Review: Nox, Anne Carson

Yes, I bought it. I bought it, and it was amazing. Y’all talked me into it. I was stacking the deck, really, by asking for advice from a bunch of people who I know can’t stick to their own book-buying bans, let alone propose that others do so. It’s like when I call up Social Sister to ask her if I should buy a pair of cute shoes.

To recapitulate, Nox is a version of the journal Anne Carson made after her brother died. They had been estranged for years, and she heard of his death several weeks after it had happened, because it took that long for his widow to find Anne Carson’s phone number. The organizing principle of the book is a poem by Catullus in which he travels to his brother’s grave, reaching it only long after his brother has died. It’s a beautiful poem, difficult to translate because its rhythms are so crucial to it, though Anne Carson does give it a try, late in the book.

In If Not, Winter, her translation of Sappho, Anne Carson proved that she is a fan of the fragment. Nox is equally a creation of fragments. We see scraps of a letter from Carson’s brother, a few sentences that she remembers him saying in their rare conversations, a photograph or two of Carson and her brother as children, short excerpts from Herodotus or from a book on haiku. As in If Not, Winter, and to similar evocative effect, Carson leaves the reader to wonder (as she wonders herself) what might fill in those gaps.

Each verso in Nox includes a single word from the Catullus poem, formatted as a dictionary entry. Midwayish through the book Carson plays with the double meaning of “entry” as an item in a dictionary and “entry” as a way in to something (a way in to her brother). What seems at first a straightforward definition of mutam becomes something slightly else in Carson’s hands. She gives the examples “mutum dico, I do not say a word; tempus magis mutum a litteris, there was a better reason for not writing”, and on the opposite page:

What he needed from me I have no idea. When I caught up to him in high school (he was older by four years) he liked me to do his homework but that wasn’t it. My moral advice he brushed aside, you’re different. He called me professor or pinhead, epithets implying intellectual respect but we never had a conversation about ideas in our life. And when he telephoned me — out of the blue — about half a year after our mother died he had nothing to say.

I took a (very dull) philosophy of art class in college, and I remember one of the things we talked about as a possible element in defining art was that a piece of art was something that had been purposefully assembled to convey an emotion. I’m not saying that has to be the definition, but it’s a definition that Carson’s book fits. Nox feels assembled rather than written, almost more like an artifact than a book. I like liminal (entry again!) art objects, that hover on the border between art and the everyday (Cf. this, just because I really liked it when I saw it and now I want to share it.). Nox is something like a book, and something like a private journal, and something like a mixed-media painting.

As I was reading Nox (very slowly, over several consecutive nights, to make it last longer), I felt intensely grateful to my awesome Latin teacher, for giving me so many of Catullus’s poems in Latin, and making Catullus a poet who matters to me. My Latin teacher was devoted to her subject in a way that few of my teachers have been, and I can still hear her voice in my head every time I approach a Latin text. Nox resonated with me immediately because Catullus has been living in my brain for years, pledging eternal-but-qualified love to Lesbia and trudging drearily across many lands and over many oceans to say his hail and farewell to his long-dead brother.

(This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy Nox without having read Catullus before, because I am confident that you can. It’s beautiful and elegiac, and Anne Carson translates the poem anyway, eventually.)

Speaking of Latin things, who here knew that Cinderella actually named Gus-Gus Octavius? Get it? Get it? ROMAN EMPIRE JOKE ALERT. (Octavius = Caesar Augustus) If someone from work hadn’t mentioned this to me, I would never have known, because I think Cinderella is saccharine and have no intention of ever rewatching it. But this Octavius business makes me feel very slightly a teeny bit fond of it.

  • Mumsy

    Liminal! Yes, yes, I love that word. I will file it with “inchoate” and “conflate,” one a past favorite and the other a current pet.

    Wonderful review. Of course I already wanted to read this (from your previous description of its boxiness and folded-paperness) but now I am champing at the bit.

    • I know, isn’t it nice? I don’t get to use it nearly as often as I’d like to. Liminal.

  • This sounds wonderful and I am so happy you went ahead and got it. A book that is also a beautiful artefact wins on so many counts. But I love the idea of the fragments, and I also like that definition of art, as something assembled to provoke an emotion (or an experience?). I can see that has a lot of sense to it.

    ps – like Mumsy I am also a big fan of ‘liminal’, and ‘inchoate’ too, when it comes to it.

    • I just looked back at my notes from that class (it was such a crap class I never retained anything I heard in class, so I had to copy out my notes twice to remember anything for tests), and I can’t find any reference to that definition of art. Soooooo, it may just be a figment of my imagination. :p

      My mumsy loves “inchoate” more than any other word. She has been urging me to fill my papers with the word “inchoate” since I was in ninth grade.

  • I am so glad that you went for it and bought the book! You are so right not to be trusting of those who can’t even stick to their book buying bans, but in the end I bet you were very glad to get it. I can see it made quite an impression on you, and for that, I am glad. Wonderful and intelligent review!

    • I was trusting — in y’all’s tendency to urge book buying. :p I loved the book and I hope everyone reads it eventually. It’s the best thing I’ve read so far this year.

  • I like liminal (entry again!) art objects, that hover on the border between art and the everyday

    Oh, me too! With a fierce passion.

    Yours is precisely the post I really wanted to read after finishing Nox – I never studied Latin & so my experience was in some ways different, in some ways similar, and I was curious what it would have been like for a person who has background in the language and/or Catullus himself. As I suspected, it sounds like the experience was equally powerful but somewhat different – less of a decoding aspect, and an extra emotional resonance from your own memory of Catullus. I love that the poem/book works equally well from a non-Latin-speaking and Latin-speaking perspective! What a feat.

    • I loved reading your post from a non-Latin-background perspective too! If I hadn’t read that post, I’d have been a little nervous of recommending this book to non-Latin readers.

  • It sounds amazing, Jenny!

    I am 6 or 8 weeks into my own personal book-buying ban (which has to last the year) and am just waiting to get my socks knocked off by a book like this that will inspire me to sell a kidney… I cannot resist Books As Art.

    • The whole year? What? Girl! You’re not going to buy any books, zero books, the whole year? At all, ever?

      (This book made me think of you, my bookish arty friend. :p)

  • I love it when a book finds its ideal reader.

    • Me too. Especially when I am the ideal reader. 😀

  • This is a great review of this book, I’ve read a few as it’s doing the rounds.

    It’s just my sort of thing, considering I make fragmented mixed media art… amongst other things. Might just hunt it down.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • This must be one of the first times I truly regret not being able to read Latin! But then, I want to give this a try anyway.

    • Honestly, I have been grateful for being able to read Latin so many times I have completely lost count. Deciding to take Latin in middle school was one of the best decisions I made in the twentieth century. Familiarity with Latin is why I got my job AND it makes this book spectacular. But I hope you’ll read Nox even without the Latin! It’s so, so good!

  • Wonderful review, Jenny! Your love and enthusiasm for the book is tempting me now 🙂 I loved your observation – “I was stacking the deck, really, by asking for advice from a bunch of people who I know can’t stick to their own book-buying bans” – very true! I liked the fact that the book took a word from your favourite poem and Anne Carson tried to link it with her own experience with her brother. I liked very much your description of the book – “It’s beautiful and elegiac” – so beautifully put! I loved your description of your Latin teacher – she seems to have been a passionate teacher and a wonderful person. I also loved the fact about Cinderella that you have quoted – so nice and a real surprise and an eye opener!

    • I forgot to mention one more thing. I loved this description of yours, of the book – “Nox feels assembled rather than written, almost more like an artifact than a book.”

    • I hope you can at least get it from the library, even if you don’t buy it. It’s well worth a read. And yes, my Latin teacher was marvelous. She was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had (maybe the best?).

  • I’m glad you bought it and I’m glad it lived up to and surpassed your expectations!

    • It did, it did! I am so pleased I bought it!

  • She

    That Catullus poem was very pretty to read out loud. While I wasn’t too fond of scansion in school, it’s nice to have it out of it.

    Did your teachers make you learn songs to remember declensions? Like first declension set to Tea for Two. Oh! and then there was the whole semper ubi sub ubi thing.

    • It IS very pretty read aloud. I was mad about scansion, in Latin and in English. I miss scansion.

      We…no. We never learned declensions that way. On the other hand, I learned my declensions in middle school, and that was before I had a competent Latin teacher, so I was basically teaching myself out of the textbook. I think I missed Latin songs by a few years. But yes, semper ubi sub ubi. That definitely happened.

  • Ooh! Now I particularly want to read this, and I don’t suppose the library will ever get it, since as far as I know they’re averse to books in boxes. Sigh. Perhaps I’ll stumble upon it once I’m back in Winnipeg. It looks like exactly the sort of thing my favourite bookstore would stock.

    Also, the Gus-Gus thing makes me want to watch Cinderella again.

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