Tag Archives: Oulipo

Crafting the unsayable: Anne Carson’s Nox

One of my reading habits that changed most significantly after grad school is that I tend to read books sequentially now, rather than starting half a dozen at the same time. I like this new rhythm; it feels luxurious, and reminds me of the pure pleasure of being a reader.

Recently, contrary to my post-grad school habits, I found myself reading two books at once: Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, and Anne Carson’s Nox. The two books are not at all alike, but reading them concurrently reminded me of the serendipity of finding that one work opens up new and surprising connections in another. In this case, the connection is craft and constraint.

In Reading Machines, Ramsay explores “potential literature” as a way of understanding the  complex relationship between writing, reading, and criticism. Ramsay argues that the process of creating a text in the manner of Oulipo is a process that is at once creative and critical, and in which the reader is frequently complicit. Further, Ramsay notes that, contrary to the Surrealists’ focus on inspiration, Oulipians “emphasize the original sense of poesis as ‘making’ or ‘building'” (27). The more challenging the constraint, the more keenly aware the reader becomes of how carefully each word and line must be crafted. (Having recently read Doug Nufer’s Never Again, in which no word is used twice, I wholeheartedly agree with this.)

So, with craftsmanship and limitation and the interrelated roles of writer and reader on my mind, I come to Nox, a book more spellbinding and beautiful and unusual than anything I have read in a long time. Carson certainly takes on multiple roles in creating this piece–not only writer and reader, but also translator, curator, and visual artist.

Not only is the book complex in terms of its written form, incorporating original writing as well as translation and borrowed letters, but it’s also visually complex, with a format unlike anything I have seen, and which I’ll describe in a moment. Written as a sort of elegy for her brother, with whom she had a distant and complicated relationship, Nox is a stunning example of a writer representing the unsayable through disruptions in a written text. (This notion was at the heart of my dissertation, and I so wish that I could have explored Nox alongside Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir, Jabès’s Livre des questions, and the other works that came to mean so much to me–Carson’s work would have enriched the conversation in a beautiful way. Perhaps another project for another time.)

Returning to my reading of Nox, though. There is so much to talk about. First, and most immediately noticeable, is the construction: the book is a sheaf of continuous accordion-folded pages, unbound at the spine; the single pleated page is contained (loose) inside a hard-edged box that opens like a book. The reader can carefully turn the folded pages like a codex, or she can stretch them out from end to end, like a scroll.

Next, the language: this is why I love Carson to begin with. She is a poet, and her language makes that clear, even in prose; each word is crafted and placed with such intention. She makes me catch my breath. I loved Carson’s earlier book, Autobiography of Red, for the same reason; it is innovative and surprising and hauntingly beautiful. (For a great interview in which she discusses both Autobiography of Red and Nox, try this.)

Then, the fragments: the pages look like small collages; each one features a small scrap that appears to have been hurriedly glued or stapled onto the page. The pages are flat and smooth (being reproductions of the original constructions), but the illusion of texture led me to run my fingertips over the page countless times. Carson creates a physical space that holds her own thoughts and her brother’s, as well as elements that are hard to place or that don’t seem to make sense.

Finally, the added complexity of translation: the work starts with a poem by Catallus (#101), presented in Latin in smudgy ink. I merely glanced at it, as I don’t know Latin. But Carson makes the reader think so deeply about that poem. On alternate pages, she presents a single dictionary entry for a word in the poem. (Even the dictionary entries, I suspect, are her own; the sample sentences are too rich to be genuine reference material.) Page by page, I tried to construct the meaning of the poem for myself, and as a result, I read those lines of barely-understood Latin dozens of times. I couldn’t come to a translation, but I came to a rough understanding of the poem’s skeleton. By the time Carson included an English translation (her own), I yearned for it.

The element of translation is perhaps the most interesting to me. Carson is a translator, and she describes her mourning process in terms of translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole. It is, she says, an unending process. She describes the process, as well as her choice of the particular Catallus poem, in a section labeled 7.1:

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times… I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

This is a book to re-read and to savor.

Circling back to the connection with Ramsay’s thoughts on Oulipo, Carson’s choice of form in Nox functions as a similar kind of constraint. As with the Oulipians, there is no room for anything to be out of place. Carson reads and writes and translates and interprets and designs, and she encourages the reader to engage in similarly blended acts, resulting in a rich and intense experience that I won’t soon forget.

Umberto Eco with Paul Holdengräber at NYPL Live

When I’m missing the mountains and open skies of Colorado, there are two bookish things that always make me appreciate being in New York: BAM’s “Eat, Drink, and Be Literary” series, and the New York Public Library’s Live series. (Good food will usually do the trick, too.) BAM has the advantage of food, drink, and a more intimate venue, while NYPL has the upper hand on interviewing excellence–I simply love the way Paul Holdengräber engages his guests. A few days ago I went to hear him interview Umberto Eco, and from the moment they kicked things off by talking about books they haven’t read (à la Pierre Bayard), I remembered why I love being in a big city. The conversation was full of gems, and I particularly enjoyed thinking about the idea that hatred and stupidity are boundless, whereas love and truth are limited and predictable. (Love is exclusive, after all, and two plus two always equals four; whereas hatred can be shared and multiplied among any number of people, and the number of wrong answers to two plus two is limitless…)

Somewhere between declaring that the ability to lie sets humanity apart from animals, and avowing that “discombobulated” and “flabbergasted” are his two favorite words in English, Eco asserted the importance of contraints–rather than freedom–in the creative process. This is the essential idea of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle); while Eco is not a part of OuLiPo, he does have strong affinities with the group, as is evident from this event at the Louvre. The OuLiPo project has fascinated me since my first (or second?) year as a grad student, when my advisor, Warren Motte, introduced me to some of the group’s work. Deeply playful and rigorous, writers of OuLiPo embrace the role of form in the creative process to an unusual degree, setting arbitrary limits and rules on their work to see what comes out of it. One of my favorite examples is Jacques Jouet’s Poèmes du métro, in which each line was written between metro stops as he traveled along a pre-determined route that he had carefully mapped to maximize the metro stops that he visited while minimizing backtracking and repeats. Other writers, like Jacques Roubaud, rely on mathematical formulations to set constraints. Georges Perec famously wrote a novel without using the letter “e” (La disparition, 1990), then followed it up with a novel that used no vowels other than “e” (Les revenentes, 1997). Not all the works that are born of these constraints are fun to read, but the successes are truly magical.

I like the argument for limits quite a lot. I’ve seen it to be true personally with regards to my photography. I have a good camera and live in a photogenic city, but the times that I get the most interesting shots are when I have really specific assignments (like one, from a recent class, to capture blurry motion, silhouette, and deep depth of field in the same frame. This was one result of that task; here is another.) Freedom is not so useful in sparking creativity; set limits, though, and the creative mind comes to life. This is one reason I was interested in silence and the “unsayable” in my dissertation–what can more sharply limit language than silence? When writers work through and around silence, the results can be remarkable.

Returning to Eco after this OuLiPo rabbithole, I’ll mention that the only disappointment of the evening was nonetheless a substantial one. Closing out the interview, Holdengräber asked Eco, who professes to own 50,000 books, whether libraries have a role to play in the increasingly digital future. Eco responded that of course they do! They will be the museums for the lone copies of printed books; they will be like the tombs that preserve the mummified pharaohs.

Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about this very question, I am convinced that the future role of libraries has far less to do with the physical form of the book (much as I love my real books), and far more to do with the careful and dynamic curation of works in all their forms. I think libraries have the potential to become even more living and vibrant as the expertise of librarians comes to the forefront. Museums, tombs, dusty archives–I think these are absolutely the wrong images to have in mind as libraries adapt to a quickly changing environment. I wish there had been a bit more time for discussion after Eco made these remarks, because I would love to know Holdengräber’s reaction. His usual opening remarks reflect a desire to bring lightness and liveliness to a sometimes heavy institution, so I’d like to think that he would agree with me on this one.

This post touches on some topics related to my work at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, so I will note that all views are my own and should not be taken to represent the organization.