“It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in as much as it prevented daubing. None the less for that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” (1905)
When the first English poetry was given by the gift and grace of God it was imparted to an illiterate shepherd named Cædmon and the register that it was received and was alliterative. In the seventh century, the English, as they had yet to be called, may have had Christianity, but they did not yet have poetry. Pope Gregory I, having seen a group of them sold as slaves in the markets of Rome, had said “They are not Angles, but angels,” and yet these seraphim did not sing (yet). There among his sheep at the Abbey of Whitby in the rolling Northumbrian countryside, Cædmon served a clergy whose prayers were in a vernacular not their own, among a people of no letters. A lay brother, Cædmon feasted and drank with his fellow monks one evening when they all took to reciting verse from memory (as one does), playing their harps as King David had in the manner of the bards of the Britons, the scops of the Saxons, the Makers of song–for long before poetry was written it should be plucked and sung.
In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St. Bede described how the monks were “sometimes at entertainments” and that it was “agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turn.” But in a scene whose face-burning embarrassment still resonates a millennium-and-a-half later, Bede explained that when Cædmon “saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from the table and returned home.” Pity the simple monk whom Alasdair Gray in The Book of Prefaces described as a “local herdsman [who] wanted to be a poet though he had not composed anything.” An original composition would wait for that night. Cædmon went to sleep among his mute animals, but in the morning he arose with the fiery tongue of an angel. Bede records that in those nocturnal reveries “someone” came to Cædmon asking the herdsman to sing of “the beginning of created things.” Like his older contemporary, the prophet Muhammad, some angelic visitor had brought to Cædmon the exquisite perfection of words, and with a commission most appropriate–to create English verse on the topic of creation itself. When Cædmon awoke, he was possessed with the consonantal bursts of a hot, orange iron bar being hammered against a glowing, sparkly anvil; the sounds in his head were the characteristic alliteration of his native English.
That bright night in a dark age, what was delivered unto the shepherd were the first words of English poetry: “Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard, / metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc, /uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes, / ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ / hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum / heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen,” and so on and so forth. The other monks brought Cædmon to the wise abbess St. Hilda, who declared this delivery a miracle (preserved only in 19 extant manuscripts). Gray described this genesis of English literature: A herdsman sang in a “Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon” to an amanuensis “who got learning from the Irish Scots,” his narrative being a “Jewish creation story transmitted to him through at least three other languages by a Graeco-Roman-Celtic-Christian church” with verse forms “learned from pagan German warrior chants.” The migrations of peoples and stories would, as with all languages, contribute to the individual aural soul of English, so that the result was an Anglo-Saxon literature that sounded like wind blowing in over the whale-road of the North Sea, reminding us that “Alliteration is part of the sound stratum of poetry. It predates rhyme and takes us back to the oldest English and Celtic poetries,” as Edward Hirsch writes in A Poet’s Glossary.
Read that bit of quoted verse from Cædmon aloud and it might not sound much like English to you, the modern translation roughly reading as “Now [we] must honor the guardian of heaven, / the might of the architect, and his purpose, / the work of the father of glory / as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders,” (and so on and so forth). But if you sound out what philologists call “Anglo-Saxon,” you’ll start to hear the characteristic rhythms of English–staccato firing of short, consonant rich words, and most of all the alliteration. Anglo-Saxon, if heard without concentration, can sound like someone speaking English in another room just beyond your hearing; it can sound like an upside-down version of what we speak every day; it can sound like what our language would be if imitated by a non-fluent speaker. Cædmon’s verse may have been gifted from angels, but the ingredients were his tongue’s phonemes, and unlike the Romance language’s rhyme-ready vowels, he had hard Germanic edges.
Such was the template set by Cædmon, for though “Old English meter is not fully understood,” as Derik Attridge explained in Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, it does appear to “have been written according to complex rules.” Details of prosody are beyond my purview, but as a crackerjack explanation, what defines Anglo-Saxon meter is a heavy reliance on alliteration, whereby what connects the two halves of a line, separated by a caesura (the gap you see between words in the bit of Cædmon quoted above), is an alliterated meter stress. In Cædmon’s first line we have the alliteration of “hergan/hefaenrīcaes,” in the second line the alliterative triumvirate of “metudæs/maecti/mōdgidanc,” a pattern that continues throughout the rest of the hymn. A meter that David Crystal in The Stories of English described as “the most structurally distinctive verse form to have emerged in the history of English.”
The vast majority of Anglo-Saxon’s “structurally distinctive verse,” as with all literatures, is lost to us. By necessity, oral literature disappears, as ephemeral as breath in the cold. Words are subject to decay; poetry to entropy. Only about 400 manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon survive, less than the average number of books in a professor’s office in Cambridge, or Berkeley, or Ann Arbor. Of those, slightly fewer than 200 are considered “major,” and there are but four major manuscripts of specifically poetry. The earliest of these, the Junius manuscript, is that which contains Cædmon’s hymn; the latest of these, the Nowell Codex, contains among other things the only extant Anglo-Saxon epic, that which we call Beowulf. Such is undoubtedly an insignificant percentage of what was once written, of what was once sung to the accompaniment of a lute. Much was lost in the 16th century when Henry VIII decided to dissolve the monasteries, so that most alliterative verse was either turned to ash, or stripped into the bindings of other books, occasionally discovered by judicious bibliographers. Almost all Anglo-Saxon literature, from poetry to prose, hagiography to history, bible translation to travelogue, could be consumed by the committed reader in a few months as they’re squirreled away in a Northumbrian farm house.
Anglo-Saxon has a distinctive literary register that revels in riddles, in ironic understatement, in the creative metaphorical neologisms called “kennings,” and of course in alliteration. This is the literature of the anonymous poem “The Seafarer,” a fatalistic elegy of a mere 124 lines about the life of a sailor, whose opening was rendered by the 20th-century modernist poet Ezra Pound as “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, /Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days / Hardship endured oft.” Pound was not only bewitched by alliteration’s alluring galumph, but the meter of “The Seafarer” propels the action of the poem forward, the cadence of natural English speech tamed by the defamiliarization of enjambment and stress, rendering it simultaneously ordinary and odd (as the best poetry must). Anglo-Saxon is a verse, for which the Irish poet and translator of Beowulf Seamus Heaney remarks, where even when the language is elevated it’s also “always, paradoxically, buoyantly down to earth.” Read aloud “The Wanderer,” which sits alongside “The Seafarer” in the compendium known as the Exeter Book, where the anonymous scop sings of “The thriving of the treeland, the town’s briskness, / a lightness over the leas, life gathering, / everything urges the eagerly mooded / man to venture on the voyage he thinks of, / the faring over flood, the far bourn.” Prosody is an art of physical feeling before it ever is one of semantic comprehension–poems exist in the mouth, not in the mind. Note the mouth-feel of “The Wanderer’s” aural sense, the way in which reading it aloud literally feels good. Poetry is a science of placing tongue against teeth and pallet, it is not philosophy. This is what Heaney described as “the element of sensation while the mind’s lookout sways metrically and farsightedly,” and as English is an alliterative tongue it’s that alliteration which gives us sensation. A natural way of speaking, for as Heaney wrote “Part of me… had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”
The cumulative effect of this meter is as if a type of sonic galloping, the clip-clop of horses across the frozen winter ground of a Northumbrian countryside. Such was the sound imparted to Cædmon by his unseen angel, and these were the rules drawn from the natural ferment and rich, black soil of the English language itself, where alliteration grows from our consonant top-heavy tongue. Other Germanic languages based their prosody on alliteration for the simple reason that, in the Icelandic of the Poetic Eddas or the German of Muspilli, the sounds of the words themselves make it far easier to alliterate than to rhyme, as in Italian or French. The Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman-edited Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms explains that among the “four most significant devices of phonic echo in poetry”—rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration—it was the last which most fully defined Anglo-Saxon prosody, grown from the raw sonic materials of the language itself. To adopt a line from Charles Churchill’s 1763 The Prophecy of Famine, Cædmon may have “prayed / For apt alliteration’s artful aid,” but the angel only got his attention–the sounds were already in the monk’s speech.
Every language has a certain aural spirit to it, a type of auditory fingerprint which is related to those phonemes, those sounds, which constitute the melody and rhythm of any tongue. Romance languages with their languid syllables, words ending with the open-mouthed expression of the sprawled vowel; the spittle-flecked plosives of the Slavic tongues, or the phlegmy gutturals of the Germanic, and despite their consonants the gentle lilt of the Gaelic languages. Sound can be separate from meaning as something that can be felt in the body without the need to comprehend it in the mind.
In his masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, the logician Douglas Hofstadter provides examples of individual languages’ aural spirit. Hofstadter examines several different “translations” of the Victorian author Lewis Carrol’s celebrated nonsense lyric “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. That strange and delightful poem, as you will probably recall, encapsulates the aural spirit of English rather well. Carrol famously declared “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.” Other than some articles and conjunctions, the poem is almost entirely nonsense. Yet in its hodge-podge of invented nouns, verbs, and adjectives, most readers can imagine a fairly visceral scene, but this picture is generated not from actual semantic meaning, but rather from the strange wisdom of English’s particular aural soul. From “Jabberwocky” we get a sense of its preponderance of consonants and its relatively short words, a language that sounds like chewing a tough slab of air-dried meat. As Hofstadter explains, this poses a difficulty in “translating,” because the aural sense of English has to be converted into that of another language. Despite that difficulty, there have been several successful attempts, each of which enact the auditory anatomy of a particular tongue.
Frank L. Warrin’s French translation of Carrol’s poem begins, “Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux / Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave”; Adolfo de Alba’s Spanish starts, “Era la asarvesperia y los flexilimosos toves / giroscopiaban taledrando en el vade”; and my personal favorite, the German of Robert Scott’s first stanza, reads as “Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven / Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben; / Und aller-mümsige Burggoven / Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.” What all translations accomplish is a sense of the sounds of a language, the aural soul that I speak of. You need not be fluent to identify a language’s aural soul; unfamiliarity with the actual literal meanings of a language might arguably make it easier for a listener to detect those distinct features that define a dialect. Listen to a YouTube video of the prodigious, late comedic genius Sid Caesar, a master of “double-talk,” who while working in his father’s Yonkers restaurant overheard speakers of “Italian, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, French, Spanish, Lithuanian, and even Bulgarian” and subsequently learned that he could adeptly parrot the cadence and aural sense of those and other languages.
In his memoir Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, the performer observes that “Every language has its own song and rhythm.” If you’re fluent in fake French or suspect Spanish, you may naturally inquire as to what fake English sounds like. When I lived in Scotland I had a French room-mate whom I posed that query too, and after much needling (and a few drinks) he recited a sentence of perfect counterfeit English. Guttural as German, but with far shorter words; it was a type of rapid-fire clanging-and-clinking with words shooting out with a “ping” as if lug-nuts from a malfunctioning robot. If you want a more charitable interpretation of what American English sounds like, listen to Italian pop star Adriano Celentano’s magnificently funky fake-English song “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” where with all the guttural urgency THAT our language requires, he sings out “Uis de seim cius nau op de seim/Ol uoit men in de colobos dai/Not s de seim laikiu de promisdin/Iu nau in trabol lovgiai ciu gen.”
If every language has this sonic sense, then poetry is the ultimate manifestation of a tongue’s unique genius; a language’s consciousness made manifest and self-aware, bottled and preserved into the artifact of verse. Language lives not in the mind, but rather in the larynx, the soft pallet, the mouth, and the tongue, and its progeny are the soft serpentine sibilant, the moist plosive, the chest gutturals’ heart-burn. A language’s poetry will reflect the natural sounds that have developed for its speakers, as can be witnessed in the meandering inter-locking softness of Italian ottava rima or the percussive trochaic tetrameter of Finland’s The Kalevala. For Romance languages, rhyme is relatively easy–all of those vowels at the ends of words. That Anglo-Saxon meter should be so heavily alliterative, along with its consonant-heavy West Germanic cousins like Frisian, also makes sense. Why then is rhyme historically the currency of English language poetry after the Anglo-Saxon era? After all, one couldn’t imagine a philistine’s declaration of “This can’t be poetry; it doesn’t alliterate.”
The reasons are both complex and contested, though the hypothesis is that following the Norman invasion (1066 and all that) Romance poetic styles were imposed on the Germanic speaking peoples (as indeed they’d once imposed their language on the Celts). In A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie, she writes that “In the history of English poetry, rhyme takes over when alliteration leaves off.” A century-and-a-half of free verse, and almost five centuries of blank verse, and so enshrined is rhyme that your average reader still assumes that it’s definitional to what poetry is. But alliteration, despite its integral role in the birth of our prosody, and its continual presence (often accidental) in our everyday speech, is relegated to the role of adult child from a first marriage whose invitation to Thanksgiving dinner has been lost in the mail. There is an important historical exception to this, during the High Middle Ages, when the Germanic throatiness of old English was rounded out by the softness of Norman French and some poets chose to once again write their verse in the characteristic alliterative meter of their ancestors. Or maybe that’s what happened, it’s entirely possible that English poets never chose to abandon alliteration, and the so-called alliterative revival with poems like the anonymous Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and William Langland’s Piers Plowman are just that which survives, giving the illusion that something has returned which never actually left.
In All the Fun’s in How you Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification, Timothy Steele writes that some regard the alliterative revival as a “conscious protest against the emerging accentual-syllabic tradition and as a nationalistic effort to turn English verse back to its German origins.” Whether that’s the case is an issue for medievalists to debate. What is true is that the Middle English poetry of this period represents a vernacular renaissance of the 13th and 14th centuries when much English poetry read as, well, English. Again, with a sense of mouth feel, read aloud Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when the titular emerald man picks up his just severed head and says, “you must solemnly swear/that you’ll seek me yourself; that you’ll search me out/to the ends of the earth to earn the same blow/as you’ll dole out today in this decorous hall.” That “s,” and “e,” and “d” – there’s a pleasure in reading alliteration that can avoid the artifice of rhyme, with its straitjacket alterity. Armitage explains that “alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads” (that line itself replicating Anglo-Saxon meter, albeit in prose). For the translator, alliteration exists as “percussive patterning” which is there to “reinforce their meaning and to countersink them within the memory,” what Crystal calls “phonological mnemonics.”
But if the alliterative poetry of the High Middle Ages signaled not a rupture but an occluded continuity, then it is true that by the arrival of the Renaissance, rhyme would permanently supplant it as the prosodic element du jour. Adoption of continental models of verse are in large part due to the coming influence of Renaissance humanism, yet the 14th-century also saw the political turmoil of the Peasant’s Rebellion, when an English-speaking rabble organized against the French-speaking aristocracy, motivated by a proto-Protestant religious movement called Lollardy and celebrated in a flowering of vernacular spiritual writing, which contributed to the Church’s eventual fear of bible translation. As the rebellion would be violently put down in 1381, there was a general distrust among the ruling classes of scripture rendered into an English tongue–could a similar distrust of alliteration, too common and simple, have shifted poetry away from it for good? Melvyn Bragg writes in The Adventures of English: The Biography of a Language that poets like Langland (himself possibly a Lollard) rendered their verse “more believable for being so plainly painted,” a poetry “meant to sound like the language of the people.” This was precisely what was to be avoided, and so perhaps alliteration migrated from the rarefied realms of poetry back to simple speech, eventually reserved mostly for instances in which, as Bragg writes, there is a need to “Grab the listener’s or reader’s attention…such as in news headlines and advertising slogans.”
Madison Avenue understands alliteration’s deep wisdom, such that “Guinness is good for you” (possibly true) and “Greyhound going great” (undoubtedly not true).” While at home in advertising, Attridge explained that alliteration is a “rare visitor to the literary realm,” with Hirsch adding that it now exists as a “subterranean stream in English-language poetry.” Subterranean streams can still have a mighty roar however, as alliteration’s preponderance in the popular realm of slogans and lyrics can attest to. Alliteration exists because alliteration works, and while it’s been largely supplanted by rhyme for several hundred years it remains in the wheelhouse of some of our most canonical poets. The 19th-century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins largely derived his “sprung rhythm” from Anglo-Saxon meter, where he lets the Sybil’s leaves declare “let them be left, wildness and wet; Love live the weeds and the wilderness yet,” calling forth all the forward momentum of “The Wanderer.”
For exhibition of alliteration’s sheer magnificent potential, examine W.H. Auden’s under-read 1947 masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, which demonstrates our indigenous trope’s full power, especially in a contemporary context, and not just as a fantasy novel affectation for when an author needs characters to sound like stock Saxons. Across six subsections spread amongst 138 pages, four war-time characters in a Manhattan bar reflect on modernity’s traumas in a series of individual inner alliterative monologues. Alliteration is perfectly attuned to this setting, which Auden later described as “an unprejudiced space where nothing particular ever happens,” because alliteration simultaneously announced itself as common (i.e. “This is what English speakers sound like”) while also clearly poetic (“But we don’t normally alliterate as regularly as that”). Take the passage in which one of the characters, now drunk in a stream of consciousness reverie (for that’s what good Guinness does for you…), examines his own face across from himself in the barroom mirror (as one does). Auden writes:
How glad and good when you go to bed,
Do you feel, my friend? What flavor has
That liquor you lift with your left hand;
Is it cold by contrast, cool as this
For a soiled soul; does yourself like mine
Taste of untruth? Tell me, what are you
Hiding in your heart, some angel face,
Some shadowy she who shares in my absence,
Enjoys my jokes? I’m jealous, surely,
Nicer myself (though not as honest),
The marked man of romantic thrillers
Whose brow bears the brand of winter
No priest can explain, the poet disguised,
Thinking over things in thieves’ kitchens.
That thrum supplied by alliterative meter, so much sharper and more angular than rhyme’s pleasing congruencies or assonance’s soft rounding, feels like nothing so much as the rushing blood in the temples of that drunk staring at his own disheveled reflection. Savor the slink of that “shadowy she who shares” or the pagan totemism of the “marked man” and the colloquialism of that which is “Hiding in your heart.” The Age of Anxiety perfectly synthesizes a type of vernacular bar-room speech that nonetheless is clearly poetry in the circumscribed constrictions of its language. In choosing our rhetorical tropes certain metaphysical implications necessarily announce themselves. Were The Age of Anxiety rhymed or in free verse it would be a very different poem, in this case a less successful one (despite our collective ignorance about Auden’s elegy). At one point, one of the characters imagines the future, imagines us, and she predicts that the future will be “Odourless ages, an ordered world/Of planned pleasures and passport-control, /Sentry-go sedatives, soft drinks and/Managed money, a moral planet/Tamed by terror.” This is, first of all, an obviously accurate prediction of life in 2019. It’s also one all the more terrifying in the familiar wax and wane of alliteration, for it calls forth the beating heart of English itself, and while not sounding like that stock medieval herdsman it still harkens back towards the primordial hymns of our tongue, of Cædmon strumming his lute while he pops antidepressants and checks Facebook for the 500th time that day.
Such experiments as The Age of Anxiety have been at best understood as literary affectations, or at worst declarations of nativist Anglophilia (as with Pound). Kinzie complains that alliteration draws “attention away from what words mean to hint at what are often the…irrational similarities in their sounds,” though I’d argue that that describes all rhetorical devices, from metaphor to metonymy, catachresis to chiasmus. She writes that alliteration appears “towards the self-conscious end of the continuum of diction,” but it’s precisely self-awareness of medium that makes language poetry. Hirsch writes that “Alliteration can reinforce preexisting meanings…and establish effective new ones,” which Kinzie interprets as mere “fondness for gnomic utterance.” But that’s the prodigious brilliance of alliteration–its uniquely English oracular quality. As with all verse, it’s these “gnomic utterances” that are birthed from the pregnant potential of our particular words, and alliteration’s naturalism is what makes it so apt for this purpose in our language. Prosody at its most affecting incongruously marries the realism of speech with the defamiliarization that announces poetry as being artifice, and that’s why alliteration is among the most haunting of our aural ghosts. Poetry is of the throat before it is of the brain, and alliteration is the common well-spring of English, sounding neither as contrived nor as straight-jacketed as rhyme. As such, why not embrace alliterative meter as more than just gimmick; why not draw attention to that aural quality of our language that is our common ownership? Our tongues already talk in alliteration, so let us once again proclaim our poems in alliteration, let us declare our dreams in it.
Writers toil for years to squeeze even an ounce of their soul into their work, but when it comes to the acknowledgements page, they happily bow before convention. It’s rare to find an author’s note that isn’t a list of names paired with phrases of gratitude, each paragraph rising in pitch as if announcing the next rank in a hierarchy of angels, rarer still to find one that quietly captures the full agony and ecstasy of its author’s being. On the final page of Some Trick, her first collection of short stories, Helen DeWitt writes:
Over the years visitors to my blog (paperpools.blogspot.de) have generously helped me live to fight another day. While The Last Samurai was out of print buyers of secondhand copies would send donations to the beleaguered author. More recently two dedicated readers have been thinking of ways to approach the challenge in a less haphazard manner; anyone who would like to be involved should contact me at [email protected] to be put in touch.
Some context: In 2000, when DeWitt was 43, her acclaimed debut The Last Samurai came out with Miramax Books. It was a victory after years of setbacks and menial jobs, but also the lone highlight in what became her long praying mantis courtship with the publishing industry, which began with a war over the novel’s typesetting and led to two suicide attempts. After Miramax Books went bankrupt, The Last Samurai fell into contractual purgatory, and DeWitt’s subsequent novels were either delayed for a decade (Lightning Rods), pulled due to technical challenges (Your Name Here) or deemed unpublishable. The familiar ivy of poverty re-encircled her life, even as critical appreciation for both Lightning Rods and The Last Samurai continued to grow; the latter was recently a broad consensus pick for the 21st century’s most canonical novel.
And so here is one our foremost authors, poor but nonetheless foremost, inviting her readers not just to send her a few bucks (which she does later in the note), but to get involved in a project that is, presumably then, more elaborate than direct donation, that involves joining a dedicated network of DeWitt supporters, and to do so by writing said foremost author at her personal email account. Can you imagine any of the Didions, Franzens, Ferrantes or Bolaños whom she beat out in the canon rankings extending that request to the world? Even less rarified authors would be warned off by an inkling that this was a thing one simply does not do.
DeWitt can ignore that inkling in part because she’s made a public persona out of questioning its merits, especially when it comes to what she calls “normative publishing.” In her interviews, wielding the sort of rationalism more commonly associated with economists, tech entrepreneurs and utilitarians, she picks apart the industry’s conventions, like the puritanical separation of authors and type-setters, the unwillingness to experiment with new revenue models, especially ones perfected by the art world, and even the norm of meetings editors in cafés, where table space is too limited for spreading out one’s papers. My favorite of her frustrations is how when she met with prospective agents she couldn’t get them to agree to squeeze as much marketing juice as possible from any future suicides she attempted. “If I could have sold off a suicide attempt,” she said in a 2008 interview, “I would have had more time for reading Spinoza.” Duh.
It’s not surprising, then, that she might try out unusual methods of financing. I can imagine her calculating out Spinoza time wasted from extraneous emails vs. Spinoza time gained from projected extra income (naturally I’d like to message her and ask what the scheme is all about, except then I remember my own income and have to admit that I’d be tipping the scales toward time wasted). But even a positive net expected value wouldn’t account for the note. To put such an entreaty out in the world requires something rarer than strict rationality; it requires, in large amounts and in equal measure, optimism and desperation. If DeWitt were merely desperate, she wouldn’t be the sort of person who burned bridges over type-setting; she’d write The Last Samurai derivatives and own a brownstone in Brooklyn. If she were merely an optimist, she would have accepted her lot and put her faith in posterity. Put the two together and you get one of our best writers leveraging her stature and her inbox for what is in all likelihood a moonshot of a fundraising scheme.
You also get what defines her fiction, even more so than the two themes most often used to describe it, genius and making ends meet. True, The Last Samurai begins with Sibylla, a single mother, earning scraps as a freelancer while teaching her son Ludo to speak a dozen languages and do advanced math, but what gives the novel its wheels is Ludo growing up to have the same need and daring as his creator. At 11 years old, he disobeys his mother and sets out to identify and meet his biological father, a travel writer named Val Peters. When he figures out that Peters is a mediocrity, Ludo is disappointed, but he doesn’t despair. He simply reasons that he should let Peters down easy and find someone better, and begins showing up at the doors of various impressive men, armed with a con man’s set of ruses and an appraising eye.
Ludo is, to quote another of DeWitt’s stories, a “go-getter … that quintessential American thing to be,” an archetype that reappears throughout her fiction. DeWitt’s characters don’t suffer from boredom, midlife crises, existential dread or a surplus of time. They engage with the world, and, like DeWitt, they do so with unusual requests and ingenious proposals. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a highly successful fiction writer, wants to work with a mathematically literate editor for his next book, and he worries that his agent, Jim, won’t find one through the usual auction process. Struggling to convince Jim why this matters so much, Peter makes an unheard of but seemingly foolproof proposal: He offers an 85 percent commission, or roughly half a million dollars, in exchange for Jim finding him the right editor. “As ours is a business relationship,” he explains, “… it is entirely reasonable for me to determine my own ends and offer financial compensation to you for the inconvenience of promoting them.” Jim, though, brushes him off, making “a number of friendly American remarks” about being happy with the standard commission, friendly yet in a way that implies he has taken offense.
In her fiction DeWitt gets to be clear-sighted about how and why ingenious proposals fail, not without some irony: “Climbers” explores the pitfalls of dedicated readers trying to help an author they love. Peter Dijkstra, a reclusive Dutch writer, receives a series of emails from American literary types, utterly out of the blue, suggesting that a famous American writer is willing to give Dijkstra his apartment and all his things, out of respect for the European’s genius. It’s a strange and sudden altruism, born out of a New York loft-party conversation, but one that Dijkstra, pondering his debts, wants to talk advantage of, if only he can figure out how: “The fact that a fame-kissed young American would happily hand over all his worldly goods did not make it socially straightforward to write asking for a gift of 20,000 euros.” He doesn’t know how to survey, at a distance, the terrain of his admirers’ enthusiasm. Can he ask for a lifetime supply of cigarettes? Too shocking. A subscription to the Vienna Philharmonic? “An American … would see [such a gift] as too finely tuned.” Just how fully would the American writer move out of his apartment? “He could not think of any sentences that would ascertain the position in a socially acceptable fashion.”
The difficulty of ascertaining other people’s positions, and of conveying one’s own, is where many of these ingenious proposals run into trouble. DeWitt describes the problem more explicitly in “Sexual Codes of the Europeans,” a story that opens with a guidebook of systems developed in five cities for indicating certain sexual preferences. In Bilbao, for instance, people set out items on café tables to indicate the material in or upon which they wish to make love, whether sand or milk or acacia blossom honey. In Stuttgart, people leave out plastic figurines indicating a preference for a uniformed stranger, whether a Canadian Mountie or an Air Singapore stewardess. The practice is explained as arising from a scarcity of language:
The words for sexual practices and preferences are not included in a book for travelers, nor are the words that would accompany the speech acts of requesting a practice, expressing a preference. Perhaps you think: yes, but the words and speech acts must be known to the natives! If you buy a book in your own country you will find words for practices. You will not find an account of the speech acts in which the words may be deployed. The scarcity, it seems, is not one of vocabulary but one of speech acts.
More specifically, there is a scarcity of socially acceptable speech acts, or speech acts that carry only the precise information that one wishes to convey, with no surplus or remainder. When Peter offers 85 percent of the sale of his book in exchange for the right editor, what a robot or an economist might hear as a simple exchange sounds to Jim like a purely figurative hyperbole that politely says, “I’m worried you’re not going to do a good job.” Naturally, Jim is offended, as would be the airline employees who saw you walking around in your “I Prefer Sex With Air Singapore Stewardesses” T-shirt. As would be most literary agents when they realize you see them as the kind of person who would peddle their client’s suicide. To have a preference or proposal, even one justified by reason, is not enough. If the proposal is at all strange, one must also invent a sufficiently dexterous speech act, capable of slipping past the alarm system of prejudice, taboo and convention that protects us.
Perhaps it’s this idea that led DeWitt to write “The Wrong Stuff,” the essay she published in the LARB to accompany Some Trick. If her author’s note is the strangest example of its genre, “The Wrong Stuff” holds the crown among those now equally ubiquitous things, half artist statement and half college essay, used to publicize new fiction releases. It begins with a question Hans Ulrich Obrist, the renowned artistic director for Serpentine Galleries, posed to Zadie Smith, about whether she has any unrealized literary projects. DeWitt envies the question:
I could have explained that I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction. Projects that were not even books, so no agent or editor would know what to do with them. I would need a week to set out materials on tables, tack papers to walls, and talk nonstop.
Having dangled this prize, DeWitt offers the requisite humility: If that’s how the industry works, there could be thousands of authors with stalled century-changing projects. If any of these hypothetical projects were ever realized, she suggests, it will be because their hypothetical creators will have had a chance meeting with a well-financed visionary like, hypothetically, Hans Ulrich Obrist.
But of course, one of those authors is DeWitt and those projects exist in her hard drive and surely a few LARB readers are connected to Obrist. The essay is an elaborate speech act to convey what cannot be said directly: I have art that is too wild and expensive for New Directions, I’m running out of time, someone please give me the resources to make it. From various interviews one can piece together the problem: The projects she dreams of realizing need the help of graphic designers and computer programmers, individuals who need to be paid, but publishers won’t sign a contract until they see an almost fully realized book. Thus the elaborate plea, which, needless to say, our society doesn’t know how to readily parse, not coming from a 61-year-old writer, certainly not a woman. “The Wrong Stuff” sank to the bottom of the internet without a sound, without even inciting some jerk to call out claims which, coming from any other author, would seem outlandish. At least that might have started a conversation.
What makes it all the more depressing is that this plea could so easily have been unnecessary. One can imagine The Last Samurai propelling DeWitt into the same liberating echelon that Infinite Jest or Gödel, Escher and Bach (equally long, unorthodox and surprisingly popular works) propelled David Foster Wallace and Douglas Hofstadter, two famously inflexible writers who found forgiving editors in Michael Pietsch and Bill Kessel (who let Hofstadter do his own type-setting). Even Jonathan Safran Foer got to write Tree of Codes. One can imagine DeWitt getting a MacArthur “genius” grant, rather than setting the world record for torturously coy equivocations on a writer’s intellect (“Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius … she may just be one herself …” “If we wanted to call Helen DeWitt a genius …” “She is one of those writers who seems to demand the description genius”). One can imagine how differently her rationalism and casual attitude toward suicide marketing would be coded and received if it came from a Peter DeWitt, rather than a Helen.
Or one can simply imagine a world such that when one of our best writers says she has projects that will change literature immured in her hard drive, we do better than plugging our ears, waiting until she’s dead, and giving our descendants the joy of opening her laptop and asking how we let this happen. If DeWitt wants to give our descendants a hint, she can set her login password to a line of Proust: “So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when anyone speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read and knows already …”
How to convince you that there are new books, new languages, new speech acts, new ways of living or doing business, new textures upon which to make love? This is the true engineering feat of DeWitt’s writing. Its ambition is not merely refilling spent canisters of frisson. Proust speaks of jaded readers as an analogy for his own jaded attitude toward young girls, renewed by a milkmaid, but the analogy seems flawed—youthful beauty, like a party with guest list or a bull market, sells itself. We’re so susceptible to certain easy charms that economists warn investors against ever thinking “this time is different.” This time, beauty won’t come to bore me. This time, the party will be bacchanalia. This time, the bubble won’t burst.
Yet there are moments when this time really is different. Once in a rare while, some new pleasure or pain or art, one that pales doe-eyed youth or owning real estate, reveals life to be richer and more expansive than you knew it to be. These strange gems are not ones you find where you go panning for novelty. By definition, they exist beyond what you know, so your powers of induction cannot guide you to them. The best you can do, the only thing you can do, is sustain the belief that all of life is yet to be amassed within your composite existence.
This might comfort the patient and the lazy, but it’s also the tragic aspect of DeWitt’s work and life. No matter how ingenious their proposals, how elaborate their speech acts, or how airtight their arguments become, her characters struggle to surmount a latent, animal skepticism. And so does she. I’ve read most of DeWitt’s interviews from the past decade or more. Through them I can track all the subtle refinements to her theory of publishing’s failures and possibilities, all the way to “The Wrong Stuff,” succinct and dazzling. But what are all those refinements worth, and who are they for? In the end, it’s all one plea, endlessly repeated to those who, if they don’t already, probably never will: Believe me.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Various explanations could be offered for the runaway success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. One could note its deft blend of personal recovery narrative with the pleasures of travel literature; its post-New Age grappling with spiritual questions; and its feel-good empowerment message for divorced first-worlders. But a more technical detail should not be overlooked: namely, the book’s perfect deployment of the tripartite title form.
Eat, Pray, Love is a classic instance of the rhetorical figure of the isocolon, first defined by the Greek sophist Georgias — along with other such figures, some familiar (antithesis), some now less so (homoeoteleuton) — as part of his system of rhetorical composition. Greek for “of equal number of clauses,” isocolon is a rhetorical device that produces a sense of order by balancing parallel elements that are similar in structure and length within a sentence. An isocolon need not have three elements, but the requirement of parallel and balance means that it often takes a tripartite shape, technically called a tricolon. The most famous examples of tricolons are probably “veni, vidi, vici,” from Julius Caesar’s letter to the Roman Senate after achieving a quick victory in the Battle of Zela in 46 B.C., and the national motto of France, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Caesar’s statement produces a sense of inevitable progress, and Eat, Pray, Love also achieves some of this effect, with Elizabeth Gilbert in the triumphant Caesar role: I ate, I prayed, I found love. And with Italy, India and Indonesia in the subtitle, Gilbert achieved tricolonic apotheosis.
The tricolonic title form has long been a staple of pop songs — “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” (Stevie Wonder); “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (Buddy Holly); “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” (Journey) — and of movies: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; Sex, Lies, and Videotape. (A strict definition of the isocolon would exclude the latter as imbalanced, but Mark Forsyth opines in The Elements of Eloquence that “tricolons sound great if the third thing is longer,” as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). The human mind obviously enjoys lists, and the well-deployed tricolonic title can constitute a powerfully compressed narrative that raises questions only answerable by consuming the cultural object in question. What do the sex and lies have to do with the videotape? Do squeezin’ and touchin’ require lovin’, or are all three actions independent of one another?
One classic version of the tricolonic book title takes the form of a brief list of names, as in Jacques Barzun’s 1941 Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, or Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. In these instances, what may appear to be simple lists in fact offer a hint of irony or paradox in a less-than-obvious grouping: a question is raised (what does Johann Sebastian Bach have to do with the other two?) that the book will go on to answer.
But a new kind of tricolonic title emerged in the 1970s, I would suggest, as a signature form of the new discourse of Theory. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida both made notable use of the tricolon: see Barthes’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1976) and Image, Music, Text (1977), and Derrida’s landmark post-structuralist essay “Signature Event Context” (1972). Michel Foucault’s 1977-8 lectures at the Collège de France, later collected in book form as Security, Territory, Population, also offer a paradigmatic example. The title was probably not Foucault’s own, as the book was published posthumously in 2004 — which in itself proves the point, however, that by the 21st century, this title form had become a marketing hook.
I would guess that the primary influence on Barthes and Derrida’s titles were the titles of Martin Heidegger: The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (1938); his 1951 essay “Bauen Wohnen Denken” (“Building Dwelling Thinking”); his 1971 collection Poetry, Language, Thought. (As with Foucault, some of these titles may not have been chosen by Heidegger himself). This Heideggerian, Barthesian, or Derridean tripartitle title form declines to pre-order its terms, offering them as a kind of puzzle for the reader. “Signature, Event, and Context” would, like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, more straight-forwardly suggest a linear sequence of important terms for the argument within the essay; “Signature Event Context,” however, compels attention by offering a gnomic, comparatively unmarked collection of terms. (The lack of commas intensifies this effect.) The title flaunts a certain blankness or withholding of affect, and enacts a cool decontextualizing, demanding that we abandon whatever associations we might already hold with its three terms “signature,” “event,” and “context,” in order to comprehend them more rigorously and dispassionately.
Once one takes note of this kind of tricolonic title form, one starts to see it everywhere in the titles of scholarly books and articles, especially in the 21st century. Robin Wood’s “Ideology, Genre, Auteur: Shadow of a Doubt” and “Symmetry, Closure, Disruption: the Ambiguity of Blackmail,” both from Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (1989); Jennifer Fleissner’s Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (2004); David Punter’s Rapture: Literature, Addiction, Secrecy (2009); Valerie Rohy’s Anachronism and Its Others: Sexuality, Race, Temporality (2010); Jesse Molesworth’s Chance and the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Realism, Probability, Magic (2010); Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (2015). (And the prevalence of the tricolonic title offers an opportunity for a perhaps-inevitable form of one-upmanship, the tetracolonic title, as in Caroline Levine’s new Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network.) The undifferentiated tricolonic (or tertracolonic) title — especially lacking the “and” — now often implies an allegiance to Theory, a disinclination to pre-sort the terms of one’s argument, and a certain affectual withholding. The titles seem to say, offhandedly, “Here are some of the key terms of my argument; I won’t explain yet how they relate to one another.” I am not sure whether it should be seen as a coincidence, or a deeper-running irony of late capitalism, that such titles also serve as convenient collections of search terms, well-poised to capture online queries.
All of this leaves one question, difficult to answer definitively: should Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” now be recognized as containing an overlooked Heideggerian resonance?
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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