Joan Didion with Sloane Crosley at NYPL Live

I’m hesitant to post about the NYPL Live conversation between Joan Didion and Sloane Crosley, because I was pretty disappointed with it. I really love these NYPL events, but the thing I love most about them–the chemistry in the interview–was missing this particular night. I don’t know Crosley’s work and haven’t heard her interview anyone before, so I don’t know if perhaps she hasn’t had a lot of experience with it yet, or if she was nervous, but she seemed a little overprepared yet unable to listen. It was disappointing, because I would have loved it if she could have drawn Didion out a little more.

The interview did get me thinking about style and subject matter, though, and how readers engage with them. Didion clearly had no interest in talking about mourning, loss, or (especially) catharsis–or even the genre of memoir, really. And yet, the subject matter of her two most recent books, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking is so intimate and emotionally charged that people can’t seem to see anything else. Didion said tonight that for her, style was everything; that she wrote about these things because they were things that happened to her, and because that’s the way she tries to understand things, but that the main difficulty (of Blue Nights in particular) was getting the style right.

People don’t seem to want to hear this message. Didion responded bluntly to questions about the emotionally difficult subject matter of her latest books, event complaining gently of readers who approached her to discuss their personal tragedies. While I suspect part of her reticence may be a way of conserving some privacy over her quite public mourning process, I wish people had listened for openings and asked questions along lines that Didion was more open to discussing. Didion’s remarks tended towards sharp, understated wit, and it felt like riches were waiting just behind her stubbornly brief replies–if someone could just open up the dialogue in the right way.

Oh, well. Not every event can be a hit. NYPL Live’s season is winding down, but BAM’s Eat, Drink and Be Literary is just beginning, so I hope there will be another good interview or two in the not-too-distant future.

Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

The motifs of entrapment, communication, and identity dominate the beautiful and emotionally intense Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk. Published in 2004 in Afrikaans, and in a skilled English translation by Michiel Heyns in 2006 (2010 in the U.S.), the apartheid-era novel tackles emotionally complex relationships among the members of a family of white South African farmers and the black servants and laborers that share their space. In particular, van Niekerk focuses attention on Milla, the mistress of the farm, and her maidservant, Agaat. The novel spans 1947 to 1994, tracing the entire period of apartheid through the story of Milla’s lifetime, from courtship to death.

The narrative jumps among several different modes and time periods. The reader encounters Milla through the eyes of her grown son; in her internal monologue on her deathbed with Agaat as her sole caretaker; in a remarkably good second-person narrative; and in diary entries, both as she wrote them and as Agaat reads them back to her in her mute and immobile old age. Agaat, of course, is present in nearly all of these threads, depicted with a varying degree of agency and richness in each. The multiple narratives work beautifully together, weaving a portrait of the two women that grows increasingly complex (or perhaps entangled)–and yet that same notion of weaving is complicated by Agaat’s literal embroidery, which is first forced upon her, then becomes a coping mechanism, and finally seals her closure from Milla as she weaves Milla’s death shroud.

As I alluded to previously, communication and entrapment oppose each other as focal points in the novel. The immediate context for these two themes is that of Milla’s end days, as she is mutely trapped within an unmoving body, her lucid mind flying among comfort and rage and pain as her fraught relationship with Agaat plays out its final notes, often without a word being spoken by either of them. The depiction of what is left for Milla is beautiful and unexpected:

As if it’s conceivable that of a whole concert only this would remain to listen to: The siffling of the sleeves encircling the wrists of the musicians, the creaking of the chairs on which they sit, the heaving of their breathing with the up and the down stroke of the bow, the riffling of the pages of the score. Only that, without the music. Harmless negative music, the soil without the cultivation. (309)

Milla’s world is diminished: Not a reduction of volume, but an elimination of beauty, leaving only the framework of the musicians’ movements. Her silent negotiation with Agaat to reduce her discomforts and meet her physical needs at times seems to be an intricate and intimate dance, but it is clear that the dance brings no joy and no beauty to either party. What the reader learns later in the novel is that the movement toward understanding through silence actually began much earlier between Milla and Agaat, and has colored their relationship over many decades.

Milla has tried to preserve everything about her life in diaries, not so much to remember it as to try and create or uncover meaning amid a pile of moments that defy her comprehension. She clings to traces of the past, especially through diaries and maps, and even tries to unearth the past in mirrors:

Does a mirror sometimes preserve everything that has been reflected in it? Is there a record of light, thin membranes compressed layer upon layer that one has to ease apart with the finger-tips so that the colours don’t dissipate, so that the moments don’t blot and the hours don’t run together into inconsequential splotches? […] So many tears for nothing? For light? For bygone moments? (137)

The tragedy for Milla is that rather than finding in these traces a pattern of meaning that had been invisible to her as she moved through each day, she is instead forced to listen to Agaat recount Milla’s own stories to her in a way that elicits more shame and bitterness than reconciliation and healing.

In her final moments, Milla, whose identity has been deeply bound with her farmland since she was a child, craves a connection with her land. Deprived of the ability to move or to speak, she cannot so much as look out the window; instead, she wills Agaat to bring her all the maps of the land that have been stowed away. Her desire is to consume the land, make it ever more deeply a part of her. She wants to swallow and digest the maps: “So that I can be filled and braced from the inside and fortified for the voyage. Because without my world inside me I will contract and congeal, more even than I am now, without speech and without actions and without any purchase upon time” (88). The knowledge that her land continues to exist and thrive comforts Milla, as she feels the land to be an extension of herself. And yet, imprisoned in her body in a sterile room, she desperately feels she must lay eyes on the symbol of the land in order to feel whole before her imminent death.

While Milla’s sense of identity is restricted by her immobility, Agaat’s reveals itself to be far more complicated. I won’t unveil the mysteries of how Agaat came to join Milla’s household or why her acts of caregiving are both conscientious and cruel, but it is clear that she has carved away a part of her identity and made it invisible, as though to protect it. When Milla spies on Agaat as a young women, we learn through her diary that she is startled and confused by what she sees:

Could the binoculars have been playing tricks upon me? Hr arm a pointer? pointing-out pointing-to what is what & who is who? An oar? A blade? Hr fist pressing apart the membrane & the meat as if she’s dressing a slaughter animal? But not a sheep, as if she’s separating the divisions of the night. Or dividing something within herself. Root cluster. (127)

Milla doesn’t know what to make of Agaat’s movements, but the heavy symbolism of Agaat being prepared as an animal for slaughter suggests the depth of the trauma that Agaat has undergone and against which she now steels herself.

Milla and Agaat struggle for power throughout the novel’s timeline, and while Agaat holds much of the real authority on the farm–even getting Milla and Jak to do her bidding in moments of urgency–Milla’s diary reminds the reader (and also Agaat and Milla as the diaries are uncovered and retold) that true power is held by the one who bestows a name. Milla had taught Agaat this very lesson as she tried to coax a young Agaat into speech: “I want Agaat to understand that if you call things by their names, you have power over them”  (439). No matter how great the extent of Agaat’s implicit power, she cannot cease to be dominated by the one who has given her her name. For me, that is the most chilling note of the novel.

Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk

The motifs of entrapment, communication, and identity dominate the beautiful and emotionally intense Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk. Published in 2004 in Afrikaans, and in a skilled English translation by Michiel Heyns in 2006 (2010 in the U.S.), the apartheid-era novel tackles emotionally complex relationships among the members of a family of white South African farmers and the black servants and laborers that share their space. In particular, van Niekerk focuses attention on Milla, the mistress of the farm, and her maidservant, Agaat. The novel spans 1947 to 1994, tracing the entire period of apartheid through the story of Milla’s lifetime, from courtship to death.

The narrative jumps among several different modes and time periods. The reader encounters Milla through the eyes of her grown son; in her internal monologue on her deathbed with Agaat as her sole caretaker; in a remarkably good second-person narrative; and in diary entries, both as she wrote them and as Agaat reads them back to her in her mute and immobile old age. Agaat, of course, is present in nearly all of these threads, depicted with a varying degree of agency and richness in each. The multiple narratives work beautifully together, weaving a portrait of the two women that grows increasingly complex (or perhaps entangled)–and yet that same notion of weaving is complicated by Agaat’s literal embroidery, which is first forced upon her, then becomes a coping mechanism, and finally seals her closure from Milla as she weaves Milla’s death shroud.

As I alluded to previously, communication and entrapment oppose each other as focal points in the novel. The immediate context for these two themes is that of Milla’s end days, as she is mutely trapped within an unmoving body, her lucid mind flying among comfort and rage and pain as her fraught relationship with Agaat plays out its final notes, often without a word being spoken by either of them. The depiction of what is left for Milla is beautiful and unexpected:

As if it’s conceivable that of a whole concert only this would remain to listen to: The siffling of the sleeves encircling the wrists of the musicians, the creaking of the chairs on which they sit, the heaving of their breathing with the up and the down stroke of the bow, the riffling of the pages of the score. Only that, without the music. Harmless negative music, the soil without the cultivation. (309)

Milla’s world is diminished: Not a reduction of volume, but an elimination of beauty, leaving only the framework of the musicians’ movements. Her silent negotiation with Agaat to reduce her discomforts and meet her physical needs at times seems to be an intricate and intimate dance, but it is clear that the dance brings no joy and no beauty to either party. What the reader learns later in the novel is that the movement toward understanding through silence actually began much earlier between Milla and Agaat, and has colored their relationship over many decades.

Milla has tried to preserve everything about her life in diaries, not so much to remember it as to try and create or uncover meaning amid a pile of moments that defy her comprehension. She clings to traces of the past, especially through diaries and maps, and even tries to unearth the past in mirrors:

Does a mirror sometimes preserve everything that has been reflected in it? Is there a record of light, thin membranes compressed layer upon layer that one has to ease apart with the finger-tips so that the colours don’t dissipate, so that the moments don’t blot and the hours don’t run together into inconsequential splotches? […] So many tears for nothing? For light? For bygone moments? (137)

The tragedy for Milla is that rather than finding in these traces a pattern of meaning that had been invisible to her as she moved through each day, she is instead forced to listen to Agaat recount Milla’s own stories to her in a way that elicits more shame and bitterness than reconciliation and healing.

In her final moments, Milla, whose identity has been deeply bound with her farmland since she was a child, craves a connection with her land. Deprived of the ability to move or to speak, she cannot so much as look out the window; instead, she wills Agaat to bring her all the maps of the land that have been stowed away. Her desire is to consume the land, make it ever more deeply a part of her. She wants to swallow and digest the maps: “So that I can be filled and braced from the inside and fortified for the voyage. Because without my world inside me I will contract and congeal, more even than I am now, without speech and without actions and without any purchase upon time” (88). The knowledge that her land continues to exist and thrive comforts Milla, as she feels the land to be an extension of herself. And yet, imprisoned in her body in a sterile room, she desperately feels she must lay eyes on the symbol of the land in order to feel whole before her imminent death.

While Milla’s sense of identity is restricted by her immobility, Agaat’s reveals itself to be far more complicated. I won’t unveil the mysteries of how Agaat came to join Milla’s household or why her acts of caregiving are both conscientious and cruel, but it is clear that she has carved away a part of her identity and made it invisible, as though to protect it. When Milla spies on Agaat as a young women, we learn through her diary that she is startled and confused by what she sees:

Could the binoculars have been playing tricks upon me? Hr arm a pointer? pointing-out pointing-to what is what & who is who? An oar? A blade? Hr fist pressing apart the membrane & the meat as if she’s dressing a slaughter animal? But not a sheep, as if she’s separating the divisions of the night. Or dividing something within herself. Root cluster. (127)

Milla doesn’t know what to make of Agaat’s movements, but the heavy symbolism of Agaat being prepared as an animal for slaughter suggests the depth of the trauma that Agaat has undergone and against which she now steels herself.

Milla and Agaat struggle for power throughout the novel’s timeline, and while Agaat holds much of the real authority on the farm–even getting Milla and Jak to do her bidding in moments of urgency–Milla’s diary reminds the reader (and also Agaat and Milla as the diaries are uncovered and retold) that true power is held by the one who bestows a name. Milla had taught Agaat this very lesson as she tried to coax a young Agaat into speech: “I want Agaat to understand that if you call things by their names, you have power over them”  (439). No matter how great the extent of Agaat’s implicit power, she cannot cease to be dominated by the one who has given her her name. For me, that is the most chilling note of the novel.

Umberto Eco with Paul Holdengräber at NYPL Live

When I’m missing the mountains and open skies of Colorado, there are two bookish things that always make me appreciate being in New York: BAM’s “Eat, Drink, and Be Literary” series, and the New York Public Library’s Live series. (Good food will usually do the trick, too.) BAM has the advantage of food, drink, and a more intimate venue, while NYPL has the upper hand on interviewing excellence–I simply love the way Paul Holdengräber engages his guests. A few days ago I went to hear him interview Umberto Eco, and from the moment they kicked things off by talking about books they haven’t read (à la Pierre Bayard), I remembered why I love being in a big city. The conversation was full of gems, and I particularly enjoyed thinking about the idea that hatred and stupidity are boundless, whereas love and truth are limited and predictable. (Love is exclusive, after all, and two plus two always equals four; whereas hatred can be shared and multiplied among any number of people, and the number of wrong answers to two plus two is limitless…)

Somewhere between declaring that the ability to lie sets humanity apart from animals, and avowing that “discombobulated” and “flabbergasted” are his two favorite words in English, Eco asserted the importance of contraints–rather than freedom–in the creative process. This is the essential idea of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle); while Eco is not a part of OuLiPo, he does have strong affinities with the group, as is evident from this event at the Louvre. The OuLiPo project has fascinated me since my first (or second?) year as a grad student, when my advisor, Warren Motte, introduced me to some of the group’s work. Deeply playful and rigorous, writers of OuLiPo embrace the role of form in the creative process to an unusual degree, setting arbitrary limits and rules on their work to see what comes out of it. One of my favorite examples is Jacques Jouet’s Poèmes du métro, in which each line was written between metro stops as he traveled along a pre-determined route that he had carefully mapped to maximize the metro stops that he visited while minimizing backtracking and repeats. Other writers, like Jacques Roubaud, rely on mathematical formulations to set constraints. Georges Perec famously wrote a novel without using the letter “e” (La disparition, 1990), then followed it up with a novel that used no vowels other than “e” (Les revenentes, 1997). Not all the works that are born of these constraints are fun to read, but the successes are truly magical.

I like the argument for limits quite a lot. I’ve seen it to be true personally with regards to my photography. I have a good camera and live in a photogenic city, but the times that I get the most interesting shots are when I have really specific assignments (like one, from a recent class, to capture blurry motion, silhouette, and deep depth of field in the same frame. This was one result of that task; here is another.) Freedom is not so useful in sparking creativity; set limits, though, and the creative mind comes to life. This is one reason I was interested in silence and the “unsayable” in my dissertation–what can more sharply limit language than silence? When writers work through and around silence, the results can be remarkable.

Returning to Eco after this OuLiPo rabbithole, I’ll mention that the only disappointment of the evening was nonetheless a substantial one. Closing out the interview, Holdengräber asked Eco, who professes to own 50,000 books, whether libraries have a role to play in the increasingly digital future. Eco responded that of course they do! They will be the museums for the lone copies of printed books; they will be like the tombs that preserve the mummified pharaohs.

Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about this very question, I am convinced that the future role of libraries has far less to do with the physical form of the book (much as I love my real books), and far more to do with the careful and dynamic curation of works in all their forms. I think libraries have the potential to become even more living and vibrant as the expertise of librarians comes to the forefront. Museums, tombs, dusty archives–I think these are absolutely the wrong images to have in mind as libraries adapt to a quickly changing environment. I wish there had been a bit more time for discussion after Eco made these remarks, because I would love to know Holdengräber’s reaction. His usual opening remarks reflect a desire to bring lightness and liveliness to a sometimes heavy institution, so I’d like to think that he would agree with me on this one.

This post touches on some topics related to my work at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, so I will note that all views are my own and should not be taken to represent the organization.