author ANNE CARSON on genre-bending and what eros has to teach us
Author Anne Carson on genre-bending and what Eros has to teach us
Fluent in the nuances of classical Greek, Anne Carson is a literary cult figure whose novels in verse dig up the real and mythical figures of antiquity (Sappho, Hercules) and plop them into modern settings, both magical and mundane. Her groundbreaking 1998 book, Autobiography of Red (Knopf), a novelized epic poem, reimagines the Greek myth of Geryon and Hercules. Sentenced to perform a dozen epic feats as penance, Hercules’ 10th labor involves him journeying to the end of the world to slay the giant Geryon and steal his cattle. In Carson’s reinvention, Hercules’ name has been Hellenized back to Herakles and his environs shifted to Canada — hockey practices and Three Dog Night singalongs figure in the narrative. Most tellingly, in this reboot Herakles has not come to steal Geryon’s cattle and split his skull, but to fall in love with him before breaking his heart.
In Carson’s version, fourteen-year-old Geryon appears as a meek, red-winged monster, the sort of high-school photography-club loner who would eat lunch sitting in front of his locker. Herakles, a sixteen-year-old macho drifter, springs into Geryon’s life at a bus depot around 3 a.m., fresh off a Greyhound from New Mexico. Carson summons up the electricity between the two awkwardly matched teen boys: “They were two superior eels/ at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics ... The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice,” she writes, nailing that literary sweet spot between Homeric verse and Harlequin romance.
Carson will speak at the Lensic Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, as part of the Lannan Foundation’s Readings and Conversations series. It may be one of the few opportunities her fans get to hear the author expand on her craft. She declined an interview request with Pasatiempo and is known for her reluctance with the press, having granted only a handful of interviews in her 30 years as a poet, essayist, and translator. Even her own book-jacket bio reads like a sarcastic take on Stoicism: “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living.” But perhaps the reticence is all a part of Carson’s subterranean publicity strategy. Her cult figure status was cemented somewhere between the 2004 reference to her book Eros the Bittersweet on The L Word (where its mention kicked off a makeout sequence) and her poetry about Lou Reed being performed in 2013 by the guests at his wife Laurie Anderson’s Thanksgiving Day dinner, just months after the musician’s death.
Nearly all of Carson’s writing is fixated on exploring the contours of the ancient Greek concept of Eros — a word whose origins, she explains, are located in a desire to have what one lacks or cannot fully possess. Like her poet and philosopher predecessors in the ancient Mediterranean, Carson believes that Eros has much to teach us about the reality of the world and how to love in a universe filled with ambiguity and unmet wants. Coupled with her wildly inventive wordplay and a gift for expansive metaphors that often overtake their original subject, Carson’s writing captures her characters in the full throes of finding themselves for the first time.
Here is Carson writing about Geryon and Herakles on the cusp of consummating their relationship:
Herakles lies like a piece of torn silk in the heat of the blue saying, Geryon please. The break in his voice made Geryon think for some reason of going into a barn first thing in the morning when sunlight strikes a bale of raw hay still wet from the night.
Carson’s interest in the classics dates to back to her undergrad years at the University of Toronto, and a year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she studied ancient Greek under Kenneth Dover, a fêted classical scholar known for his translations of Thucydides and Aristophanes, as well as for Greek Homosexuality (1978), a watershed work in understanding the sexual mores of antiquity. She earned a PhD in classics, writing a book of essays on romantic love, published in 1986 as Eros the Bittersweet.
Though her writing career did not begin until the author was in her late thirties, Carson has more than made up for lost time by writing 20 books in a prolific fusion of genres — translations, essays, novels in verse, fragmentary prose-poems — on a full deck of topics. Economy of the Unlost (Princeton University Press, 2002) is an extended contemplation of the ancient Greek poet Simonides of Keos, who was the first literary artist in the Western tradition to accept payment for his work, and the “poetic economy” of Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor whose terse, nearly monosyllabic poems seem to be at war with the notion of language itself. Men in the Off Hours (Knopf, 2000) engages in cultural time travel. Its fragmentary essays and prose poems imagine conversations between Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on the nature of war. In another piece, St. Augustine is reified as an art critic, assessing the paintings of Edward Hopper and his late-night diner crowd of lonely-hearts. Carson has also published several fresh translations of plays by Aeschylus sand Euripides, and has written a sequel to Autobiography of Red called Red Doc (Knopf, 2013), which follows Geryon into middle age, where the author notes that “to live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”
Despite, or because of, the bizarreness of her material and her seamless fusion of ancient and modern literary genres, Carson’s work has been highly recognized by book-prize committees. In 1996, she won a Lannan Literary Award. That prize was followed by her 1998 designation as a Guggenheim Fellow. In 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
If her work falls outside the boundaries of most known genres, Carson’s readers make up a unique lot themselves. They must be at ease with an essay turning into a poem mid-sentence. They must have a hearty appreciation of Greek art where the plays of Sophocles have no more an important role than the panels of sex scenes on vases. And above all, they must be lovers of ambiguity — in both verse and life. Over 30 years ago, Carson laid this all out as a slightly subconscious writer’s mission statement in her first book of essays, Eros the Bittersweet: “In fact neither reader nor writer nor lover achieves such consummation. The words we read and the words we write never say exactly what we mean. The people we love are never just as we desire them. The two symbola never perfectly match. Eros is in between.”