Over a year ago I was sitting in a coffee shop with a few friends for a writing group. We started it to continue our passion for creating, to be held accountable amongst each other, and subsequently to play catch-up with each other’s lives. Unfortunately we mostly gabbed. This particular time, however, my friend Matt was very much discouraged none of us had read the works of Anne Carson. He got up from our table and twenty minutes later returned with copies of Autobiography of Red for each of us. A bold gesture to say the least, simply saying we needed to read it. It wasn’t until this fall that I finally read it.
I will admit that I wasn’t hooked right away. The text begins with a confusing alter-narrative and character Stesichoros, along with a number of appendices that were both jarring and disorienting. Appendices C resembles a philosophy argument formatted like premise, premise, and conclusion over several stanzas – making me feel like I was back in philosophy 101. I couldn't tell where the story was going, and it didn't help not knowing the full stories behind the mythological characters either. But then Autobiography of Red moves on from the appendices and begins with a subtitle: A Romance. Like the changing of the leaves in autumn, I too fell for it.
Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red starts with the words of Gertrude Stein, “I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to.” This sets the stage for just how much words are tantamount to the story. Like the tight language of poetry, each syllable counts. There is too much to discuss in Anne Carson’s novel in verse, too many areas to focus on, such as the color red, or the mythological story and fantasy woven into the writing and the characters, how the loaded language reveals abuse and romance almost as synonyms, and the structure of the timeline; it’s a wealth of a story, and Carson is the master that unfolds it.
One thing I will discuss is the romance of the novel between the lead character Geryon and his first love Herakles. An important part of the romance of the novel is embedded in how Geryon sees himself, he is described as “a monster everything about him was red.” He believes himself to be other than human, even claiming to have wings. It is Herakles, he later states that kills him by metaphorically ending their relationship that becomes the end of him. Carson states, “Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling.” The character Geryon leaves and enters his own reality throughout the novel, leaving us to wonder whether it was real or his own interpretations of the traumas surrounding him.
(Pictured Above: A Gustave Doré wood engraving of Geryon for Dante's Inferno.)
One poem titled “Mitwelt” starts with the line, “There is no person without a world.” In a few words, Carson strikes this concept of individuality, and creates a vastness like the cosmos of every person – a testament to her use of language. Mitwelt is a German term used in existential theory meaning “the world of fellow people or relational context.” A few poems later Carson continues the conversation of individuality and existentialism with the elegant line, “Under the seams runs the pain.” Along the seams of Geryon’s wings we can see his shame and pain used in the novel. Carson’s words not only touched me, but they have inspired me to go on a new research path concerning existential theory.
Anne Carson, still alive today, has written fifteen books and is also a professor in Canada. I am excited to read more of her work, to see how her other works blend classical narratives with modern settings, and I am also happy to report that there is a follow up novel to Autobiography of Red called Red Doc>.
For more information on Anne Carson be sure to check out these sites: