Anne Carson, “The Glass Essay”; Ali Smith, Artful

May 30th, 2013

I don’t know whether you are familiar with Anne Carson’s poem “The Glass Essay.”  I wasn’t, but it was mentioned in the New York Times Book Review in April and I was moved to request it from our library.  It blew me away.  I’ll pretend you aren’t familiar with it.   It’s 38 pages long and it is a meditation on the end of a love affair and the life (and poetry) of Emily Bronte.  A remarkable juxtaposition in the abstract, and even more remarkable in Carson’s realization.  The poem is in a book called Glass, Irony and God.  There are three or four other poems in the same volume and a prose essay on women’s voices (literally) in classical Greek thought and literature.  The other poems are less successful than “The Glass Essay”.  The prose essay, which she calls “The Gender of Sound” is interesting and a bit depressing (in terms of just how much of a male chauvinist society ancient Greece was), maybe worth reading if you get the book in hand, but not worth seeking out for its own merits.

I read “The Glass Essay” a few weeks after I had finished Ali Smith’s new book, Artful, a novel that also integrates a series of meditations on aspects of literature with a story of personal loss (this time, the death of a lover).  Artful is much better than the concept would appear to promise.  I would call it the best book I have read in the past several years and rank it among the best I have read in the past thirty years.  My wife loved it, too.  That is also a major recommendation.  (I have a soft spot for novels that push the limits of the genre and tend to forgive them their shortcomings rather more than my wife, so I always recommend such novels to her with the understanding that I will not be surprised if she reads a few pages and then throws the book down swearing never to revisit it.)

In re: Dostoyevsky

October 7th, 2012

Having greatly enjoyed Crime and Punishment, my wife and I are immersed in The Brothers Karamazov.  I just finished a segment in which Alyosha tries to give two hundred rubles to the man his brother Dmitri insulted and beat up.  At first it seems the man will accept the money, which he needs more than desperately, but in a sudden access of pride, he throws the money on the ground and stomps angrily away.

I was moved to think that the moral is: There are good deeds that cannot be performed.  It is an odd thought, is it not?  We are brought up to think that good deeds are always possible and it is our responsibility to perform them when the opportunity presents itself.  But human nature is such that a determination not to be the recipient of charity, say, can make impossible the fulfillment of a charitable person’s desire to give it.  In other words, charity is not a one-way street.  Both the donor and the recipient must agree to it.

As I think about it, I recall many fictional situations in literature in which charity is refused on the grounds that it requires too much of a sacrifice of personal image, a sacrifice of “honor” (which, as we also know from literary example, covereth a multitude of sins).  Still, the fact remains.  There are good deeds that cannot be performed.