “Clouds every one of them smell different, so do ocean currents.” It is such a joy that children do not mind this kind of language. None of it struck her as odd, she just loved how it all sounded.
So today I am happily focused on this idea of Carson’s of writing/language that “stops itself.” I think that Clarice Lispector does a lot of this, which is why some people may find her difficult to read. And I think that Hélène Bessette does this in her 1954 novel maternA (which hasn’t yet been translated, alas). Poetic language does this more than non-lyrical writing—it is so often about disrupting thought or creating heavy silences—but one of Carson’s examples is as non-lyrical as you can get. I’m quite certain there are thousands of examples, and I’d love to hear from anyone else. What other writers and works do this?
A quick aside: In our meandering visits, we passed very close to the small village near Yonne where Colette was born. There is a small museum in her former childhood home, but we didn’t get there. I was thinking about Colette recently, reminding myself to read more of her work, but also because she is one of the writers on my list of “women who have yet to be (completely) translated.” Much of her work, thankfully, is available in English, but not all of it.
I’ve had a few pieces come out lately that I haven’t point to here. The first two are reviews, of Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale (tr. Charlotte Barslund) and Ethel Rohan’s short memoir Out of Dublin. I really enjoyed both books, although they are very different from each other—both are unique love stories, both play with language (in very different ways), and both are about the effects of childhood on an adult.
And while I was away this weekend, Issue 9 – “The Disappearance Issue” – of Spolia came out, which includes one section of a forthcoming chapbook of mine called “Elemental: Variations.” There are many wonderful pieces in this issue, plenty of reasons besides my little contribution to download and support Spolia.
While I’m reporting on publications, I have a small poem—“nightjars”—in the latest issue of The Ann Arbor Review.
I have the immense pleasure of reading through the Readux catalogue at the moment, and getting ready to write about these charming little books. If you don’t know Readux, take a moment to see what they’re about.
Here are some of the other books floating about my life at the moment: three different Anne Carson are supposed to grace my postbox today or tomorrow: Glass, Irony & God; Men in the Off Hours; and Red Doc>. I cannot wait for these. And then a friend has pointed me in the direction of Monique Roffey’s Archipelago and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. So that’s me, what are you reading?
My first experience with Anne Carson was two weeks ago and it has placed her firmly on my shelf of must-read-everything-ever-wrote writers. Everything I am going to say about her has undoubtedly been said before, by people with a better education in both the classics and poetry, but here is my pale attempt to write about my own experience of reading her for the first time. And it is somewhat incomplete because I am still thinking about this book, and will continue to think about it until I’ve read more of her work.
I’m not going to write much about the story of The Autobiography of Red, not least of all because I am finding basic plot discussions a bit tedious these days. I just want to dive into the questions and the way the writing worked to affect me, and I’m going to assume that anyone with a computer can look up the basics if necessary.
But the premise of The Autobiography of Red, as explained by Carson in the book’s first section, is worth noting because it helps situate the reader inside Carson’s unique vision. The novel/poem is a re-imagining of an ancient story called “The Geryoneis” (the killing of a red monster named Geryon by Herakles) as told by Stesichoros (a Greek poet whose “words were collected in twenty-six books of which there remain to us a dozen or so titles and several collections of fragments.”)
Carson writes: “…the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box.”
Which is essentially what Carson then does. She shakes. She imagines. She re-creates. She conducts us through a handsomely imagined landscape that is bound to the unorthodox approach that Stesichoros took of positioning his poetic viewpoint behind the weaker character (Geryon the monster) instead of the victorious one (Herakles the hero).
It seems intuitive to us, modern readers, that Geryon’s story is the more interesting one, but I wonder if this was not the case for Stesichoros’s contemporary readers. And so I also wonder if Carson’s choice to dance around that notion of “killing” (How many different ways can you “kill” someone?) and turn Geryon and Herakles into lovers was a nod in that direction. The story is provocative and profound because of this choice. Any re-imagining is bound to take immense liberties with the original—almost always for the best—but Carson’s vision is particularly daring. (And yet, surprisingly somehow, so easily imaginable.)
The novel is a poem, so that’s something you have to engage with right away and it makes for a different kind of reading. Poetic narrative is often about the continual gesture toward something that is exceptionally pointed emotionally, but maybe hard to understand (at least this is how poetry works for me) and then shifting the emphasis to unexpected objects and motions. Throughout The Autobiography of Red there is this kind of movement
Something that I found very curious, but also really effective (this is a love story, isn’t it? And love stories, even tragedies, can be really cheesy), is the way she allows the poem to be funny—in a lot of different ways, smart and ironic but also just giggle-worthy—and even a little corny sometimes:
…Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.
The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice…
It’s a little silly, that “opposite of blindness” but I love it all the same. This is adolescent love we’re talking about here.
Then there are moments that the emotional pitch of a line is so incredibly spot-on, so chillingly clever, like this moment when Geryon (who might be dreaming?) is in a bar with a woman facing him. They banter back and forth, it’s both funny and profound and then this:
She studied him a few moments then said slowly—but the gnome gave the piano
a shove against the wall
and Geryon almost missed it—Who can a monster blame for being red?
What? said Geryon starting forward.
I said it looks like time for you to get home to bed, she repeated, and stood,
pocketing her cigarettes.
It doesn’t resonate very well taken out like this, but that line, “Who can a monster blame for being red?” brought chills to me while reading. And there are so many moments like this, which I think stand out all the more because of the first kind of writing I mention, the silly writing, the slightly tongue-in-cheek and unafraid-to-dance-with-cliché kind of writing.
The book moves forward in a linear way, following the relationship between Herakles and Geryon and eventually a third person, Ancash. It is truly nothing more than a simple love triangle but there is so much going on in Carson’s seemingly-easy lines. Questions on nostalgia for old relationships, on desire, on power dynamics, on how people (even strangers) affect one another:
…. In the space between them
developed a dangerous cloud.
Geryon knew he must not go back into the cloud. Desire is no light thing.
Finally, I love the way she places the story as far from a Greek setting as possible. And she doesn’t make it anonymous in that shift away from its origins, she names places, she makes it contemporary and specific and manages—wonderfully, incredibly—to not only hold onto the essence of the original, a kind of “classical” feel but to engage with questions of desire as we are exploring and asking them today. It seems like this might be easy, but I don’t think it is, and that mixture of the ancient and the modern is especially compelling.
For my book club this week, I got the chance to re-read Doris Lessing’s 1951 The Grass is Singing. It’s an extraordinary book—not only because of its thematic project, which is complicated and stands up to all sorts of varied interpretation and socio-historical analysis, but because her prose is somehow both utilitarian and majestic all at the same time. That word utilitarian is so ugly, I know, but I use it because Lessing is just such a competent writer. Nothing ever superfluous, and yet… she can be wonderfully, incredibly lyrical.
I marked out a long passage yesterday that struck me as symbolic of something Lessing is doing, quite cleverly, throughout the book:
In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvelous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers. Later, when it grew warm, and the sun seemed as hot as in summer, she would go out into the front and stand under a tree on the edge of the clearing (never far into the bush where she was afraid) and let the deep shade rest her. The thick olive-green leaves overhead let through chinks of clear blue, and the wind was sharp and cold. And then, suddenly, the whole sky lowered itself into a thick grey blanket, and for a few days it was a different world, with a soft dribble of rain, and it was really cold: so cold she wore a sweater and enjoyed the sensation of shivering inside it. But this never lasted long. It seemed that from one half hour to the next the heavy grey would grow thin, showing blue behind, and then the sky would seem to lift, with layers of dissolving cloud in the middle air; all at once, there would be a high blue sky again, all the grey curtains gone. The sunshine dazzled and glittered but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within. There was a lift in the air, an exhilaration. Mary felt healed – almost. Almost, she became as she had been, brisk and energetic, but with a caution in her face and in her movements that showed she had not forgotten the heat would return. She tenderly submitted herself to this miraculous three months of winter, when the country was purified of its menace.
All that underlining is mine, obviously, but these were all the places where I thought Lessing was doing something interesting. So many small elements in just one paragraph. If you read this paragraph quickly, I think you could mistake it for just a simple pause in an otherwise unsettling narrative. It feels like a break. Here is Mary (who is elsewhere in a state of constant stress and emotional breakdown), relaxing, feeling somehow at peace. And I suppose there is that. But there are warnings here too – those ice crystals, the mention of her ever-present fear of the bush, that shivering, which she oddly enjoys, and then the dazzling, glittering sun without menace. There are sharp points dotted all along this restful passage.
The repetition of the word menace struck me as well. And the way it becomes an extended, albeit sideways, discussion of “heat.” She never talks about desire, but the entire book is about the heat that seems to drive Mary crazy. And of course heat is another way of talking about desire, so I can’t help seeing that here too. Ultimately that last line, “when the country was purified of its menace,” is also about desire and about the exploration that Lessing has got going about the master/servant situation, and about the catastrophic “desire” that infuses the racial situation at the same time. I don’t mean desire in normal terms, but in the broken way that Lessing treats it. And it makes me think of one of the most incisive lines from another favorite of mine, Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving:
Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.
This is, I think, what drives all that marvelous (and by marvelous, I do mean horrific) subtext throughout The Grass is Singing. And Lessing never once forgets it. She puts it into the sky and the sun, and into the very landscape. Everything is intimate.
Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs came out last year and there’s been quite a bit of discussion about it. I really like Messud’s writing (I’ve read her two novellas, The Hunters and A Simple Tale, as well as her big novel, The Emperor’s Children), mostly because she is a fiercely intelligent and intellectual writer, but also because of the way she works carefully at thorny emotional questions in her books. She can do social satire as well as intimate personal/domestic – so I was quite curious to read The Woman Upstairs and now that I’ve finished it, it’s exactly the kind of book I’d really like to discuss.
Briefly, the book is about a fortyish woman named Nora. And the book is, at least on the surface, about her anger at what life has dealt her, but also at the overall outcome of her choices and a long-chain of events that has led her to a certain moment—in this are family situations (the death of her mother being the most important, but also her childhood and her self-conception as having developed from her particular family with its specific emotional currents) and professional situations (her work as a 3rd grade teacher, her years-earlier decision to give up her dream of becoming a professional artist). Nora narrates the book, and she focuses her narrative on a single relationship, an odd kind of intense love triangle between herself and three others: Sirena, Skandar and Reza Shahid. The Shahids are a family (Reza is their young son and Nora is his teacher), and Nora and Sirena become friends and artistic collaborators (of a kind).
In the way that I have come to admire, Messud takes up a number of difficult questions in the story—namely, the particular solitude of a single childless woman in contemporary American society, the compromises a person makes in terms of fulfilling artistic dreams, the strange pull of female friendships, and also essential notions of desire and attraction and love. There is really a lot going on in the book, and she doesn’t work at these questions perfunctorily but instead she spends a lot of time on them, revisiting them in different situations and with different characters. It makes for the kind of book you can read forward and backward, slowly. Messud invites a kind of conscious reflection on Nora’s explanations and judgments, on her opinions and decisions, and so I often found myself asking – Is that true? Does it really feel like that? Do people feel that way? Do I feel that way?
I like a book that solicits this kind of engagement from me. And I love the scale of Messud’s social commentary. She can do satire (The Emperor’s Children) but in The Woman Upstairs she is decidedly never making fun of Nora Eldridge, even if the book can be funny at times. Instead, she is taking Nora very seriously—even when Nora might be difficult, or pathetic—and I found the seriousness of Messud’s project quite touching. Really, the book is a dissection of an individual’s unhappiness. Of a woman’s unhappiness. I think the distinction is important, and I think Messud makes it overtly.
One thing that struck me, however, was that the book’s emphasis on self-reflection and its choice to have Nora speak directly to the reader means that it also involves a tension between direct scene and thought-based exposition. Or, put another way, the book relies more heavily on Nora’s thinking than it does on Nora’s behavior. What she does is obviously there, but what she thinks is always and consistently forefronted. She is, quite literally, almost always “telling.” I found this a curious choice simply because the book is so much about Nora’s anger and the kind of person it has made her. Now, Nora is dealing with a simmering anger, a kind of just-barely controlled resentment—and so much of the book’s tension is wrapped up in waiting to see when she might lose control. I was surprised, in fact, at how little she does. I don’t mean big overwhelming eruptions, because I think that Messud is making a point that unless Nora intends to self-destruct (the option at one end of the anger spectrum – and something she will not ever do) she will internalize and hold it together no matter what. But Nora doesn’t ever really slip up. Not even little things. I’ll admit that because of this, it was sometimes easy to lose sight of her anger.
Finally, something else that struck me as interesting was the way the book is structured. It opens at a present-tense point, Nora in the here and now, and in this here and now she is furiously angry. At her life in general, but also because of something very specific. She then moves backward four years to begin the story of that very specific thing. And then the entire story rolls out – nearly 300 pages of it, all of it in that four years earlier time period, briefly interrupted by even earlier flashbacks. It isn’t until only a few pages from the end that we catch up to that first present-day period and where, essentially, we can now deal directly with Nora’s anger and its consequences. But it’s strange because Messud doesn’t do very much with this—she addresses it, of course, and in an intriguing (even a courageous way, I would say) way, but it is extremely brief. It surprised me. And I say courageous because Messud uses this story of Nora’s anger and what it might do/become as a launching off point into a future we cannot (or may not be able to) easily envision – if Nora can transform herself, in some way transcend the anger that has characterized her, it is only through the reader’s determination to agree with this possibility, really it is only through a trick of the reader’s imagination. That’s a fascinating idea – and one I’m still thinking about.
In February something very very very exciting happened – which I haven’t yet written about here. All the details have finally been worked out, so I can now make my small announcement.
My novel Fog Island Mountains won the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award, sponsored by Audible. The book will be published this coming fall with Tantor Publishing. Here is what the book is about:
Huddled beneath the volcanoes of the Kirishima (Fog Island) mountain range in southern Japan, the inhabitants of small town Komachi are waiting for the biggest of the summer’s typhoons. South African expatriate Alec Chester has lived in Komachi for nearly forty years. Alec considers himself an ordinary man, with common troubles and mundane achievements—until his doctor gives him a terminal cancer diagnosis and his wife disappears into the gathering storm. Kanae Chester flees from Alec’s diagnosis, even going so far as to tell a recently renewed childhood friendship that she is already a widow. Her willful avoidance of the truth leads her to commit a grave infidelity and only when Alec is suspected of checking himself out of the hospital to commit a quiet suicide does Kanae come home to face what it will mean to lose her husband.
Narrating this story is Azami, one of Komachi’s oldest and most peculiar inhabitants, the daughter of a famous storyteller with a mysterious story of her own. Azami is interested in the kitsune folktales, stories of foxes that transform into women to trick and then marry the men they have selected, but once discovered were forced to abandon their families. Azami knows the foxes as a healer, but she learned of them first as a child, from her Grandfather’s stories and from her Grandmother’s deep-rooted superstitions.
As Azami writes (and invents and rewrites) Alec and Kanae’s story, also telling tangential stories about the couple’s three children and other Komachi townspeople, Fog Island Mountains becomes the story of an entire town and how it submits to this typhoon, how it watches a beloved English teacher get ready to die, and how it wonders at the unexpected disappearance of his faithful wife. In this Azami is re-inventing the kitsune folktale, revealing herself and cannibalizing her own difficult history.
The book is about illness and grief, about mixed culture families and relationships, and ultimately about storytelling. And (I tell you this because no one might ever notice) it is also a contemporary re-working of the longest of the classical Japanese poetry forms, the chōka (長歌).
I’m obviously really excited about this. (And obviously a little terrified, too). Once the book has a cover, I’ll post a link. And I will probably post a few excerpts over the summer.
I will be getting back to this space more regularly soon – we moved to a new village in March and I’ve been very busy getting settled in. I am extremely happy with our new place – even if I will miss our old farm house from time to time. But this new place has…. built-in bookshelves!! Everywhere!! (Which I filled up a little too quickly, even if I did a major book sorting/giving away before we moved. Sigh.) In any case, things are nearly back to normal and I have been reading some wonderful stuff, all of which I am excited to write about. A short list:
- Clarisse Francillon’s collection of stories Le Quartier – wonderful and touching vignettes of 1950s Paris
- Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale – reviewing this one soon for Necessary Fiction
- Chris Yates, Night Walk – these are really lovely nature essays in praise of exactly what the title says, walking at night
- Amy Sackville’s Orkney – read this a few months ago and it just enthralled me
Also, I just started reading Sworn Virgin by the Albanian author Elvira Dones. Here is a book whose cover flap I actually should have read before diving in. On the first page the gender pronouns are switching all over the place – but this is the story of a young Albanian woman who has been living as a man in her village for the last fourteen years. The novel opens with her arrival in America, and the implication is that she will be able to be a woman again. This is proving difficult for her. Promises to be a really interesting book.
* * *
Also, In March I reviewed Christa Wolf’s slim novella August over at Necessary Fiction. I loved this little book – it’s simple and careful and all about memory.
August opens with the words, “August is remembering.” And this very simple sentence (the present tense of it absolutely perfect) directs the reader toward a series of tender meditations on this man’s early life. That word tender seems strange when the first memory called up is about the loss of his mother during a bombing raid on a refugee train, about a difficult conversation with a woman from the Red Cross and 8-year-old August’s medical exam and subsequent removal to a tuberculosis hospital. But despite the implied horror of these events, August’s tone is tender. Perhaps it is the distance Wolf gives him, 60 years in the future, or perhaps it is the life she has given him—a life mostly only hinted about—to fill those 60 years.
Alongside the careful tenderness in August’s tone there is also a feeling of resignation, and a cautious sorrow. Now a widower, now ready for retirement, now a man with plenty of time to be quiet and alone with his own thoughts—August fits the mold for the kind of memory piece that has even become a genre: an older man looking back upon his life and revisiting its twists and turns, its more difficult questions. But August isn’t interested in understanding anything. And this is the key. August simply wants to look at it again. To feel it all again. To peer through the windows of his mind and see the people and the objects of this particular and short period of his life.
You can read the rest of the review here.