A Year in Reading

Picture 17By Parul Sehgal, The Millions, Dec. 17, 2013

The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole.

But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself.

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Red Doc>

9780307960580_custom-689066379ad8cb7f9c4b62c3af2a1dec4dd50f8f-s6-c10By Anne Carson

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, February 2013

When Anne Carson was a child, she read Lives of the Saints and adored it so much she tried to eat its pages. The Canadian classicist and poet has never lost this desire to merge with the text; if anything, she’s created forms that allow her to eat as many pages as she possibly can. In her translations and recastings of the classics, she enters the books she loves, tilts and deranges them and makes them her own. Nor has she lost her appetite for the physicality, the thingness, of a book. She eulogized her brother, Michael, in Nox (2010)—a translation (of sorts) of Catullus’s poem 101, his own elegy for a brother—illustrated with collages, photographs, and scraps of letters. The pages folded concertina-style into a gray box, its shape suggesting the self-enclosure of grief and the cold slab of a headstone. In 2012, Carson updated Sophocles’s Antigone, another story of a sister grieving the death of her brother, in Antigonick, a hand-lettered translation with playful drawings and enough creative license to include references to Virginia Woolf and Hegel. Even if one of her books looks conventional, trust that hidden architecture undergirds the story. In her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red (1998), Carson retold the myth of Herakles and his tenth labor: slaying the red, winged monster Geryon and stealing his oxen. She made the two men lovers and narrated their romance in a nonchronological hodgepodge of styles—the academic essay, the interview—the chapters formally different and discrete as rooms.

In her new book, Red Doc>, Carson picks up the story of Geryon again, fashioning from it yet another curious object. The sentences are squeezed into a tight column, about an inch and a half long. Scenes are sequential and cut occasionally to witchy pronouncements from a Greek chorus who call themselves the Wife of Brain. Surrounded by acres of white space, the text looks like tracks in snow.

When we left Geryon in Autobiography, he was in Buenos Aires, the unhappy party in a love triangle with Herakles and Herakles’s new lover. At the beginning of Red Doc>, he’s older, still unlucky, still tending his animals and losing his looks. “Am I / turning into one of those / old guys in a ponytail and / wings he thinks sadly.” He’s spent the last seven years reading À la recherche du temps perdu.(“Reading it every day,” he tells his mother, “was like having / an extra unconscious.”) Fortuitously, he’s shaken out of his stupor and self-pity by the reappearance of his old love, now a war veteran who calls himself Sad. They meet a delightfully deranged artist named Ida, and embark on a desultory journey over a glacier, into a body shop–cum–psychiatric clinic. They pick up Hermes—in Greek mythology the cunning messenger of the gods—as a hitchhiker. They sleep with each other and squabble and leave Geryon at his mother’s deathbed. It’s Alice in Wonderland without the philosophy, just the nonsense and surreal size play: “Ice bats . . . the size of toasters” and “crows as big as barns / rave overhead.”

In Carson’s work, philosophy and literary criticism (or even their parodies) have functioned as a trellis around which scenes are strung. Formal structures and especially the fragment allow her to pose questions with and within her work, to insinuate and tease, and she’s at her best in the interrogative mood, as in her book The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001). Because Red Doc> lacks this scaffolding, her players skitter in constant and confused motion. This wouldn’t matter so much if the story were strong enough to hold them, if the characters were, on some level, enacting psychological or philosophical questions. But Red Doc> is only superficially interested in narrative. It’s a long, lovely line to nowhere, a beautiful surface. The language doesn’t exist to take us inside the characters; it’s just so many daubs of paint, utterly its own end.

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Courage And Curiosity: The Best Heroines Of 2012

1.3by Parul Sehgal, NPR, December 27, 2012

The most dangerous trait a woman can possess is curiosity. That’s what myths and religion would have us believe, anyway. Inquisitive Pandora unleashed sorrow upon the world. Eve got us kicked out of paradise. Blight on civilization it may be, but female curiosity is a gift to narrative and the quality my five favorite heroines of the year possess in spades.

These women come to us from history, from a novel, from the pages of a diary and from an ancient poem. They’re women who want to know things, who want to devour the world. Refreshingly, they aren’t primarily defined by their desire to love or be loved — or even to be especially lovable — these are sublimely stubborn women, frequently at odds with themselves and always at odds with their times. They’re on quests. Which isn’t to say that these quests are necessarily successful (the heroines of one particular book were flamboyant failures). The outcome is immaterial; the wanting is all.

Sophie Calle: The Address Book

By Sophie Calle • Hardcover, 104 pages

In 1983, the French artist Sophie Calle found a lost address book on a street in Paris. She rang up the people listed and asked about the owner of the book, whom she calls Pierre D. (“I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him.”) She published her findings in a newspaper — to the outrage of the real Pierre, who threatened to sue. Calle agreed to hold off republishing the pieces until after his deathPierre died in 2005, and this book is now available in English. I’d foolishly worried that there would be something self-consciously whimsical, something Amelie about the project. But from the outset, Calle’s inquiry is too serious and strange and plain difficult. A few people refuse to speak to her. Others agree to meet Calle, but can’t recall Pierre. The testimonies add up; our quarry comes into focus then blurs again: He lives alone. His hair went white the week his mother died. He has conventional sexual fantasies. He wears ill-fitting clothes, like a clown. Assembling a personality from these shards is intoxicating, a bit like solving a mystery, a bit like falling in love. But whom are we falling in love with? Is it Pierre? Or is it our guide? The book includes photographs of the people, paintings and places dear to Pierre. The most arresting portrait is of a young woman — could it be Calle? — in profile, hiding her face behind long dark hair, inscrutable to the last.
As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980

By Susan Sontag and David Rieff • Hardcover, 523 pages

The second volume of Susan Sontag’s posthumously published journals picks up in New York in the ’60s with the writer’s reputation established and romantic life in shambles. It’s a book in fragments: the “hot exhalations of the mind,” images that gave her pleasure (the “pale pinkish brown color of stone houses” in Corsica), and some scabrous self-criticism. We see Sontag lie to herself (“I’ve constructed a life in which I can’t be profoundly distressed or upset by anyone”) and arrive at painful personal realizations. Most of all, these journals are a portrait of a woman who was the custodian of her intellect. “I’ve got this thing — my mind. It gets bigger, its appetite is insatiable,” she writes, and these pages — rife with lists of books to read, films she’s seen, and words to learn — record how she fed it. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that Sontag burst on to the literary scene, “a cultural-critical Athena, armored with a vast erudition, bristling with epigrams”. This book reminds us of the daily diligence this display required. “Buy a dictionary the size of an elephant,” she ordered herself. “A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?”
All We Know

By Lisa Cohen • Hardcover, 429 pages

Lisa Cohen gives us three stylish, independent heroines for the price of one in her triptych of women, once famous, now forgotten: Esther Murphy, a spellbinding conversationalist who never managed to produce the books her public so eagerly awaited; Madge Garland, a gifted editor at British Vogue; and Mercedes de Acosta, the “first celebrity stalker” who became the lover of the most glamorous women of her time, including Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan and Greta Garbo. The three women, who were intimates, moved in the lively and quarrelsome lesbian circles of early 20th-century New York, Paris and London, and Cohen vividly brings this world to life. She also makes an original and persuasive case for her subjects’ métiers, the fleeting, trivialized forms of cultural production: conversation, collecting and fashion. It’s a gossipy, gorgeous, near-perfect biography that turns the form inside out. “I have wanted to make these three women visible again,” Cohen writes. “But none of them thought herself in need of rescue. Each memorialized herself and colluded in her own invisibility.”
Carry the One
By Carol Anshaw • Hardcover, 523 pages
Carol Anshaw’s taut novel of how a horrific accident propels three siblings on very different courses has many qualities to recommend it. It’s sharp and wise and manages the impossible: to write about sex in a genuinely sexy way. But most of all, it has AliceAlice is the rumpled, heroic soul of the book — and possibly the year’s most purely sympathetic character. An artist desperately in love with her elusive model girlfriend, jittering with need and trauma, she and her sister Carmen are struggling to save their brother from tumbling further into addiction. (Anshaw, whose own brother struggled with addiction, unsparingly depicts what it means to lose a family member to drug dependency.) Hers is a journey of learning to live productively with great guilt, of the solace of work and art and sisterhood (Alice “pitied everyone who didn’t have a sister.”) Our siblings do much more than merely support us, they hone us, like steel sharpening steel.
By Anne Carson • Hardcover, 180 pages
In her new book, the poet and classicist Anne Carson remixes Sophocles’ great tragedy, Antigone, with Hegel, Virginia Woolf and strains from her own life. The book is hand lettered, and Bianca Stone’s surreal illustrations tell a story of their own: beautiful girls with cinderblock heads, tottering furniture, a shovel, a ladder, red thread pinioning a horse’s hooves, red thread twining around spoons, red thread unspooling over the pages like a long trail of blood.

Antigone, our heroine, is “a person in love with the impossible.” She is the daughter of Oidipus and sister to Eteokles and Polyneikes (Carson’s own spellings) who have slain each other in battle. She defies her uncle Kreon’s order to leave Polyneikes’ body unburied, risking death by being buried alive. The book speaks to us in our own language — and cheekily references other interpretations of the play: (“Remember how Brecht had you do the whole play with a door strapped to your back” the chorus asks Antigone) — while matching the horror and heartbreak of the original. Realizing death is near, Antigone says:

“You ask would I have done it for a husband or a child my answer is no I would not. A husband or a child can be replaced but who can grow me a new brother. Is this a weird argument, Kreon thought so but I don’t know. The words go wrong they call my piety impiety, I’m alone on my insides I died long ago.”

Anne Carson: Evoking the Starry Lad

The Irish Times, March 19, 2011

On Thursday the Canadian poet Anne Carson speaks at the Poetry Now festival. She tells PARUL SEHGAL about her elegy in verse for her late sibling, Michael

‘So, Pinhead, d’you attain wisdom yet?”

In 1979 Anne Carson’s brother fled Canada to escape being arrested for dealing drugs. For 22 years he roamed India and Europe under false passports, writing home infrequently and calling only half a dozen times. He resurfaced in 2000, calling the poet at her office, using his pet name, Pinhead, for his brainy younger sister. He lived in Copenhagen now. He wanted to see her. He wanted her to meet his wife and his dog. They made a plan, and a week before she was due to visit she received another call from Denmark. Her brother was dead.

“His widow says he wanted to be cast in the sea, and so she did this,” she writes in her astonishing elegy to her brother, Nox. “There is no stone and as I say he had changed his name,” she writes. Nox, a grey, squat slab of a book – a book in a box, as self-enclosed as grief; a book so bulky it cannot be carried but must be visited – is his headstone. In the months after her brother’s death Carson gathered his fragments, his letters and photographs. She pasted them into a blank book and inscribed his name, in her own hand, over and over again on the title page: Michael, Michael, Michael .

“He was such a puzzle,” she says. “I think by writing, and I wanted a way to think about him.” We meet at a cafe near New York University, where she is a “distinguished poet-in-residence” and a visiting professor in the creative-writing programme, and strain to be heard over the hissing cappuccino machines.

As visiting professor, in the autumn term, Carson teaches a typically idiosyncratic course on collaboration with her friend Robert Currie, who helped to design Nox. (“We just give the students tasks, like burn something and make something out of the ash.”) On Thursday Carson will deliver the keynote address at dlr Poetry Now, Ireland’s largest poetry festival, in Dún Laoghaire. She’s planning to talk about “untranslatable things” and draw on Detroit’s Heidelberg Project – prime Carson source material. In one of the American Midwest’s most ravaged cities, a local artist named Tyree Guyton has spent 25 years beautifying two blocks, salvaging materials and pasting them to the outsides of derelict houses. He’s covered houses with dolls, bicycle wheels, car parts. The ghost town gleams.

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