If your heart spoke, what would it say?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

In 2005, when Mag­gie Nel­son’s book Jane: A Mur­der was pub­lished, she re­ceived a let­ter from a homi­cide de­tec­tive. He had gone through the book with a high­lighter pen, he said, and added: “I can hon­estly say it’s the first book of po­etry I’ve ever read”. Nel­son replied that it was the first book she’d ever writ­ten to be high­lighted by a homi­cide de­tec­tive.

The ex­change is a stark il­lus­tra­tion of the line Nel­son treads be­tween fact and form. Jane – an in­ven­tive, del­i­cate, sear­ing book – took as its sub­ject the mur­der of Nel­son’s aunt at the age of 23. She was killed in 1969, two years be­fore the birth of Nel­son’s sis­ter Emily, and four years be­fore Nel­son’s; Jane’s le­gacy hung over the fam­ily, and over Nel­son specif­i­cally, who was rou­tinely mis­taken for Jane by her grand­fa­ther. Nel­son came to iden­tify with Jane so closely that when she found her di­ary, she thought at first it was an old one of her own.

“I think that book’s greater theme,” Nel­son tells me, over the phone from her home in Los An­ge­les, “in ad­di­tion to vi­o­lence or fear, is the ex­cite­ments and per­ils of learn­ing about your­self through twin­ning and dou­bling – my sis­ter and me, my mother and Jane, Jane and me.

“That mo­ment when you say: ‘Oh my gosh, we’re so much alike!’ can be very il­lu­mi­nat­ing and very bond­ing, but it can also be very dis­tort­ing. I never knew my aunt – so it’s re­ally about me. That dance of pro­jec­tion and com­mu­nion was com­pelling to me.”

The book’s pub­li­ca­tion was al­ready im­mi­nent when the de­tec­tive got in touch to tell the fam­ily that this 35-year-old case, which they had al­ways as­sumed would re­main un­solved, was close to be­ing brought to trial. All the time Nel­son had been lend­ing her imag­i­na­tion to the story, De­tec­tive Schroeder had been fol­low­ing leads based on DNA.

“I bet you thought you were work­ing on this alone all these years,” he said. And so, al­most im­me­di­ately, an­other book was born. The Red Parts: Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of a Trial fol­lows with ex­tra­or­di­nary emo­tional con­trol her fam­ily’s re­liv­ing of the old trauma, and doc­u­ments some oth­ers along the way: not least her fa­ther’s sud­den, fa­tal heart at­tack, when she was 10 years old.

Un­til re­cently, Nel­son’s writ­ing ca­reer has been con­ducted on the cooler fringes of phi­los­o­phy, po­etry and academia. But her last book, The Arg­onauts, brought her from the un­der­ground into some­thing closer to the main­stream. It seems, in ret­ro­spect, a cu­ri­ous tran­si­tion: pub­lished in 2015, The Arg­onauts, the ti­tle of which is bor­rowed from a pas­sage in a book by Roland Barthes, also steals the struc­ture of Barthes’s late work, A Lover’s Dis­course: Frag­ments, and quotes lib­er­ally from thinkers such as Julia Kris­teva and Anne Car­son, their names dot­ted in the mar­gins.

The topic? Nel­son’s re­la­tion­ship with Harry Dodge, who is flu­idly gen­dered and with whom she sleeps be­fore she knows which pro­noun to use in re­la­tion to him. Over the course of the book, Harry has surgery to re­move his breasts and starts tak­ing male hor­mones, while Mag­gie be­comes preg­nant with their child. The book in­stantly struck a nerve: in­ti­mate, hon­est and un­afraid of crit­i­cal thought, it was praised by re­view­ers all over the world, and was short­listed for this week’s Rath­bones Fo­lio prize.

Now two of Nel­son’s ear­lier books – The Red Parts and Bluets – are be­ing pub­lished in the UK for the first time, which has the cu­ri­ous ef­fect, for the Bri­tish reader, of read­ing her back­wards. The Red Parts was orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2007; Bluets, which was re­leased in 2009, de­scribes a love af­fair that took place be­tween 2003 and 2006. Os­ten­si­bly a med­i­ta­tion on the colour blue, it’s re­ally about a heart­break suf­fered by a per­son who once thought she might write about the colour blue.

Var­i­ous blue ob­jects, in­stances and emo­tions have been col­lected, and as­sem­bled like im­prac­ti­cal relics around her on­go­ing dis­tress at the hands of a man she calls “the prince of blue”, who has left her for an­other woman.

Like The Arg­onauts, the book is graphic in its de­pic­tion of sex­ual de­sire, but Bluets is much more solip­sis­tic. “Even­tu­ally you will have to give up this love,” the nar­ra­tor’s friend tells her half­way through the book. “It has a mor­bid heart.” At the end, she still hasn’t.

Nel­son says she writes about many dif­fer­ent things, and she’s pleased more readers now have the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover her range. But the con­sis­ten­cies are per­haps more in­trigu­ing. In a new pref­ace to The Red Parts, she writes that she’s glad of the chance, “once again, to send in this re­port from the field”.

That, more than any­thing, is Nel­son’s project: to be­have as though the land of the heart were au­to­mat­i­cally a sub­ject for re­portage, and not just a cause for an out­pour­ing of emo­tion. Heart­break, long­ing, sex, death, fear, fam­ily trauma, love, ma­ter­nity, homonor­ma­tiv­ity: these are the ter­ri­to­ries from which Nel­son has cho­sen to de­liver her dis­patches. If that sounds merely con­fes­sional, the books are far from it.

The great dis­tinc­tion of Nel­son’s work is that it is both truth­ful and con­fected. While The Arg­onauts took its for­mal struc­ture from Roland Barthes, Bluets bor­rowed the ar­chi­tec­ture of Wittgen­stein’s Philo­soph­i­cal In­ves­ti­ga­tions. There is a “minia­ture fem­i­nist project in there”, Nel­son sug­gests: “Wittgen­stein ap­par­ently had a lot of agony around the per­sonal and the sex­ual and the bod­ily – he writes a lot about pain. It was in­ter­est­ing to take some of his lo­cu­tions through this con­tent that would have prob­a­bly been hor­ri­fy­ing to him.”

Nel­son’s in­ter­est in form might be traced to her be­gin­nings as a poet. “I think of the ‘I’ as a char­ac­ter that I’m con­trol­ling in a cer­tain way,” she ex­plains. Bluets starts with the line “Sup­pose I were to be­gin…” and that, she re­flects, is de­signed to sig­nal “that this is go­ing to be a spec­u­la­tive eye”. At

Mag­gie Nel­son is writ­ing about t emo­tion in a way no-one else ever has, says Gaby Wood

os­ten­si­bly a med­i­ta­tion on the colour blue, is re­ally about heart­break

‘ I have come at au­to­bi­og­ra­phy from a dif­fer­ent an­gle’: Nel­son at home in LA

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