I’ve admired Canadian poet, essayist, Greek and Latin scholar, and librettist, Anne Carson for a long time now. I think I first heard about her as a professor of classics at McGill University who was writing amazing stuff, starting with her quirky academic treatise, Eros the Bittersweet, where she mixes classical philosophy with witty, ironic brilliance.
Next she produced two remarkable books of poetry combined with essays. She was hailed as an original by Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and Annie Dillard. She won both a Guggenheim and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and the MacArthur “genius” award. With her 2001 book, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, she became the first woman to receive England’s T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. It also took Canada’s Griffin Prize. Along the way, she had a crossover success with another unusual book, Autobiography of Red, subtitled “A Novel in Verse.” It blends a modern homosexual romance with Greek myth, set in small-town Ontario and Peru. See what I mean?
Anne Carson’s latest work is yet another surprising, and haunting, book called Nox, or “Night.” An elegy to her brother—“an epitaph” as she calls it, a notebook of memories and fragments of photographs, letters, and paintings—it’s a moving reflection on absence. As she writes in her first entry: “I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expended on that, we think. He’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history.”
I had the opportunity to speak to her in June 2011 at the Banff Centre, where she was part of their International Literary Translators residency.
Wachtel: Much of your work invokes the ancient Classical period, references to Greek myths, translations from Greek or Latin, essays on ancient thought. What first drew you to that world?
Carson: I think it was in a shopping mall in Hamilton, Ontario in about 1965; I was trolling around the bookstore and for some reason they had a bilingual edition of Sappho by Willis Barnstone, the translator and editor, with the Greek on the left, the English on the right and it just looked so fascinating I thought I should learn this. The next year we moved to Port Hope and I went to a high school where the Latin teacher knew Greek. When she found I was interested she offered to teach me on my lunch hour. So I owe my career and happiness to Alice Cowan in Port Hope High School.
Wachtel: And what was it? Was it that the language looked so alien, or enticing?
Carson: It was partly the look and just the aesthetic but also at that time I was fancying myself a reborn Oscar Wilde and the whole world of intellectual life in Oscar Wilde’s time, which included a lot of Latin and Greek, was sort of a myth to me and I thought, If I learn Greek I could be all the more like Oscar Wilde. It seemed the natural next step.
Wachtel: A reborn Oscar Wilde.
Carson: I had an Oscar Wilde costume that I wore now and again for special occasions. I thought he was the most interesting fellow.
Wachtel: Did you drop bon mots and witticisms?
Carson: As we will discover in the course of the interview, no I’m not quick-witted but I appreciate wit.
Wachtel: Once you started to study Latin and Greek, especially Greek, do you remember what the first myths you heard were?
Carson: I think probably the ones that Sappho refers to, which are not in general the standard ones. Niobe, for example, who was turned into a rock because she wept so much; and most pointedly I remember from that book the myth of Tithonus. Tithonus was the young man who fell in love with the goddess of the dawn and they were having a pleasant affair; then one day he asked her to make him immortal. He wanted to be a god and live with her forever. So she went to Zeus and said, “Can you make Tithonus immortal?” And Zeus said “Sure” and made him immortal but he didn’t make him ageless. So poor Tithonus withered away into a little cricket of himself and that wasn’t much fun for the goddess of the dawn any more.
Wachtel: Pay attention to the fine print.
Carson: The wording, yes. The wording is key.
Wachtel: Tell me a bit more about studying Greek. I mean, obviously you stuck with it and it became your subject, but can you say more about what attracted you to it: about the culture, the language, the complexity?
Carson: I think it’s partly the content of the works. They’re some of the most thoughtful pieces of literature anyone’s ever come up with. But also the mental activity of being inside a translation is something I simply love. It’s like doing an endless crossword puzzle but with a valuable product. And that puzzle mode of mind is simply the best thing.
Wachtel: You’ve said that the ancients don’t necessarily have much relevance to our world today, and I have to say, that surprised me because we always seem to be able to extract relevance from everything in the past.
Carson: I didn’t mean it that way, I meant it upside down—that it’s more our task to be relevant to them, to go back and see what they were really doing, from their side. John Cage says, “No one can have an idea once he really starts listening,” and I think that’s what’s important about studying the past, to listen to the ancients rather than replacing them with your own ideas of how they are relevant to you.
Wachtel: And is it partly that they saw the world so differently, or they’re just so far away from us in time and language that we have to apprehend?
Carson: They’re at the root of things that then grew up and formed the trees where we now live—they’re fresh, the ideas still have dew on them. And thousands of years later our ideas have some of that left in them but they’re all kind of crusted over and with centuries in between. The newness of the world keeps dawning on the Greeks.
Wachtel: Do you know at what point you determined that this would be your life subject?
Carson: Immediately when I studied it with Mrs. Cowan.
Wachtel: Oh yes?
Carson: Yes it was unquestionable.
Wachtel: A Coup de foudre.
Carson: Yes. And she was a very unusual person. She smelled of celery all the time. And after that year she disappeared. Quit, I guess, and somebody told me she ended up in Africa. Some decades later when I did a reading somewhere—I think Montreal—and mentioned her because I read some Greek stuff, a woman came up to me afterwards and said, “Alice Cowan’s my mother and she now lives on a farm in northern Ontario. She’s kind of a hermit. She’d probably like to hear from you but she won’t answer.” So I wrote her a letter and indeed she didn’t answer. So that’s all I know about Alice Cowan.
Wachtel: Your latest book, Nox, is a kind of grief project, an epitaph for your brother who died in 2000. You structure the work by translating word by word a poem by Catullus, a Roman poet who lived in the first century B.C.E. Each Latin word of the poem gets its own page, and then you set your own poetry, thoughts, images, all kinds of things, on the opposite page. Where did that idea come from?
Carson: Probably from the structure of the bilingual translation, because I spend a lot of my life looking at books with left-hand-page Greek or Latin, and right-hand-page English, and you get used to it, you get used to thinking in the little channel in between the two languages where the perfect language exists.
Wachtel: I can see that it would also appeal because it forces one to slow down when you have each word with its expanded lexicographical definition—
Carson: Oh well I’m glad to hear that. I wondered when I did it if people would bother to read the left-hand page or just look at it and think, I don’t want to plow through that, and go on to the next. So I hope it slows them down. The lexical entries are drawn from the lexicon but a bit fiddled with, and I did want people to gradually notice that and follow the clues of it; it’s a bit of a puzzle.
Wachtel: Because you manipulate the Oxford Latin lexicon entries a bit.
Carson: Yes I manipulate them to put in more nox.
Wachtel: I read somewhere you quote Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher, who said we don’t go to poetry for wisdom but for the dismantling of wisdom. How does poetry do that?
Carson: I feel it’s a kind of fervour of mine to get away from whatever body of information I rest on when I give opinions. And I think poetic activity is a method for doing that—you leap off the building when you think poetically; you don’t amass your data and then move from point to point, you have to just know what you know in that moment. Something freeing about that.
Wachtel: Maybe I’m being too literal-minded when I think of dismantling because when I think of taking the poem apart word by word—
Carson: Yes it is a mantle, the confidence that you can ever know what words mean because really we don’t. They’re just these signs that we pretend to nail down in dictionaries, tokens of usage, but frankly they’re all wild integers. Disassembling it is a way of exposing that myth at the bottom of language.
Wachtel: Is that the myth you’re referring to?
Carson: The myth that you can know it ever definitively. Use it, yes. Make sense, yes. But know it, I’m not sure.
Wachtel: Now this isn’t your first attempt to translate Catullus’s poem 101. When did you first try?
Carson: I think probably in that same year with Mrs. Cowan. And it’s probably Catullus’s most well-known poem, so everybody tries it. It’s deceptively simple on the surface, impossible to capture underneath. The ideal poem.
Wachtel: And why is it so difficult to translate?
Carson: Well, that’s complicated. Partly because of the nature of Catullus’s diction, which is a reinvention, in a way, of Latin poetic language, through an infusion of common talk. He wrote a lot of poetry in street language, much of it scatological or obscene, and he keeps the energy of street language even in his more formal works. But also he just has a way of, it feels to me, economizing a situation and telling you exactly the bones of it and no more, which is hard to capture in another language.
Wachtel: Although I think both aspects would appeal to you, both the conjunction of idiomatic language and the more dignified or elegiac verse.
Carson: It’s true I do mix registers of discourse, maybe inadvertently. I believe Catullus did it as a program, sort of a renovation of his language because he was tired of the way people were doing poetry. I’m not sure I’m that committed. But there is this same energy.
Wachtel: And is that difficulty of translation the very thing, or among the things, you admire about Catullus?
Carson: I don’t admire it as give-me-a-problem-I-can’t-solve but as having something to flail away at daily.
Wachtel: And this time, you felt you could finally translate? I know you’ve said you tried hundreds of times to translate this poem, but this time, in the case of Nox, you could, or you just resigned yourself to a certain way of translating?
Carson: It was more a resignation. I think a translation always has a context and this one needed to fit into that book and it needed, therefore, to be somewhat plain. I didn’t want to decorate anything.
Wachtel: And tell me a bit about the poem, the context for it, like how Catullus came to—
Carson: He wrote it in honour of his brother, whom we don’t know much about except he died in the Troad, in Asia Minor. Catullus travelled from Italy to Asia Minor to bury him and stand at the grave. He wrote the elegy sometime around then.
Wachtel: And the Troad, that’s near Troy?
Carson: Yes, there was a Roman settlement on the site of what they thought was the ancient city of Troy.
Wachtel: A sense of mystery infuses Nox. I mean, there is the difficulty of elegizing a brother who had disappeared from your life long before his death. What did you know about his life around the time he left?
Carson: I didn’t know very much. We both went to university—different ones—more or less at the same time. I was immersed in my Greek and Latin, a world he had no interest in or patience with. And he diverged from me in taste and moral standards and everything else that makes you a person, so I didn’t really know him any more. Then he began to deal drugs and that seemed stupid to me so we argued about it. And then he got arrested and decided to jump bail and leave the country.
Wachtel: And that was 1978, which was the last time that you saw him.
Wachtel: In your book, there’s a photo of your brother when he was around ten years old, and he’s standing on the ground with some other boys above him in a tree house. What do you see when you look at that?
Carson: It just breaks my heart, frankly, because he always wanted to hang out with boys too old for him; I guess because it, I don’t know, enhanced his view of himself. They always picked on him and exploited him. So there he is at the bottom of the tree. They’ve taken up the ladder so he can’t come up. And he looks just so stalwart about it. He looks like it’s just another one of those setbacks, he’s going to get through it and come out to a brighter day. He always was like that. He had a certain absolutely unfounded optimism that things would get better. They didn’t.
Wachtel: Because in the text you say that, years later when your brother began to deal drugs, you’d get a sinking feeling because of a sideways invisible look that he wore in that photo. Why is that look so troubling to you?
Carson: I’m not sure. Photographs are stunning that way. They give you so much information that you can’t paraphrase. But when I looked at that photograph after he died, it seemed to me his whole life is in that look. He’ll never win and he’ll never believe that the next throw of the dice isn’t going to be a win.
Wachtel: It’s interesting you say optimism because in so many of the photos he’s bashed up. He’s wearing a sling or a bandage or something.
Carson: Isn’t that odd? I didn’t notice that until I got the photographs out to make the book, I was struck by the fact that he always has a broken arm or a bandage on his leg. I don’t remember all those injuries but there it is. Yet he was not deterred. He’d break his arm and go right on, join the hockey team.
Wachtel: Partly, I think, hanging around with the older boys would do it. Did he have trouble making friends?
Carson: No he was very charming. He could make friends with anyone, so I don’t know why they beat him up so much. There are these mysteries with one’s siblings.
Wachtel: Your brother was four years older than you, and when you were in your teens and both in high school, he liked you to do his homework, but also he called you “Professor” or “Pinhead.” How would you describe your relationship?
Carson: Rueful. I think he put up with me once I started doing his homework for him—he kept failing French and got put back in school a few times. I had an ambivalent attitude toward him, I guess. When we were younger he was my total hero and I followed him around everywhere, got told to go home. But later I didn’t understand his decisions and couldn’t reason with him, it all got to be kind of fractious. I think I still saw him as a kind of mythic person because of that strange optimism. And he had a sort of glow. He would come into a room and everybody would look at him. He was very handsome—tall and blond—and as I say he had this charmingness. I was never charming. Certainly not glowing.
Wachtel: You mention twice in the book about this “pinhead” thing. Could you read this short passage?
Carson: “His voice was like his voice with something else crusted on it, black, dense—it lighted up for a moment when he said pinhead (so, pinhead, d’you attain wisdom yet?), then went dark again. All the years and time that had passed over him came streaming into me, all that history. What is a voice?”
Wachtel: And on the following page you write, “I love all the old questions.” Does that refer back to this?
Carson: What is a voice? Yes. I’ve been so long fascinated by all the information conveyed in a voice.
Wachtel: And do you think that “pinhead–professor” was an affectionate play?
Carson: I think it was, yes. He also gave me, I think when I turned sixteen—no, it was Christmas when I was sixteen—Roget’s Thesaurus because he wanted me to be a writer and I wanted to be a writer. I still have this book. But it was in two volumes and he only gave me volume one. Never got around to volume two. It’s a clue to certain things about my writing.
Wachtel: You favour the first half of the alphabet?
Carson: Yes, I’m much more versatile with that half, for some reason.
Wachtel: Nox itself is presented as an artefact. It’s a fold-out, accordion-style book with pieces of paper stapled or glued on, sometimes with text, or photos, or painted images, or fragments of a handwritten letter. It’s very tactile. In fact, I kept touching it thinking there would be a staple there. But of course each page is a reproduction of all those things. Why this presentation, why did you physically want to build a book?
Carson: Because I made the book myself at first. I bought an empty book and filled it with stuff, painted it, glued it, stapled it and so on. It was a grand day when I discovered you could staple instead of gluing, that was really an advance in method. Anyway, [Robert] Currie, my husband, said that the thing about this book is, because it’s handmade, when you read it, you’re pulled into these people and these thoughts and the thing that it is. If you want to reproduce it, it has to have that quality still. So he fooled around with ways of Xeroxing to make the pages look, as you say, three-dimensional. If you Xerox or scan something perfectly, it looks glossy like a cookbook but if you let a little light into the Xerox machine and make it a bad Xerox, you get all those edges and life, you get what Currie calls the “decay” put back in. So it was really important to me to have that in the experience of the reader.
Wachtel: You even soaked some of the typescript in tea to make it look like parchment.
Carson: I did.
Wachtel: Why? You made the book in the year 2000. Why did you want it to look ancient?
Carson: It was a fancy of mine to make the left-hand pages, the Catullus pages, look like an old dictionary because when I was learning these languages I always had very old, faded dictionaries with yellowed pages. The experience of reading Latin, to me, is an old dusty page you could hardly make out. So I thought, Well, I’ll just stain them with tea and it’ll look magical. And they did look magical for about twenty-four hours, and then the tea dried and it all turned white again.
Wachtel: And the original process for you of making the book, what was that like? I mean, was it a way of working through grief? How did it engage you?
Carson: It was not so much grief . . . I mean, yes, grief partly, but more the puzzle of understanding him. Because actually, just before he died, he had telephoned me for the first time since 1978. This was in the year 2000, we had a very strange, awkward conversation and I arranged to go to Copenhagen where he turned out to be living, to meet with him. But a week before I was to go I got a phone call from a woman who said, “You don’t know me, but your brother has just died in my bathroom.” And that was his wife in Copenhagen, whom he’d been married to for seventeen years.
Wachtel: He didn’t mention that on the phone.
Carson: He did mention it but on the phone, his wife didn’t identify herself, she just said, “You don’t know me.” So I went to Copenhagen and met her and the dog and found out some things about his life but the more I found out the more I didn’t understand about who he had been those twenty-two years he was gone. So I started the book as an effort of understanding, just trying to put strands of things I could say about him into one place and see what it added up to. As it went on, it became what I called an epitaph, a way of praising him.
Wachtel: When he called, did you know what prompted that call? Was it a premonition of his own death?
Carson: No idea, he never said. He was laconic. Just felt like getting in touch.
Wachtel: After all those years.
Carson: After all those years. You see it’s puzzling.
Wachtel: How did he die?
Carson: Aneurysm. I think he’d lived a hard life, drugs and so on, his system gave out. He was only in his fifties.
Wachtel: Some of the photos that you use are fragments, and many don’t have people in them. One features a shadow of a person more than the humans in the distance. A chair, a shed, an empty swing, some stairs, a wall. There is a sense of absence. What do you see when you look at them?
Carson: The puzzle of him. Breaking it down, two things. When I was young and idolized him he was always gone—he didn’t want to spend time with me, he managed to vanish. Later on when I was puzzling over who he had been in his later years, I just couldn’t get it. It was like Aeneas in the Underworld, you know, when he meets his dead mother and tries to embrace her. Three times he holds out his arms and tries to hold her, three times she vanishes from his grip. So I wanted to put the vanishing into the pictures, and if you cut out the people, there’s a lot of vanishing there. And some of them were empty anyway, oddly—another thing you discover when you look at your old family photographs, a lot of them are pictures of nothing. Very evocative pictures of nothing.
Wachtel: And did you tear some of them for the book?
Carson: I did. I tore them, cut them.
Wachtel: Was that hard, to tear?
Carson: Surprisingly no. I’d go into work mode and rip on through it.
Wachtel: The information about your brother the last time you saw him—when he ran away in 1978 travelling on a false passport, only one letter home in all those years—is repeated several times in a row, sometimes with slightly different punctuation or minute differences in the marks on the paper. On the fourth repetition, it becomes almost a fragment itself. Why that repetition?
Carson: The repetition is only in the printed book. In the original, the letter is glued in as a folded thing, so to make the fold visible in the printed book we had to repeat the information. It’s a mechanical solution to the problem of not having the original book.
Wachtel: I thought the repetition might have something to do with trying to understand the revealed in repetition. Sometimes we say what we know over and over in a way to make sense of it.
Carson: Sometimes it helps to hear what you think by saying it more than once. That came to me as we were doing it. Incidental benefit of my imperfect method. But I can’t say I thought of it before.
Wachtel: And you say that you didn’t understand your brother’s decisions in those days of self-exile. Did you try to imagine what his life was like?
Carson: I got anecdotes from his widow and other people in Copenhagen who were his friends. But it was like reading bits of a synopsis of a movie that you never see; it just didn’t add up. Somebody would say, “Oh yeah, I knew your brother in his gold-smuggling days.” Well that was news to me! So things like that. Little chips of data. They didn’t make any pattern.
Wachtel: About halfway through the book there’s a line that says, “Always comforting to assume there is a secret behind what torments you.”
Carson: A secret—meaning something that would make sense—the answer rather than just all these bits. I mean, most of us, to be honest, are just a collection of bits that don’t make sense. It’s a nice idea that there’s a coherent self in each of us with a story that another person could tell but it’s a fiction. And with somebody like my brother, you really come up against that fiction. Because he did not want to be known.
Wachtel: I think that must be the difference because even though all of us might be these fragments that are a fiction, we try to present narratives that make it seem to have coherence.
Carson: We do. At some point he gave up on that, I think.
Wachtel: Your mother described your brother as the light of her life, and he wrote occasional postcards and one letter to her. She didn’t see him for the last twenty years of her life. Can you talk about their relationship, how his absence affected her?
Carson: It ruined her life. She died not knowing if he was still alive. And she was simply sad for all those years. On the other hand, she never gave up hoping he’d reappear. I did. But she never quite abandoned that notion, and it made her life be sort of the wrong life you know. The right life would have been the one where he came in the door. He was her golden child. She had a little lock of his hair from when he was a baby. I don’t know how to measure that sort of sorrow. And when he called me that time I mentioned this. He just said, “Yes, I guess that’s true.”
Wachtel: She had already died by then.
Carson: She had died three years before. And I said, “She had a lot of pain because of you.” And he said, “Yes, I guess that’s true.” So, cut off from himself at some level.
Wachtel: And you describe how eventually you and your mother stopped talking about your brother, which you say was a relief. Why, what had it been like when you did talk about him?
Carson: I think I said in the book it was like a smell of burning hair dropping through every conversation. There was nowhere for it to go. It blackened the day, and I didn’t think it was a problem with any solution.
Wachtel: Although you still describe, every time a car would pull up, she’d look up out the window—
Carson: Gravel on the road. She thought it might be him. Sad.
Wachtel: At one point you ask, “Why do we blush before death?” I found that a surprising word. Have you found an answer to that?
Carson: No. It surprised me too. I found that in another poem of Catullus. I don’t remember the exact passage, but he’s talking about death, it’s an elegy for a friend, and he uses the blush, it’s a puzzling passage. It often happens to me trying to translate something in Latin or Greek that I come to a piece that doesn’t make sense, but it still seems true, it seems like a nub of something I should get to, so I just secrete it into writing and hope it’ll work its truth by itself without me knowing how to control it. I’m still thinking about the blush.
Wachtel: And there’s an interesting image nearby, it’s not on the same page, I don’t think, but there’s some quite lurid red that’s . . .
Carson: Well I thought blush, good! I’ll use my red paint. Nothing subtle about me. You know I loved making that book, despite the context. I gave myself the task of trying to do something different on each page than I had done on any page previous, mechanically, physically, it was just a joy.
Wachtel: Without being too literal, was that enabling you to turn the page in a way?
Carson: In a way, yes.
Wachtel: You quote the seventh-century B.C.E. historian Herodotus, who said that history is by far the strangest things humans do, all this asking and searching, because it doesn’t give a clear or helpful account. Do you agree with that?
Carson: They call Herodotus the first historian when what he invented was a picture of history as all these chips of data that don’t make sense. He collects them and hands them over.
Wachtel: And this reflected on what you felt you were doing.
Carson: Yes, that sort of assembling without any final control of the sense.
Wachtel: But Herodotus also suggests that he as a historian didn’t have to believe everything everyone reported. He says, “So much for what is said by the Egyptians. Let anyone who finds such things credible make use of them.” Or “I have to say what is said, I don’t have to believe it myself.”
Carson: He has a good sense of humour, Herodotus. But I think he’s not kidding. He does hand over opinions, as well as facts, and he doesn’t try to distinguish too much among opinions as to the good ones and the bad ones. He trusts the reader to do that. An admirable tolerance.
Wachtel: And did this reflect on your own search in some way?
Carson: I think in that book, or in everything I write, there is an attempt at tolerance, to put down as much as I can figure out and let the reader make what sense they make.
Wachtel: And sometimes the sense is, as you alluded to earlier, in the crack between the pages because on the very next page of “I have to say what is said, I don’t have to believe it myself,” is, in your brother’s handwriting, “love you, love you, Michael,” a fragment from a letter.
Carson: Isn’t that haunting, when people write things twice. Why would he write it twice? I don’t know.
Wachtel: You also say history and elegy are kin. How are they connected?
Carson: They’re both a way of telling a story, giving the shape of a person or an event by—as Herodotus says—this searching, asking, without arriving. It’s the non-arrival that makes them akin, the struggle and then the non-arriving.
Wachtel: Did anything change for you after finishing Nox, either in how you saw your brother or the whole idea of elegy and investigation?
Carson: I don’t think anything changed in my view of him. It was more storied but not more complete. Elegy, I don’t know. It’s a difficult form, I would say. It’s hard to keep the dignity of the subject without getting your own fingerprints all over it.
Wachtel: That’s an interesting way to put it because it seems to me a very apt description of elegy, that whoever—and maybe I’m conflating it with eulogizing—but whoever is doing the eulogy has their fingerprints all over it. It seems like it’s about them, it’s not even about the deceased.
Carson: It’s very hard to get the right place to stand, to elegize or eulogize somebody. But I thought by making these pages instead of just writing them, it helped me do that, because making is somehow . . . I don’t know . . . seems less egotistical, I don’t know why.
Wachtel: At one point you say, “A brother never ends. I prowl him.”
Carson: I had this sense of him as a room where I was groping around, finding in the dark, here a chair, there a book, there a switch, and not getting a sense of the floor plan ever but just being in that room every day, working with it. And the poem was like that too, disassembling the poem, also a dark process.
Wachtel: Do you see Catullus’s poem differently now? I mean, of course, as an elegy for a brother, your own brother’s death would lend a certain resonance.
Carson: Yes it has a resonance. But I always thought it one of the best things in the world and I still do. There it lies, untranslatable.
Wachtel: Well, there’s not that much that’s explicit in Nox. It’s still a very personal, intimate work. What made you decide to make it public?
Carson: The fact that it got lost. For a number of years, seven or eight years, I used to show the book to people one by one and then I met by chance a German publisher who does art books and fashion books who said, “I think I can do that in a respectful way, why don’t we try?” So I said okay and he took it to Germany then lost it for three years. He didn’t answer emails and he had no phone so there was a certain interval of anguish about this object I thought I’d never see again. Then one day it showed up in a FedEx package. So I thought, Time to make this permanent. Then Currie figured out how to make it work as a replicated book.
Wachtel: We alluded to it earlier, but it’s interesting, on the left-hand pages with the definitions of the Latin word, you almost always add idiomatic expressions with the word nox, meaning night. But when it comes to defining frater, brother, the subject of the book, there’s no idiomatic expression with nox. That was deliberate, obviously.
Carson: I couldn’t add to that one. It didn’t seem respectable, or fair. And a way of putting the boundaries around him that he wanted put there. He wasn’t noble, didn’t want to be noble, and frater is an impersonal word for that.
Wachtel: Your book Autobiography of Red is your first novel in verse. It also takes a story from the ancients as its starting point, the myth of Herakles and the monster Geryon. Can you tell me a bit about that story?
Carson: Herakles is that person you probably know from Saturday-morning cartoons who did the famous labours. Hercules they call him in American. One of his labours was to travel to the island of a supposed monster named Geryon and capture his magic red cattle. So he did that, killed Geryon, took the cattle. I just changed that story a bit.
Wachtel: A bit.
Carson: A moderate bit.
Wachtel: Well, the mythical Geryon has wings, and so does your incarnation. They’re another marker of his difference. What attracted you to this story?
Carson: His monstrosity. We all feel we’re monsters most of the time. But also there is a very tantalizing set of fragments about this myth from the Greek poet Stesichorus, who isn’t very much read or known. He doesn’t write attractive love poetry like Sappho but these fragments are quite beautiful. I got involved in translating them for my own pleasure, then got frustrated because I couldn’t work into the translations most of what I thought was interesting in the original language. For some reason.
Wachtel: What do you mean?
Carson: The differences between Greek and English set up some barriers to what you can say and how you say it. Plus the myth being somewhat unknown to most readers meant that the context was missing. I couldn’t talk about Geryon and have the audience say, “Oh yes, the red guy with wings.” So a lot of explanatory blah-blah-blah would have been necessary to make the fragments intelligible as such and I didn’t want to do that, so I thought maybe I could do it in another form. What’s another form? I’ve never written a novel, let’s try that.
Wachtel: Did you actually first try it as a straight prose novel?
Carson: Yes, I tried it a lot of ways. Prose, various kinds of prose and then one day messing around with the lines I worked out those couplets that are long and short alternations, which seemed to work so I went ahead with it. And then it proved to be quite nice to do. Before that was a bit hellish, whole paragraphs of prose. I really wanted to write a novel, you know, an Arthur Hailey novel that people would read in airports.
Wachtel: Arthur Hailey novel?
Carson: I mean something huge and substantial with lots of manly activity, and of course I couldn’t do it. But anyhow, the verse form eventually extracted itself from my efforts and that was obviously right.
Wachtel: In Autobiography of Red, Geryon and Herakles are modern-day lovers. What did you see in the ancient myth that inspired this interpretation?
Carson: Absolutely nothing. In the ancient myth Herakles goes there, confronts Geryon and kills him and the story is over. But in other ancient sources, for example the Iliad, there’s a certain amount of reference to homoerotic tenderness and it’s interesting to me how that works in a story and I wanted to give Geryon a fun part to his life.
Wachtel: There’s a great line: “They were two superior eels at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.” What is the nature of the attraction that you imagined between them?
Carson: Probably mutual strangeness. I think that’s why I used italics. Everyone else is Roman font then these two people show up slanted and they see that. Automatic lightning.
Wachtel: You give another view of love in your book The Beauty of the Husband. It’s described as a fictional essay in twenty-nine tangos. At one point the wife in the story describes their interaction as characteristic or ideal. In what way ideal?
Carson: Based on beauty. Beauty being a romantic ideal that works itself out in various ways. You desire the one you’ve invented rather than the one who exists.
Wachtel: Because the one who exists knows “more about the Battle of Borodino than he [does] about his wife’s body.” It’s such a great line!
Carson: And his beauty partly consists in that.
Wachtel: This is a complex relationship that’s described here. The husband lies and cheats, but he’s not ashamed of this. He says he loves her, he even says he wants to be worthy of her. What kind of love is this for him?
Carson: It may be ideal from his point of view in the sense that he idealizes himself as the agent of perfect or beautiful actions, but I’m not sure that either the wife or the novel knows what his view of it is.
Wachtel: Or what he’s looking for.
Carson: Or what he’s looking for, no. There are a few places in there where the narrative structure tries to put things from a husband’s point of view but it becomes external; it’s mostly what he says and what he does, not what he thinks.
Wachtel: And for some years the wife continues to sustain the relationship. What kind of love is it for her?
Carson: I think desperate. I think the kind of love—as with Herakles and Geryon—based on that original moment of recognizing the other person in italics, without whom you can’t be your own italic self, so you have to keep that going as long as possible.
Wachtel: Although it’s giving power to the other over oneself.
Carson: That’s the paradox of it, isn’t it? But I think, again, because there’s a desperation in it, there’s nothing else to do.
Wachtel: It’s refreshing to hear the wife admit that she wasn’t ashamed to say she loved her husband for his beauty. For some reason we very often are reluctant to admit beauty’s power over us.
Carson: Isn’t that odd? And it’s so much a part of all of Western culture, that beauty’s what makes love happen. Even if the person isn’t beautiful you convince yourself they are.
Wachtel: And you quote a passage from Keats before each tango or section, and it was Keats of course who wrote famously, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” How does beauty speak of truth?
Carson: I don’t think it does. I think that’s all a big mistake, but there’s so much power in believing it, and so many of the decisions of life, especially early life—with the adolescent emotions—identify those two, and think that the person who’s beautiful is also true and the feelings that come from beauty lead you to truth. I don’t believe it works out usually.
Wachtel: Certainly not in the beauty of this husband.
Wachtel: I don’t want to presume autobiography here, but did you bring some of your experience to The Beauty of the Husband?
Carson: Some of it. But it’s very manipulated and beautified, not to put too fine a point on it.
Wachtel: Did your first husband take your notebooks? Did he return your notebooks? That’s what I want to know.
Carson: He did. And eventually he did.
Wachtel: The poet, or the wife, sometimes tells her story to a listener whom she addresses as You. Is that a particular You? Who was the You?
Carson: Not a particular You. It’s the generalized You of lyric poetry. Catullus invented this, I think, for the Romans, and the You is sometimes unnamed, a persona who forms as the poem forms, a sort of ideal listener.
Wachtel: And that started with Catullus? Because you’re right, it’s certainly a convention in lyric poetry.
Carson: He used it extensively. Probably took it from Sappho.
Wachtel: Near the end of The Beauty of the Husband, the wife contrasts her earlier view of beauty, her pure early thought, with a later experience of it. Before she wanted to recognize it without desiring it. Now her advice is “Hold, hold beauty.” What has changed for her?
Carson: I guess her sense of where she stands in the whole question. She can hold it if she doesn’t need it.
Wachtel: Which has to do with not wanting to desire.
Carson: Yes, it has to do with getting the desperation out of it.
Wachtel: Although at one point the wife wonders what not wanting to desire means, and one could associate that with a kind of freedom, but on the other hand it feels like giving up.
Carson: A kind of deadness.
Wachtel: Utter resignation or something.
Carson: Or turning entirely inward. I think that’s not where she wants to end up. But I believe it’s left open whether she does end up there or not.
Wachtel: In your more recent book, Decreation, you said your earliest memory is of a dream. Can you describe that for me?
Carson: Oh yes. A dream of being asleep. I dreamt I was asleep and went downstairs in our house to the living room and it was our living room as it had been in the daytime but it was also all changed, somehow intangibly weird.
Wachtel: About how old were you here?
Wachtel: Oh. Okay.
Carson: I don’t know how to describe that change. How can a room change and still be the same room? But to me later, looking back on that dream, it seemed like I was imagining a room gone mad, the same room but gone mad inside itself. And I guess I came to that because it happened to my father; he got dementia and he was his same self and yet utterly changed inside. The room seemed to have undergone that same weirdening.
Wachtel: Although you also say that despite the spooky element of the dream there was something consoling about it.
Carson: Still it was the room. I mean, even if your father’s mad, he’s still your father and you want to, you know, try to keep talking. There’s something about the familiar that’s absolutely necessary no matter how weird it gets.
Wachtel: In “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan,” you say, “His laws were a secret.” What was your father like?
Carson: He was very quiet. He didn’t explain himself much. We had not a lot of conversation in our life. But I very much liked him as a person. We had not at all the same taste or intellectual ambitions but the same sense of humour, we liked the same stupid jokes and that’s a nice bond with someone.
Wachtel: Do you or did you get comfort from that cardigan?
Carson: Yes, I still have it. I wear it in the winter. I always liked to imitate him. But I especially love that sweater.
Wachtel: Imitating him in what way?
Carson: Oh, wearing the same kind of boots, trying to walk like him, or, yes, just being . . . I don’t know . . . manly and reticent.
Wachtel: And he was a banker?
Carson: Yes, he was a bank manager in various towns of Ontario.
Wachtel: Which meant the family moved around a lot.
Carson: Yes, we moved quite often. I don’t know, six or seven times.
Wachtel: Six or seven times, just in . . . ?
Carson: Within my childhood, I mean, in that whole span.
Wachtel: Was that hard on you?
Carson: I guess it was hard, I didn’t like leaving my friends but I think you gradually withdraw a bit from attachment, which perhaps is a good thing.
Wachtel: That sounds like the person who hard-won learnt that it really was a good thing.
Carson: Well that could be. Anyway, I did learn it. And it brought me to Mrs. Cowan. So that was good.
Wachtel: You say that you didn’t have much in the way of conversation with your father, but he liked numbers.
Carson: He was always figuring on napkins because he was a bank manager, and I think also because he was shot down in the war and in a prison camp for some time, about a year. He didn’t have horrific experiences there but he, I’m sure, was just bored to death and one of the things he had with him for some reason was an accounting textbook. So he passed the time doing all the problems in it. Which set up a habit in him of whenever he had empty time, he’d just fiddle with algebra problems on a napkin. So all the napkins in our house or when we went to restaurants were covered with little numbers in his script. I was never any good at math.
Wachtel: And do you think it did interest him because he originally wanted to be an engineer?
Carson: It did, I think. Engineers use a lot of math. And it was a form of mastery for him, numbers.
Wachtel: When you say you wanted to be like him in that silent, manly way, that’s the opposite of Oscar Wilde.
Carson: I think Oscar and my dad would have admired each other as different monsters. But yes, it’s true, it’s a different type. My dad was a deeper model. I think Oscar Wilde was perhaps the phase of rebellion against being my father. So I came and went from rebellion but always wanted to be like my father underneath.
Wachtel: You and your mother seem to have been very close.
Carson: Maybe. Not the same kind of people, but we got close. As the others were gradually pared away, we came to be close.
Wachtel: You mean your brother disappearing.
Carson: And my father dying, yes. My father disappearing before dying. We did have a lot of “quality time,” as they say, together, perforce.
Wachtel: When you say you aren’t the same type and your mother is not the mother in Autobiography of Red, what kind of person was your mother?
Carson: What kind of person was she? Frustrated. Very clever—in high school she won the Latin medal in her graduating class and could have gone on to university but had to go to work. Her father had died and the family needed income so she got a job in an insurance agency as a secretary. I think that loss of the intellectual channel was always a frustration to her. So we lived very different lives because I took that channel, and she admired me for doing that, but I think she kind of . . . I don’t know. There was a loneliness in it. She was a little lonely for the person she would have been if she’d had a different fate. So we didn’t have a lot to talk about but we made our peace with that gradually.
Wachtel: Did she read your books?
Carson: She read usually the first chapter and then turned that page down and put them all on a shelf by the door. She was proud to show them to people but I’m not sure she read any of them all the way through.
Wachtel: There’s a line in Decreation describing a mother as “love of my life.”
Carson: I think she became that in the years when my father was nuts and my brother wasn’t there. We had so many struggles in common that she became the most important person to me.
Wachtel: Your mother was a Roman Catholic, and you say your attendance at church is or was in part a habit. Do you still attend?
Carson: I don’t, no. I can’t tolerate papal things in general.
Wachtel: But you used to go.
Carson: I did. I found great comfort in going with her. It was a habit we had. She was a believer. Sometimes that’s enough, you know, for comfort, to be with a believer and share the actions.
Wachtel: And smell her coat.
Carson: And smell her coat!
Wachtel: There’s something about that I can just totally relate to. I don’t know if it’s the Canadian winter or what, but . . .
Carson: Yes I remember that coat still. It was a fake fur coat and I’d lean into it all the time the priest was droning on.
Wachtel: One of the books you received as a very young girl was a version of The Lives of the Saints. And you had an interesting response to it.
Carson: I wanted to eat it. I still remember how luscious those pages were. I don’t know if it was some kind of specially printed book or I just hadn’t seen many books with a lot of colour in them but each saint had a crown or garland on the head and some kind of complicated cloak thing, all different colours, and they looked like jujubes. I just wanted to stuff them in my mouth.
Wachtel: Do you think it’s significant that these were saints that you wanted to eat?
Carson: Not particularly. I think that just happened to be the book that I had.
Wachtel: In your poem “My Religion,” you say, “My religion makes no sense and does not help me, therefore I pursue it.” That was written about twenty years ago, but the idea of God is one that percolates its way through some of your other work. Are you still in pursuit?
Carson: Not so directly as then. At that time I was teaching a course about that sort of searching and was interested in the writings of various mystics. I searched around in that for years but I didn’t find in the end it was the place I could do my best thinking.
Wachtel: What is your idea of God?
Carson: I don’t have an idea of it any more at all. Maybe I once did, at least an idea of unknowability as a divine atmosphere but I don’t even know that that’s solid in me any more.
Wachtel: Because in Autobiography of Red, one character says he’s a skeptic and Geryon asks him, “You doubt God?” And he replies, “More to the point, I credit God with the good sense to doubt me.”
Carson: That’s an Oscar Wilde moment. I do credit God with that. I don’t think I’ll get much further with it than a shallow witticism. It’s just not my gift.
Wachtel: You’ve noted that attention is a form of prayer, and from paying attention to who one is, one can then step beyond the border of oneself and then move from there to the creation of a work of art. Can you link that chain for me, tell me more about how that works?
Carson: Yes, well, maybe I can. I don’t remember when I wrote that or what it meant at the time, but lately I’ve been studying John Cage and I think that’s something I very much appreciate in him, that he moves or tries to move to a place of complete stillness and attention within himself. He says, “I want to get every Me out of the way in order to start doing whatever the work will be.” And that is an ongoing struggle, to get every Me out of the way.
Wachtel: For you? You would like to eliminate the Me?
Carson: Yes, I would.
Wachtel: The Me is a kind of interesting flicker through the work.
Carson: It’s hard to keep it at the flicker level though. It tends to take over, it becomes the only principle of reasoning. I want to reason about something else. Life is short.
Wachtel: Isn’t that what the Classics, particularly Greek and Latin translation, gives you, because it’s so far out of yourself?
Carson: Yes, but anything can . . . I mean, looking at a pencil can give it to you. It’s just a matter of causing your mind to focus on that thing, that question, whatever you choose to consider a question. Translation, yes, is an ideal process because it’s so big it envelops your whole day but you can do it with very small things too.
Carson: Well, looking at a stone. I mean, attention is a choice of where you put your mind.
Wachtel: And looking at a stone to the extent that you forget you’re doing the looking.
Carson: Yes exactly. Well put.
Wachtel: In Plainwater, you write, “I will do anything to avoid boredom. It’s the task of a lifetime.” Are you winning?
Carson: So far.
Wachtel: Do you get bored easily?
Carson: I don’t think I get bored easily but I fear boredom.
Carson: Largely because it’s the condition next to death.
Wachtel: Oh, because some people view it as a kind of fallow proto-creative state.
Carson: John Cage would. John Cage pursued boredom but I’m just not that highly evolved. I fear it.
Eleanor Wachtel is the host and co-founder of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, now in its twenty-seventh season. She has also published five books of interviews, most recently The Best of Writers & Company (Biblioasis).