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Nox – “no use expecting a flood of light”: A review of Anne Carson’s book

November 18, 2011

I don’t mean to start book review with a review of another book review, again.  But there are several good reviews of Anne Carson’s Nox, which was released long ago in April 2010, in part her now-well-known translation of Catullus‘ poem “CI [or, 101]” (a poem, his gift to his dead brother’s ashes), and you need to know what The New Yorker reviewer Meghan O’Rourke told us:

“Carson soaked her typescript of the poem overnight in tea.”

That’s certainly not anything Carson herself told us readers. Nor did anyone at New Directions, the publisher of this book, tell us this is what Carson did. I think we all may have seen how the New Directions legal staff have their say before Carson can write a word, when they print out in fine print black and white: “All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted…, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the Publisher.”

What Carson is showing, more than the lawyers must say, is that “no part of this book may be reproduced.” She gets no permission from Catullus to type his poem, or to soak “her” typescript of it so reproduced, at night, in tea.  (I do not, yet, have permission, not in writing, to reproduce what she reproduced without permision.  More on that in a moment.)

What’s that look like? Well, take a look:

So what? Isn’t this old news? Didn’t New York magazine reviewer Sam Anderson say the following so long ago?

“It is, very deliberately, a literary object—the opposite of an e-reader designed to vanish in your palm as you read on a train.”

Yes, that’s right. And it was Craig’s wonderful BLT post, “Medium as Message,” not too long ago that made me want to say more.

So let me try to retract a few things first:

maybe what Carson has produced, has re-produced too, is no book.

Haven’t the New Directions editors (not in legalese but in promotionese) said as much?  What’s that look like?  Well, take a look:

Notice how it’s “in the form of a book, a facsimile of.”  Notice the scare quotes around “book” as in “this illustrated ‘book’.”  Notice how whateveritis is in “Clothbound edition” and is not reproducible in any other way, no, not in any other way.

So know that this is not another book review really.  Sort of mid-way through Carson’s non-book without pages or page numbers with its sense of unendingness, she writes this, which I reproduce (but not really because there’s this dark shadow across several of the lines, which also continue beyond another fold of the long single page of the non-book).  Carson writes of reproductions, of translations, of death and of night (which is English for the Latin “nox”):

7.1.  I want to explain about the Catullus poem (101).  Catullus wrote poem 101 for his brother who died in the Toad.  Nothing at all is known of the brother except his death.  Catullus appears to have travelled from Verona to Asia Minor to stand at the grave.  Perhaps he recited the elegy there.  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.  Nothing in English can capture the passionate, slow surface of a Roman elegy.  No one (even in Latin) can approximate Catullan diction, which at its most sorrowful has an air of deep festivity, like one of those trees that turns all its leaves over, silver, in the wind.  I never arrived at the translation I would have like 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.  Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light.  Human words have no main switch.  But all those little kidnaps in the dark.  And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.

Now, I’m encroaching on fair use, no?  I’ve reproduced nearly 300 words, yes?  No, Carson’s point, and the lawyers’ too:  “no part of this book [or whatever it is] may be reproduced.”  There is Catullan originality here, Carsonian diction, that cannot really be reproduced.  Carson is doing so much here.  She’s dealing with the death of her own brother by dealing with the death of Catullus’ brother.  She gives us her readers (on various of the un-numbered non-pages, in a sequence) a reproduced page from a Latin-to-English dictionary:  the sequence of one word of CI, the poem 101, at a time.

So what’s that look like?  Well, take a look:

It’s too much, an endless amount of meanings, of words, of connotations, of denotations, of darkness, of light, of shadows, of nox.  Translation never gets the original.  And what was prisco, what was the original?  Carson tries.

What’s that look like?  Well, not an ebook.  “The medium is the message.”  A trying.  Take a look:

I’ve read lots of books by Anne Carson.  They’ve even influenced some, no, a good amount of, how I read the Bible, other literature, and translationNox — not really a book, or is it? — gives new dimension to all of that.  Something ancient that may not be reproduced gives new dimension.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2011 7:48 pm

    As a dyed-in-the-wool book collector, I was first excited about this work; but later formed the opinion that it may be trite (an opinion not informed by actually “reading” the work, I might add — I am even not sure “reading” is the right word here.) In particular, I was worried that this might be such a private document that as an outsider, I would not appreciate it.

    When I first saw your post, I was excited because I thought you might make an argument for this book, but you don’t seem to be doing that. So, I must ask — separate from the philosophical-legal questions you raise and the sheer oddity of this work — did you like it? Why?

  2. November 19, 2011 8:27 am

    My blogpost title hints at what I feel about this work. Your outside looking in assessment is fair, although when one is presented with something so personal — and when the person presenting her sentiments is Anne Carson — the expectations of it being something “trite” create a personal conflict. It’s a very difficult work to study, and in just a blogpost that’s what I wanted to show. I’m not sure Carson wants us to “like” it, not in the usual ways. I would not recommend it to a book collector. It really does present like a cheap copy of things dear and deep. Would I recommend teaching (from) it for a graduate English literature course? I’m not sure I could. Thanks for asking. I like the work because I like what Carson is saying about and doing with translation. But. QUAMQUAM.

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