No one knows how exactly to talk about Anne Carson. She belongs to that elect group of artists that mixes disciplines so effectively it seems unfair to call her just a poet, or an essayist or a translator. She’s all three and distinguished at each, but the work she puts out floats in that strange realm that shrugs off name, slipping easily between the bounds separating critical analysis and poetry, between deadpan humor and sincere vulnerability, liberally referencing classical literature, prone to sudden quoting and quick switches in language. Take “The Glass Essay,” a poem that can be so delicate it seems, at times, on the brink of shattering: “I can hear little clicks inside my dream / Night drips its silver tap / down the back.” Or the brusque “Book of Isaiah, Part I”: “Isaiah awoke angry. / Lapping at Isaiah’s ears black birdsong no it was anger. / God had filled Isaiah’s ears with stingers.”
Last Thursday, Carson came to the College for a reading at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, and the piece she chose for her reading was no different. “I’ll explain a little first about how I came to write this work,” Carson said. “Some years ago, I decided to read Proust … But here’s what happens when you read Proust. Eventually, it ends. And then you enter the desert of ‘After Proust.’” It was during this “interval of despair,” as she calls it, that she wrote “The Albertine Workout,” a poem or essay in 59 matter-of-fact paragraphs, many just a sentence or two long.
“Workout” is a fitting name; it is a piece that has the markings of an immense amount of labor. The work, for instance, makes reference a number of times to the Transposition theory, which posits that Albertine, the narrator’s love interest in Remembrance of Things Past, is a disguised version of Proust’s real-life chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli. This is accompanied by a painstaking recollection of records, from a French newspaper article to a sale of an airplane. But this is just one facet of Carson’s discourse on desire and possession: She argues that Albertine fascinates the narrator because she eludes him. Paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 read, “11: Albertine denies she is a lesbian when Marcel questions her. 12: Her friends are all lesbians. 13: Her denials fascinate him.” In paragraph 53, Carson consolidates this idea in her characteristic way, concise and tinged with both humor and sadness: “There are four ways Albertine is able to avoid becoming entirely possessable in volume 5: by sleeping, by lying, by being a lesbian or by being dead.”
In the third-to-final paragraph (or stanza, or verse) of “The Albertine Workout,” Carson writes, “It is always tricky, the question whether to read an author’s work in light of his life or not.” We are at danger here of committing the inverse, of reading into her life what we cull from her work. As readers, as audience, we must mind our bounds – but it’s difficult not to wonder about a writer simultaneously so erudite and so reserved. What seems significant, to me, is the origin of “The Albertine Workout,” the banality of the desert of “After Proust;” the essay seems to be a way of holding onto him for just a little while longer. This is why, I think, Carson’s writing is so impactful – the presence of sincerity is palpable.
But 59 paragraphs aren’t a sufficient deferral of the “End of Proust”: “So,” Carson had said, “that is, actually, the close of ‘The Albertine Workout.’ But then I thought, why stop there? We can go on being with Proust, by means of that time-honored academic mechanism, the appendix.” It seems fitting, then, to close with one of these appendices, titled “on the difference between metaphor and metonymy”: “The day I decided to figure out metaphor and metonymy once and for all, I went to the library, got an armful of books, read different parts of them, wrote some wild notes on scraps of paper and came home, hoping to sort out my notes the following day. The following day, among my notes … I found this a haunting and exemplary small cabin that may or may not have burned down. And although I couldn’t remember its context, had neglected to record its provenance and didn’t really grasp its relevance for metaphor and metonymy, the small cabin called out to me not to forsake it.”