Sunday, September 23, 2012
myself stuck between its hinges
So there were these quotes going to and fro between several books, the evangelical with a book in his suitcase, Heat-Moon with a book in the back of the van, both of them with the books in their heads, Murnane with a book somewhere in his house probably or the quote written in a notebook he might keep close by, Orthofer somehow able to identify the same quote possibly because he owns the book from which Murnane borrowed it, and then I read Thomas Bernhard's Frost translated by Michael Hoffmann, and in Frost the lead character goes on a journey with a book, not one that he knows but one that he does not know, one that he has not read yet, a novel by Henry James which he thinks will give him something to do during the trip at those times when he is not talking to the person he is going away to meet.
He doesn't give away the title of his James but he does describe one memory of the plot as far as he has understood it. "I read my Henry James without understanding what I've read: I seem to remember women following a coffin at a funeral, a railway train, a destroyed town, somewhere in England."
A Frost reviewer at the New York Times decided that he must have been reading The Ambassadors, because "as in “Frost,” one character’s task is to go on a journey and bring back confidential tidings of a loved one in trouble" and "In both novels, the traveler is transformed" yet the narrator's description does not match anything in The Ambassadors, nor does it even sound like a bad memory of The Ambassadors, which for a start does not take place somewhere in England.
The narrator quotes this sentence from his James, "The earth might be clear, I feel myself stuck between its hinges without regard to myself, you understand" -- a sentence that does not appear anywhere in The Ambassadors, nor does it seem to appear anywhere in the work of Henry James, as far as I can tell. I might be wrong, it might exist somewhere, the "destroyed town" might be the burning house in The Spoils of Poynton, it might be one of the Jameses I haven't read (The Awkward Age and Roderick Hudson), the narrator might be reading a German James and Michael Hoffmann might have translated the sentence from German back into English and come up with an arrangement that is nonJamesian, but I am ready to be told that this is not in fact a James, and that Thomas Bernhard invented it with some idea that people reading his book in the future would assume that this James was real and that its identity was a riddle they'd be able to figure out if they followed the clues (but if this is not a James then they are inventing the clues, as clues; there are no clues); and they will pursue the riddle, since literature students are taught to follow clues. What symbolism is this? they ask. What does the tower represent? Why is that flower a rose?
What if this James in Frost is a clue that does not lead to a book but is an arrow pointing to the reader and saying, You thought this was a book, didn't you? You thought I was William Least Heat-Moon, having a person read an actual book you could pull off your shelves and open to page eighty-five.
The left brain is the part that will connect one thing to another (so I read), it is the hemisphere of invention, it is given the words "Henry James" and connects them to its experiences of the sensuous world and if you are a reviewer for the New York Times then it will encourage you to say that The Ambassadors must be the work the narrator is reading because you can find a similarity there, you notice that a man is travelling to meet another man, and you are disregarding almost all other elements of the book but that, so that one book will lead to another, and the continuation of life and habit will not be derailed, all this knitting over absences.