In one of her formalist asides, Anne Carson writes, “prose is a house poetry a man in flames running quite fast through it” - a striking image, but neither half really describes the writing of Red Doc>. If I elaborated on that analogy to find a place for Carson, I might describe her as the one who wanders through the darkened house, lighting her way with a series of matches she discards without making sure they have gone completely out.
The book foregrounds its severe structural choices: Thin vertical ribbons of justified type whose thicker left and right margins serve as a visual reminder of the way the words in between amount to only a sliver of the world, the lives to which they point. A complete absence of the comma, that most human, most fallible punctuation mark. Dialogues sheared off with slashes rather than quotations and he-said, she-said.
But I was equally struck by the way the writing gave the impression of being almost irresponsibly arbitrary and yet as well-worn, as organically placed as river rocks. There is a story that swims in and out of focus in Red Doc> - a story we believe is the loosest of sequels to Carson’s Autobiography of Red largely because she tells us that’s what it is - but at least after the first reading, I would say the story is as much a device as the typesetting. All is in service of an experiment in the porosity of language - the unexpected moments when language stops being the customary barrier between one interior life and another, and bits of unfiltered life actually pass through intact to scare us, harm us, and jolt our hearts out of the rote exercise of beating. The fact that many of those unfiltered moments deal in grief, mortality, and chaos makes the experience all the more wrenching.
There is a fair share of truly poetic writing here; as one character ponders how musk oxen (one of whom also happens to be a mythologically transmogrified character) might regard humans, Carson writes of animals, “Do they experience the entire cold sorrow acre of human history as one undifferentiated lunatic jabberwocking back and forth from belligerence to tender care?” But most of the work of this book is done with incredibly utilitarian words, phrases, and sentences. The sublime does not come out of linguistic fireworks but basic speech, which, after all, is the currency of the real world and real life.
I have a sense of Anne Carson as a writer too fiercely independent, too resolute to care whether her reader follows her or not. As Autobiography of Red did, Red Doc> gives the impression of a most personal story, verging on a language all its own, that the reader discovers and then handles carefully, respectfully, finding it fulsome even as it eludes him, and hoping it will continue to reveal itself over time.
I’m a little disappointed in the Sean O’Casey volume I found because it doesn’t include “The Shadow of a Gunman,” which forms O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy along with “Juno and the Paycock” and “The Plough and the Stars.” I’ll have to track that play down. In the meantime, I’m left to marvel at the oddness of these two plays - their incredibly vital bleakness that samples equally from Greek tragedy and the absurdity of Samuel Beckett.
Both plays tell densely charactered - but not densely plotted - stories of the working poor and the political upheaval in Dublin Ireland in the nineteen teens and twenties. There is a strong socialist undercurrent to these plays, but at heart they are studies in disintegration. The audience watches helplessly as small groups of people suffer and bring further suffering upon themselves, taking poor circumstances at the start of the play and arriving at much worse circumstances by the end.
It is striking that every character onstage has a deep animosity for at least one, and frequently several other members of the cast. These plays do not pit one hero against one challenge; rather, everyone fights with everyone, eludes everyone, is harmed at everyone else’s hands. The plots, a bungled inheritance and the Easter Rising, respectively, are merely crucibles in which families and neighbors live out successive waves of disappointment, pain, and abandonment. If anything, it is miraculous that these characters feel so alive, so restive as they circle the drain.
It is that quality that makes these plays great. We find very little of which to approve in these people and their actions, and yet we identify with them, finding authenticity in their words and deeds even as we deplore them.
Reportedly these plays are among the most frequently performed in Ireland, which makes me wonder what of the Irish identity is encapsulated in them. Is it a sense of second-classness, perhaps borne of political and economic conditions, but over centuries grown into a world view, an ethic, a temperament? Nothing of the idyllic is present here: no Riverdance, no four-leaf clover, no Irish blessing. Sean O’Casey was dismissed in some quarters for being uncultured and crude. But there is an undeniable purity to the squalor in these plays, an artistry to their decay, and that is what makes them endure.
I’ve been reading an unusual amount of poetry of late - really just a coincidence, but that has resulted in some interesting juxtapositions. I won’t go so far as to say that poetry and prose shouldn’t be considered under the same umbrella of literature, but the reader engages with most poetry so differently than most prose. And then I begin to think of the compelling exceptions to that rule, and the duality begins to break down…
There is a list of adjectives and corresponding schools easily applied to Pablo Neruda’s work: surrealist, impressionist, symbolist - I thought particularly of Rimbaud as I waded into Neruda’s thicket of images, but that may be only because Rimbaud is the symbolist with whom I’ve spent significant time. Like Rimbaud, Neruda’s poetry is disorienting and intentionally so. To dramatically simplify the theories of those schools, the aesthetic experience is grounded in the distortion of reality that in turn provides a new perspective on that reality. These poets use vantage points that are equally arbitrary and profound, equally hallucinatory and visionary.
I can’t go along with that concept unquestioningly. It seems to me that the surrealists and the symbolists are particularly open to the charge that if a critic questions the meaningfulness of their work, they’ll reply, “You just don’t get it,” which in turn increases the suspicion that a particular emperor may not be wearing any clothes.
Case in point: in Neruda’s “Melancholy in the Families,” these lines are completely impenetrable to me:
I keep a blue flask,
inside it an ear and a portrait:
when night forces
the owl’s feathers,
when the raucous cherry tree
shatters its lips and threatens
with husks that the ocean wind often penetrates,
I know that there are great sunken expanses,
quartz in ingots
blue waters for a battle,
much silence, many
veins of retreat and camphors,
fallen things, medals, acts of tenderness,
The images come so quickly, and repeatedly are so incongruous, that I have to discard any thread of potential meaning I pick up before I have finished the next line. This is verse that makes a skeptic of me.
But immediately following those lines, the clouds part and this brilliant set appears:
It is only the passage from one day toward another,
a single bottle moving across the seas,
and a dining room to which come roses,
a dining room abandoned
like a thorn…
Then I wonder if I was impatient, and that maelstrom of previous images (flask, night, ocean waters, silence, acts of tenderness) is the context that makes this passage of time, this bottle moving across this sea, this empty dining room with its memories of life, so affecting.
And I remember other images of domestic desolation in his poetry, other indications of loss, of heartbreak, of isolation. This from the prose-form “The Uninhabited One:”
Often, when night has fallen, I bring the light to the window and I look at myself, supported by miserable boards, stretched out in the dampness like an aged coffin, between walls brusquely feeble. I dream, from one absence to another, and at another distance, welcomed and bitter.
The collective impact of Residence on Earth, finally, is not a parade of naked emperors, but of emperors wearing the kind of haute couture that makes middle Americans scratch their heads and wonder who would ever wear something so impractical or downright absurd. That, ultimately, is missing the point. As visceral as Neruda’s poetry is - ruthlessly so at times - the viscerality is the prelude to an intellectual process during which fragments of language fit back together in unexpected but revelatory ways, frequently combining fact and interpretation, thought and emotion with techniques unavailable to rationality on its own.
Perhaps the emblematic “Ars Poetica” best encapsulates my experience of Neruda, expressing my relationship with his writing, with art in general (mine and others’) and even with life as a whole. It is somewhat stark, but pulsing with life and the willingness - his, and hopefully mine - to risk almost anything for a glimpse of something greater.
but the truth is that suddenly the wind that lashes my chest,
the nights of infinite substance fallen in my bedroom,
the noise of a day that burns with sacrifice,
ask me mournfully what prophecy there is in me,
and there is a swarm of objects that call without being answered,
and a ceaseless movement, and a bewildered man.
It’s been perhaps fifteen years since I read Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, and having now finished The Razor’s Edge, I have a desire to go back and read the other again. My memory of it is not distinct enough - did it influence me as subtly as this book did? Was there the same strange tension between artlessness on the surface and artfulness underneath?
At the start, The Razor’s Edge appears to be a society story - perhaps why I was reminded of Henry James at several points. The idle wealthy grow idly rich in America between the wars, and if a young veteran slips bewilderingly through the cracks to follow a comfortable but comparatively impoverished bliss, that’s his loss, and he’s likely there as a foil to the strongly defined characters who have grand trajectories planned for themselves.
But as Maugham relates, having made himself the Greek-chorus-like narrator of the story, Larry (the wanderlust man) gradually becomes the pivot around which all the other lives turn, whether they realize, admit, resent it or not. As personal tragedies, stock market crashes, misplaced priorities, and bodily harm take heavy tolls on the rest of the characters, Larry seems to shed his concerns, his limitations, and even his mortality by opening himself first to self-directed education, then to humility through manual labor, and finally to a blend of Eastern philosophy and mysticism - in short, he runs in the opposite direction of everyone else.
The others’ disparagement of him and their inability to comprehend his choices on even the most basic level are a little harder for the reader to understand now, on the other side of the era Maugham (and a few of his contemporaries) foreshadowed by more than a decade: the countercultural, anti-rational, Upanishad-reading sixties. We all have friends who have gone to ashrams and transformed their lives to one degree or another under the influence of a guru and a meditative practice. Poor Isabel, Elliott, and Gray have no frame of reference.
I am making this novel sound rather didactic, and its excellence lies in its avoidance of just that - even when Larry provides a chapter-length monologue on the wisdom he’s acquired. That’s possible because Maugham has spent most of the novel showing us these ideas through comparison and contrast before he permits Larry to say almost anything at all.
Everyone gets what they want in the end - not just Larry. And that, ultimately, is Maugham’s point: be careful what you spend your life wishing for, because if you get to the end and your wish turns out not to have been your true heart’s desire, it will be too late to go back and try again. That idea resonated in me very deeply as I read this book - I became aware of my own age, my own aging, in a way I don’t believe I ever had before, and I found myself looking around my life, wishing for less complexity, more stillness, more joy that didn’t involve large sums of money.
To a lesser degree, I was fascinated by Maugham’s depiction of Elliott, who gives more than a whiff of homosexuality from within the confines of his role as a taste-making eunuch in the story. He is a man who Freud might have examined at length in an essay on repression and sublimation. Because Larry is held in the wings for much of the book, Elliott emerges as the most complex character, and his life is the most tragic of all the characters because of his nuanced telling.
I was frequently baffled by problems with Maugham’s writing on the sentence level - awkward construction, inefficient structure, and stilted dialogue. But those weaknesses couldn’t restrain a novel with a powerful, if quiet idea that remains with me almost as a meditation.
Thus far in my reading life, I have connected much more strongly with prose than poetry, with a few notable exceptions - Emily Dickinson, for example. When I spend time with a classic poet, it is as much with an academic desire to round out my experience of the Western Canon as it is to have a transformative aesthetic experience.
When this fall I stumbled across a gorgeous hardcover volume of Keats’s collected poems from 1895 going for a pittance in a used bookstore, I took that as my sign from the universe that it was time for me to explore Keats, and so I did. He surprised me at times, but largely confirmed my feeling that while the romantic tradition is an essential through-line in Western literature (and I’ll go ahead and lump in the pastoral/bucolic), it is not a tradition with which I connect strongly.
Keats’s story is tragically romantic in itself - a young man, largely unappreciated during his brief life, who tends to his family as they die of tuberculosis one after another before he succumbs himself, unaware of a fortune that might have changed his circumstances considerably. It is not difficult to find melancholy and even torment close to the surface of many of his poems.
An early sonnet, sometimes titled ‘Sonnet to Solitude,’ was the first in the collection to strike me, but for the most part, Keats’s early work - including the extensive ‘Endymion’ (of the oft-quoted “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”) - is a bit opaque for me, perhaps because I am insufficiently acquainted with mythology, or perhaps because it repeatedly squanders dramatic tension and character development even though frequently the poems are narrative.
There is, however, a moment in Endymion (Book IV) that showed me Keats as a poet of greater substance than describing misadventures in forest settings:
…There lies a den,
Beyond the seeming confines of the space
Made for the soul to wander in and trace
Its own existence, of remotest glooms.
Dark regions are around it, where the tombs
Of buried griefs the spirit sees, but scarce
One hour doth linger weeping, for the pierce
Of new-born woe it feels more inly smart:
And in these regions many a venom’d dart
At random flies; they are the proper home
Of every ill: the man is yet to come
Who hath not journeyed in this native hell.
Before that, I had missed this kind of abstraction, this level of metaphor in Keats’s writing. It feels almost as though Keats had been writing his way to these lines over the previous thousands in ‘Endymion.’ They revived my interest in seeing what else he might have to offer.
The most astonishing moment came with a lesser-known poem called ‘Isabella, or The Pot of Basil.’ A relatively short narrative, it is so strange, I can’t understand why Tim Burton hasn’t adapted it for a creepy, stop-motion film:
Isabella has a lover beneath her station and two brothers who aren’t happy about that. So the brothers take the poor guy out in the forest and kill him. Isabella has a dream that reveals the fate - and the location - of her missing lover. She goes out to the forest, finds his body, cuts off his head, brings it home, and plants it in a pot of basil. All of which is weird and tortured enough, but the brothers come to suspect the reason why this pot of basil is thriving, steal it so there is no proof of their crime, and leave their sister heartbroken and head-of-her-dead-lover-less. The end.
If that doesn’t get a WTF from you, even today, I don’t know what will. In a hyperbolic way, ‘Isabella’ is what confirms my faith in the Western Canon and my continued strategy of self-immersion in it. Of course, Keats is a far more subtle and masterful poet than he is with ‘Isabella,’ but moments like this - of complete and unexpected disorientation that force me to think differently about the role literature plays in our culture and our consciousness - are to be cherished.
‘Hyperion’ is the major, if incomplete, poem left unpublished at Keats’s death, and it is the work I wish he had lived to finish to his satisfaction. My final transcendent moment with this poet came there:
There is a roaring in the bleak-grown pines
When Winter lifts his voice; there is a noise
Among immortals when a God gives sign,
With hushing finger, how he means to load
His tongue with the full weight of utterless thought,
With thunder, and with music, and with pomp:
Such noise is like the roar of bleak-grown pines;
Which, when it ceases in this mountain’d world,
No other sound succeeds…
Keats was unhappy with ‘Hyperion’ because he considered it excessively derivative of Milton, and I am not qualified to comment on that. What I can say is that passages like this one epitomize the way nature - one of the original, if not the first muses of artists - is an inexhaustible reflection of the human experience, and will always be, no matter how much technology we place between nature and ourselves. I look past my computer monitor to the birches out my window and think of the roar they would make if an ice storm pulled them all down, and I understand that sound as the perfect expression of the sublime - the ideas that lay beyond my grasp, but define me with their unknowability.
Which is to say, I understand the importance of the romantic/pastoral tradition in literature, even if it is not a personal favorite. I was changed by reading Keats, and that is my standard for canonic literature. You may choose to focus on ‘Isabella’ and ‘Hyperion,’ but spend a little time with John Keats and see if he doesn’t change the way you look at the world when you walk out your front door.