Western by Christine Montalbetti

I dislike reading French books in translation, so it’s a bit my own fault for picking up Montalbetti’s novel, Western, translated into English by Betsy Wing. Despite actually having met her briefly at a reading in Boulder, I haven’t read Montalbetti’s work before, so the biggest issue about reading in translation is that I don’t know her own voice. I can’t tell whether I’m not crazy about the translation, or whether the translation is faithful but I am not wild about Montalbetti’s style. (Or, a third possibility: I’m annoyed with myself for buying the translation and can’t quite relax into the writing the way I normally would.) Whatever the reason, I found much of the prose to be choppy and forced, and I kept finding myself putting the book down or re-reading the same paragraph multiple times. This changed a bit toward the end of the book, when the style smoothed out considerably and I found it a much more pleasurable read. I’m a bit confused by my lukewarm reaction to the book, considering that two people whose book opinions I highly value–my advisor, Warren Motte, and my friend and former colleague, P–really enjoy her work.

The book’s premise is that of an old American western, but rather than being plot-driven, Montalbetti withholds the action as long as possible in favor of exploring endlessly meandering details. In one passage early on, I loved the personification of words in a conversation–those that tumble easily from the lips of a confident and relaxed participant, compared with others that fight to leave the mouth of a shy and awkward party to the conversation. This character, Dirk,

look[s] all around for words as though they already existed somewhere in a solid state and just had to be extracted from whatever out-of-the-way place they’re hiding in… and when he finds one of them, he grabs hold of it for you by the scruff of its neck and drags it, without further ado–struggling because of the weight of this cumbersome, limp individual, resisting him with all the power of its passivity–all the way up to the mouth that opens to submit the prisoner to Ted and our thirty-year-old. (44)

This slow and detailed progression repeats itself to create the book’s rhythm. Ants in the shadow of a character’s boot are explored in depth and with great psychological attention,  and similar detail is afforded to the movement of a drop of water, light in a mirror, a character on a screen. This sentence describing the boot that forms the ants’ terrain was lovely, if a bit overwritten:

The boot’s style is identifiable, with its beveled heel and the topstitching running up the leg in a wavy pattern–should we be seeing hills in all this stitching, their slopes full of game, their bucolic undulations so pleasing to the eye?–or is yours a more maritime imagination, leading you to think about the traces left by every obstinate returning wave on the sand of a beach–not the ribbons of foam that float ont eh air like fragments that have come loose from a mummy’s wrappings (something you might come across on a very windy day), but those embellished drawings, those arabesques that that same regathering wave pours over: pulling back to consider what it’s inscribed before coming again to scrawl some new figure with wild daubs of its brush, adding to its earlier lines in the sand. (7)

In the end, as I mentioned, the book surprised me in quite a positive way, drawing me in much more than it did initially. And actually, as I’m writing this now, I’m finding myself wanting to go back and give it another shot, to get another glimpse of those details so intricately explored. I’ll definitely give Montalbetti another try–but next time, I’ll read her in French.


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.