The Anne Carson Workout
If you can't sleep yourself, can't join your love in unconsciousness, get up and read with me. I'm reading Anne Carson's The Albertine Workout, a little entry in the New Directions Poetry Pamphlets. Here, Carson considers Albertine, the captive girl of Marcel Proust's La Prisonnière, the fifth (and most skippable, according to Roger Shattuck) volume of Proust's long novel, which I have never read and which -- it strikes me now --Carson does not name.
In this volume, Albertine is often asleep. She doesn't work out, aside from "pushing her bicycle across the beach." She seems to have died too young to bother. But Proust is old enough to need the grind, and so is Carson, and so am I. But what are we working out? There should be a name for the moment when you learn to take pleasure in a day that is not an exception, when you learn that many days are work and work and find that good. Clearly this is a boundary Carson has passed: The Albertine Workout is a demonstration of advanced reading in action. It is not a revelatory or passionate piece, not a riotous overflow; it contains passion, revelation, and riot, captures myopathy, Beckett, Barthes, philosophy, etymology, sex, and the self because Carson's routine does. Reading The Albertine Workout, you are in the weight room, pressing the weight of mutual creation -- Proust with his life, Proust with his work, Carson with Proust and his life and his work (distinct interactions, as when Carson switches from "Marcel" -- the narrator -- to "Proust" -- the writer), Carson with Proust and his life and his work and her life and her work, and ourselves with Carson and Proust and their lives and their work.
How and where does Carson herself enter this little book? Obliquely, on page sixteen of thirty-eight: "There is no right or wrong in Proust, says Samuel Beckett, and I believe it." Nevertheless it's a momentous entrance in an adult style -- like coming in plain Jane, no make-up, and then turning to reveal a backless dress -- and it's highlighted a few pages later by this: "It is always tricky, the question whether to read an author's work in light of his life or not." The life means the gossipy details, in the case of Proust: his relationship with his chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli and how this relationship ghosts that between the novel's narrator and sleepy Albertine. I've been thinking how much some art depends on the perpetual personal reinvention of the artist. Who was it brought this to mind -- poets I know, maybe, or Frank O'Hara; I can't remember, but I was reading someone and the question came: Ah, was this her divorce? An indiscrete allusion -- or, more likely, a deliberate enticement. But Carson is equally revealing when she casually drops this, after making a list of adjectives from Proust's work: "I can see very little value in this kind of information, but making such lists is some of the best fun you'll have once you enter the desert of After Proust." For Carson, the gossipy details (and the life) include grammar, syntax, rhetoric; indeed, how a writer handles words may be the juiciest gossip.
One of Carson's rhetorical concerns is the difference between metaphor and metonymy. This comes up in a climactic way: Carson (in one of the many appendices) is getting exercised about Proust's narrator's control over Albertine and his use of the phrase "heavy slave" to describe her, and she winds up with this: "and how do all these things bear upon the difference between metaphor and metonymy? Sorry this appendix got away from me." In the next appendix, she goes on to explain the difference, somewhat: if metaphor is hearing the word hut and responding with a likeness ("a small cabin"), metonymy is taking the word for the thing and responding "it burned down." Less than helpful? And yet clearly this matters immensely -- possibly more than Albertine does, or more than Alfred Agostinelli (a real person) does. But why? What is the difference, and what does it mean?
But all this goes on silently, for the beloved is sleeping.
The trivial, intimate things that you find out as a matter of course one night and from then on cannot help treasuring: how the other one sleeps, with this arm here or there, with a deep athletic breath or as if dead. Dreams -- visible, like a cat's, or sunken. How expression falls from the face and what it leaves there. Dressed, undressed, with the covers kicked off in the heat or twined around one leg. Nothing like these closed eyelids and slightly open mouth. Nothing like the soft notch in the throat, undefended, or the dream-sweaty scattered hair.
Carson has loved sleep for a long time -- I recall "Sleepchains" and "Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)" from Decreation (2006). The sleeper and the sleep world are others -- contiguous with the awake person and awake world, but shifted off from both. Albertine asleep reveals to the narrator another version of herself: animal, vulnerable, available, but lost. When she actually dies, she is hardly less accessible: "Profound Albertine, whom I saw sleeping and who was dead," as Proust's narrator remembers her, as Carson renders it. But this Albertine turns out to be (in Carson's analysis) a fictionalized version of Alfred Agostinelli, who also died -- so Agostinelli, dead and fictionalized, is doubly asleep, further lost. Or is he brought closer? It depends which is more real: sleeping or waking.
Last year I had, briefly, the prospect of interviewing Carson. It turned out she was avoiding interviews, so I needn't have expected anything would come of it, but when I didn't know that I was stuck on the hinge of what I would ask her. Why do you write what you write? As if. How did you come to hear that edge in the classics? It was there to be heard, she'd say.
I was going to interview Carson apropos her Red Doc>. Red Doc> got a lot of press -- no one wanted to miss another Autobiography of Red -- but it was a disappointment, puzzling, largely forgettable. I don't say that as a critique of Carson. She tries, she takes risks. She works.
When I thought I would interview her, I went to hear her read -- from The Albertine Workout, as it turns out. In person, Carson is just as the writing indicates: unpretending, neat, disciplined. She wears her natty clothes in a classic fit: tailored, half a size up, skimming her trim body. What's her workout? I imagine her swimming. Kickboxing. Anything but running, though that's the picturesque answer: Carson loping across the Canadian tundra like a coyote. (Are there coyotes that far north? Never mind; Carson doesn't even live in Canada anymore.) Or maybe there is no workout: just a lot of cigs and crackers. I hope, though, that she has a gym membership. That she has a routine. That she works at it.
Ask: what do you do for exercise? Better yet: where did you get your red cowboy boots?
Here is my understanding of the difference between metaphor and metonymy: where metaphor establishes a likeness with something entirely different, metonymy shifts attention from the thing itself to an aspect of the thing. Metaphor exerts control, glassing in two different phenomena to exhibit both as evidence of the writer's perception. In metonymy, though, the writer is lost, does not focus correctly, cannot find the eyes; the writer is too close to see the entirety of whatever it is, let alone to find anything else that might resemble this. Metonymy occurs when we do not know whether to mourn for Albertine or for Alfred Agostinelli or for a small cabin in the woods that may be imaginary and that may have burned down -- and yet we feel, we mourn. Metonymy is an attempt to think without the crime of generalization. It is work at ground level. Thus Carson prefers it.
But metaphor and metonymy both, it strikes me, are devices of the lover; they are the devices of one who seeks to render or capture the other. What are the devices of the beloved? We don't know, because it always the lover, never the beloved, who speaks. Why? Perhaps it's the orientation toward unhappiness of literary work -- the orientation toward trouble. If you were happily loved, literature implies, you would have nothing to say.
Ask: why do you always write of unsatisfied desire? Where do you find such a continual source for that lack?
To wake the beloved with a kiss would be to make some kind of untenable claim, like mineral rights on a mountain. The kiss would become a demand, insisting that the sleep self give way to or become the waking self -- insisting on identity between the two. And I'm not convinced the other would wake, at all. In the world of your sleep, my kiss may mean nothing.
How long does the other sleep? How much longer? Am I impatient or afraid?