Keats and the Taiga


Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse

I picked up Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse by Anahid Nersessian (University of Chicago Press, 2021) because I’d read that it’s a mix of critical and personal writing, which is a favorite form of mine. As it turns out, the book’s personal elements are more minimal than I expected and sometimes not entirely successful, but I loved this book for the literary criticism, which is rich, suggestive, and beautifully written. Nersessian packs more than seems possible into 160 pages.

She says in her preface that her book shouldn’t be the first one on Keats’s odes that you read because it’s based on personal, idiosyncratic interpretations. Maybe that’s true — I haven’t read enough Keats criticism to be able to say — but this is not a book that requires special knowledge. It’s dense in a good way, accessible to any reader, while packed with information and ideas that Nersessian moves through with ease and elegance.

The best way the book is “personal” is that we get a sense of Nersessian’s struggles with Keats’s writing. She loves it and has loved it from childhood but also writes about its disappointments and exclusions. In her introduction, she movingly describes feeling out of place as a person of color among mostly-white classmates and turning to literature as a refuge. But later she realizes that the writers she loves would not have recognized her as part of their audience. Keats would not have imagined her, but she can find space for herself — and for everyone — in his writing anyway:

I love Keats not because I belong in his poetry, but because his poetry wants so much to belong to us…. He took his own history of not mattering and turned it into a poetry that voids all the lethal systems and prejudices that decide who lives and who dies, and he did it by insisting that what we love is sacred, as is the act of loving it.

The space she finds for herself in Keats’s odes is sometimes highly critical: she is harsh about “Ode on Indolence,” for example, but she writes admiringly of the resonances Keats’s writing has with Karl Marx and his devotion to the body in the world:

To perceive is to hurt — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. If the task of Marx’s critique of political economy is to locate the cause of that pain, the task of Keats’s poetry is to make it unforgettable.

She places Keats’s “To Autumn” in the context of the 1817 Peterloo Massacre that killed 15 and wounded 650. Keats got the news of the massacre shortly before writing “To Autumn,” which says nothing directly about the massacre, of course, but is about loving the beauty of the world even when “it provides ample evidence it should not be loved.” The world is full of horrors, but beauty persists and we persist in our attachment to it. Nersessian points out that Keats is not asking us to do anything about the world’s horrors, and compares this ode to a Diane di Prima poem that does demand action. She loves Keats for what he does and acknowledges what he does not do. She makes the odes feel necessary and vital, alive and still speaking to us today.

The Taiga Syndrome

The Taiga Syndrome, by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (Dorothy Project, 2018) is a mystery novel, but a very strange one. It tells the story of an ex-detective who gets hired to search for a missing couple. She’s surprised someone wants to hire her because she has a long string of failures on her record. Her list of failed cases gives a good sense of what this book is like:

The case of the woman who disappeared behind a whirlwind.

The case of the castrated men.

The case of the woman who gave her hand, literally. Without realizing it.

The case of the man who lived inside a whale for years.

The case of a woman who lost a jade ring.

None of these cases come with explanations, and their weirdness hints at the book’s fairytale quality right from the beginning. We also learn that the protagonist has become a writer of what she calls “noir novellas,” but unusual ones, very much like the book we are reading:

My new method was to recount a series of events without disregarding insanity or doubt. This form of writing wasn’t about telling things how they were or how they could be, or could have been; it was about how they still vibrate, right now, in the imagination.

The detective’s charge is to find a man’s wife and her lover who have disappeared. The novel’s locations remain vague (as one would expect in a fairy tale), but we know the detective heads off into the taiga with a translator to begin her search. The man who hired her warns of the “taiga syndrome,” an ailment that causes some people to suffer anxiety attacks and “make suicidal attempts to escape.”

The detective and the translator visit towns where the missing couple stayed, interview locals, and try to see what the couple saw. And things do get weird.

The novel’s interest in fairy tales is explicit: the characters talk about Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, and a wolf haunts them. They are living out a story, making and remaking old stories as they go along. The novel foregrounds language and translation as well. The protagonist is constantly aware of the barriers to communication: she and the translator speak to each other, not in the languages they know best, but in a third language that they have in common. She relies on him fully for all the information she needs. She’s also aware of how complicated it is to write her report for the man who hired her: she can’t really describe what she’s experienced. Language can’t do it justice.

I’ll admit that I’m not the ideal reader for this book as I’m not drawn to fairy tales or their retellings — my brain doesn’t think that way (sorry, fairy tale fans!) — so this was a complicated reading experience. There was so much I enjoyed, while feeling bewildered by other parts. Basically, I don’t think I did the fairy tale retelling aspect of the book justice.

But, that said, I liked the weirdness of the plot, at least until the weirdness broke my brain, and I liked way the book plays with detective-novel tropes. I loved the discussions of translation, particularly since right before reading this I finished Kate Briggs’s brilliant book on the subject. I’m always happy to read novels that interrogate the very things novels are made of: language and story.

Don’t Forget About

Erasure by Percival Everett (2001): if you’re a fan of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and haven’t read this, make sure to pick it up. Also, if you love satirical books about academia and writing, this is for you. Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a struggling writer facing rejection after rejection. He is Black and feels pressure to write a certain kind of novel about Black experience, a kind of writing he has no interest in. He sees other people’s success — success that feels hollow and ill-gained — and struggles more. In anger, he writes a vicious satire of a hugely-successful novel and it, against all expectations, takes off. Everett includes the text of this book within his own. Erasure isn’t a perfect novel — it tries to do too much and doesn’t pull everything off — but it’s wildly entertaining, smart, and an important take on race and writing.

Publishing This Week

New small-press books out this week that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. (Quotations from the publisher):

New on the TBR

New books acquired (quotations from the publisher):

  • In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe (Duke University Press, 2016): nonfiction about Blackness and the many meanings of “wake”: “Activating multiple registers of ‘wake’-the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, coming to consciousness-Sharpe illustrates how Black lives are swept up and animated by the afterlives of slavery, and she delineates what survives despite such insistent violence and negation.”

Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):

  • In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand (Grove Press, 2000): a novel that “tells of two contemporary Caribbean women who find brief refuge in each other on an island in the midst of political uprising.” I know little about Dionne Brand except that people I trust have been recommending her to me, and that’s enough.

Currently Reading

The Cormac Report

It can be hard to get Cormac into a new book or series. He loves to reread and is very excited to get the latest installment of a favorite series, but when he’s up to date on everything, he’s a little at a loss. He recently finished the second book in the Max Meow series and wanted something new, but wasn’t sure what. So we googled “best middle grade books” and found tons of great lists, many of which we looked through at length, but nothing caught his eye. When we are in bookstores, it’s often the same thing: I’ll point out books that might interest him, but he only rarely decides to give them a try.

It usually takes something special to get him into something new. A strong pitch from a bookseller sometimes works. A recommendation from a friend or his teacher can work. Sometimes my offer to read a book out loud works. Sometimes he just rereads Dog Man for the 100th time. After our unsuccessful googling session, we realized that he hadn’t finished the Catstronauts series, so I ordered book #3, and the problem was solved. I suggested that next time we are in a bookstore he might just pull something off the shelf that looks vaguely interesting and give it a try, even if he knows nothing about it. He didn’t really respond to my suggestion, and the truth is that I’m also not interested in trying out books I randomly pull off a store shelf. It takes a particular kind of recommendation to get me to try something too. I think I just have more sources of recommendations than he does right now. One of the benefits of being an adult, I guess?

Have a good week everyone!