30 June, 2014Issue 25.5PoetryWriters

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Oases And Mirages In The Desert Of ‘After Proust’

Jennifer Thorp

Anne Carson (with illustrations by Kim Anno)
The Albertine Workout
New Directions, 2014
288 pages
ISBN 978-1781682708

(A note: the reviewing pamphlet did not include the illustrations by Kim Anno apparently intended to be included in the finished work, and so they are not reviewed here.)

Reviewers of the new volume from Canadian poet/classicist/contemporary artist/general rejecter of definitions Anne Carson, face a familiar problem: what register on which to evaluate its success. Is it literary criticism wearing poetry’s clothes, poetry dipping its toes into academic discourse, a hybrid form, or something else entirely? Unkind critics have accused her of co-opting parts of either to conceal her weaknesses in both, but Carson appears to be operating, as usual, in a space where boundaries and expectation mean little.

The Albertine Workout, a list of 59 reflections (plus appendices) on Marcel Proust’s √Ä la recherche du temps perdu and its romantic focus, Albertine, is largely a meditation on sleep and the relation of possession to desire, and has its own dreamlike quality. (The word “reflections” is used advisedly here: Carson’s observations are often simple mirrors of facts in the text or outside it, and are preoccupied with dissembling, appearances, and doubling.) The 59 pieces do not rise to an argumentative peak but follow a dreamlike, winding logic, accumulating along tangential lines and indulging in the occasional diversion. “At this point, parenthetically, if we had time, which we don’t”, she says in reflection 29, “several observations could be made about the similarity between Albertine and Ophelia”—but beyond a few notes on sleep-plants and sexual appetite, the thesis is only tantalisingly sketched. To an extent, this structure can be explained by the text’s stance as literally post-Proust. The Albertine Workout was, in Carson’s own words, written in “the desert of After Proust”: she had finished an intense period of Proust reading, and felt a need to compile, digest, and curate the experience. The sensation is not unfamiliar, and it may account for the disjointed arrangement of the work: these are thoughts and impressions that are not yet fully formed, so that we are witnessing a literary reaction in progress.

Perhaps, in consequence, this is not a piece of work for readers seeking the linearity and depth of Carson’s work on, say, Paul Celan in Economy Of The Unlost (1999). Though they possess Carson’s usual opaque charm, her observations do not add substantially to Proust criticism in general. Reflections on whether Proust’s life mirrored his art—what is termed “the transposition theory”—are virtually as old as √Ä la recherche du temps perdu itself, and Carson’s commentary on Albertine, possessiveness and desire never ventures into particularly uncharted territory. Considering Carson’s previous work, this is frustrating and feels like a missed opportunity. Rather than arranging and digesting old ideas about Proust, it would have been satisfying to see Carson provide some startlingly new ones.

However, these often un-annotated observations may have another underlying cause. Although it is not evident in the review text provided by New Directions (and may in fact have been a joke), Carson told an audience at a preview reading at NYU that she herself is not the author of Albertine Workout. Instead, it is meant to be the first academic treatise of the na√Øve Geryon, monstrous hero of Carson’s verse novels Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>. This adds another layer entirely: not only is this post-reading digestion, it is a debut critical effort by an untrained eye. There is an overlap of voices here that makes this supposed authorship slightly awkward—Carson’s own syntactical coolness is unmistakable, even if she is ventriloquising through Geryon—but the consequent ambivalence makes a stable reading of the text mischievously difficult.

This ambivalence points to a particular cheeky purpose behind The Albertine Workout: to tempt readers to consider what we expect and glean from literary criticism. In this sense The Albertine Workout continues ideas that have appeared throughout Carson’s career. She has always expressed a suspicion of critical interpretation, for instance while defending Emily Bront√´ against reductive criticism in The Glass Essay. The Albertine Workout’s ambiguity of authorship, its laying of thoughts beside one another like loose gloves without drawing them into explicit relation, and its detached attitude to”‘rubbing [Proust’s real-life lover] Alfred against Albertine”, at once participate in and interrogate our wish for literature to be neatly theorised and explained. It is structurally designed not to plot conclusions, but to use their absence to make us vaguely uncomfortable. It is a true desert text, lacking markers for direction and positing configurations of ideas that dissolve into mist as you approach, and to that end is both aggravating and fascinating.

There are oases here. Carson’s poetic strength has always been her precise control of the bathetic sentence, and in The Albertine Workout this sees less of an outing than usual, largely due to its closeness to Proust’s own phrasing. This is a pity, as it can be startling and very funny: “Plants do not actually sleep. Nor do they lie or even bluff. They do, however, expose their genitalia”, or “There are four ways Albertine is able to avoid becoming possessable in Volume Five: by sleeping, by lying, by being a lesbian or by being dead.” Yet the most aesthetically beautiful and interesting work begins (and this is a sentence you don’t say about poetry very often) in the appendices. They take the Proust propositions as their base and spark off in all directions, from Beckett to St Cecilia to slavery to the phrase “nun of speed”. The resulting collection is an excellent demonstration of Carson’s most famous skill, as a poet-essayist with paratactic flair. Appendix 15 a), a list of all the adjectives Proust appends to “air”, ends with an abrupt wink: “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 all the inherent mournfulness, she is quite correct—this is the best fun to be had in this desert.

Jennifer Thorp is reading for a PhD at the Centre of New Writing, Manchester.