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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

A Woman and Her Narrator

I have not withered out and blown away.  For the past few months, I have been indulging a visual life, and after brief strife to say it, began to indulge the averbal nature of it.  Let it suffice for now to say that it involves, in roughly this chain of order, painting and its texture, representations of the clothed (or un-clothed) body, Edouard Vuillard’s women and their dresses, fashion, sight and touch, Blanchot’s notion of the immediate and the prevalence of sight and light in metaphors for knowledge and thought, the comparable ubiquity of language and dress in human culture and their evaluation based on utility and/or appeal, as well as their unavoidable influence, and is a spider-legged, sprawling mess that resists all modulation into writing.  Aren’t I the bee’s oh-so-intellectual knees.

I am only this week toeing the waters of words again, both as writer and reader.  Having been keeping my eye out for any Ivy Compton-Burnett book, I finally found one in Green Apple Books: A House and Its Head, published in the NYRB Classics series.  It is a densely beautiful book, and refreshing to read someone for whom every word counts because every word cannot but count and therefore might as well not; they cannot possibly be counted.  I have never read anything which so successfully conjures the half-meanings that crowd the edges of dialogue, and admirably so in that Compton-Burnett does so without recourse to narration.  Whereas most narrators, it seems, attempt to shade shadows into the rough outline of dialogue, this narrator does not clarify what her characters could not convey in their spoken words.  After all, one cannot narrate without needing a narrator, so instead, the speech and its narration end up being wry comments on each other: what little narration there is, beyond speech tags, often mockingly doubles the line of dialogue it frames.  This calls attention to either the mundanity of speech or the fecklessness and absurdity of narration:

“It has been so terrible to be able to do nothing: I have felt so helpless,” said Mrs. Bode, in some consternation at having been unable to prevent Ellen’s death.

Each line of dialogue strikes its antecedent, and shale flints scatter from both stones. (Yes, I am aware of the oxymoron.)  I am too lazy to type it out, but you should know that the the book begins with a quarrel over breakfast, and then read from “Yes” to “no reply,” across the page break from 67 to 68.  Of course, the careful weight one must apply to wring out all the inferences (that are often only revealed by a response to the statement) is balanced by levity: this is also one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while, in that delightfully understated English style of humor:

“There will be a great blank in our midst [now that Ellen is dead],” said Mrs. Bode.
“Yes, Mother dear, but that goes without saying.”
“And like many things that go without saying,” said Florence, “may truly be said.”
“That is so, Mrs. Smollett: I feel duly snubbed.”

Even the simple “said Florence,” placed so awkwardly as to interrupt the flow of the sentence and flush the mental pronoun from the palate, forcing the reader to summon again the thing which need not be said, works double duty.  Or there is:

“Ellen’s family! What a beautiful and intimate sound! That is how I shall think of them.  I shall not feel it presumptuous [to use her Christian name], kept to the confines of my own mind.”
“It will be narrowly restricted,” agreed her brother.

The polite Southerner in me has a deep and abiding love for the obliging insult.

Between Muriel Spark, Clarice Lispector, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, all of whom I have read only in the past few months, this looks to be the year of seriously humorous writers.

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