Review: Antigonick, Sophokles (translated by Anne Carson)

I have a tremendous literary crush on Anne Carson. This started when I read her book Nox, which is not only an elegy for her brother and a beautiful artistic object in itself, but also an elegant taking-apart-and-rebuilding of Catullus 101, itself a lament for a deceased brother. She has also been quite wonderful with Sappho, a poet I have always assumed I admire on the basis that Catullus worshiped her and I love Catullus so he’s probably right, and having read If Not, Winter, I see no reason to go back on my earlier assumptions about Sappho.

Antigonick is a translation of Sophocles’s play Antigone, with tangentially-if-at-all related illustrations by Bianca Stone. It’s written in Anne Carson’s handwriting, with small capitals, black and red text, and only occasionally punctuation. The effect of this is a little like reading Don Marquis, if his cockroach poet were inclined to write poems set in ancient Greece (and of course if he were writing by hand rather than on a typewriter).

Page from Antigonick

Carson is not concerned with a literal translation, letting her characters remark upon various interpretations of Antigone throughout history — Brecht, Hegel, George Eliot. They employ modern turns of phrase — when Kreon says to Antigone, “You’re the one?”, she answer, “Bingo.” What Carson appears to be after is not the grandeur of the play but its oddness, how the tragedy lacks that inevitability that you find in Oedipus and just feels strange, unnecessary. She captures completely the inconvenience of Antigone’s morality, an Antigone feature of which I am very fond as it reminds me of my unflinchingly moral big sister. Viz.:

Ismene: you are a person in love with the impossible
Antigone: and when my strength is gone I’ll stop

The oddness of the play generally and Carson’s translation of it in particular are enhanced by illustrations by Bianca Stone on translucent vellum paper. The relationship of these illustrations to the text of the play is obscure (and at times nonexistent), but they are tonally a perfect match for Carson’s translation.

There is one for you to look at. You can’t get quite the full idea of the book without seeing the translucent pages against the black-and-red text, but use your imagination. Stone and Carson have produced a strange and lovely book, which I recommend both for its ideas and for its physical beauty.

  • I can totally picture Legal Sister making that last comment. I am glad that I have not thought of Legal as a character in Greek tragedy until now, and I am going to try to forget it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Aw, sorry. I won’t bring it up again.

  • It sounds quite intriguing but seeing Antigonick and Sophokles I can’t help but think of So-crats and so on from Bill and Ted….

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahaha, fair enough.

  • This sounds gorgeous and fascinating. So much more fun than my high school Antigone/Oedipus experience… Well. Okay. Maybe just as much fun, but with less snickering.

    • Gin Jenny

      I don’t think we read Antigone in high school! I am pretty sure we stopped with Oedipus — maybe our teachers felt there had already been sufficient snickering re: marrying his mother, without having to field questions about what exactly is Antigone’s thing with her brother.

  • This is the only way I can engage with such unflinching characters, by comparing different translations and trying to get a sense of the mind behind the dialogue. I think I would like this despite my preference for type over handwriting (years of teaching have made me handwriting-averse).

    • Gin Jenny

      In general I prefer type over handwriting in books too, of course, but I don’t know. There’s something about Carson’s weird scrunched-up little capitals that creates such a cool tone for the book.

  • Want! I like The Burial at Thebes and whichever version we studied at school so yes, I’m really interested. I’m not too sure about the capitalisation, but a colloquial version sounds good.

    • Gin Jenny

      I usually oppose weirdness in capitalization. It’s only okay here because it’s all in caps and it’s handwritten. Those two things together make it okay.

  • It is entirely due to your advocacy that I have heard of Anne Carson and am intending to read her. I love the fact that she’s translated this into modern day speech. Have you read Anne Sexton’s Transformations? That’s where she retells fairy tales in a sort of vernacular poetry that’s a hoot and a dream. There’s something oddly enlivening about that determined shift into the modern.

    • Gin Jenny

      Okay, litlove, at your recommendation and only because I am gratified that you will read Anne Carson at my suggestion, I will give Anne Sexton’s Transformations a try. She and I are in a weird little argument about her parenting, but I will try to forget about it. :p

  • Thanks! I don’t think I would ever have discovered this one without your review!

  • aartichapati

    So first when I read the first sentence here, I was confusing ANNE Carson with RACHEL Carson and was like, “Really? Silent Spring is THAT POWERFUL?” But now I understand.

    What a cool-sounding book!

    Also, I am onto A Tale for the Time Being as audio and have a lot of driving coming up this week, so am excited to make it one of my last for the year!

    • Gin Jenny

      Ahahahahahaha, I cackled very loudly when I read this comment. I am always mixing up Anne CARSON and Anne SEXTON — one of them I love, one of them is meh, and I cannot keep track of which is which. Anne Carson is the one with cool art books!

      Have you started it yet? Are you enjoying it? I really want you to like it!