Nox

Anne Carson’s Nox is a difficult book to describe because it stretches the boundaries of what we call a book. It’s packaged in a box, the size of a thick book, and the text itself is presented on accordion-fold pages, making the book one long strand of text, just as life is one long strand. For Nox is a reflection on a life, that of Carson’s brother, Michael.

Although Michael’s life was one single strand, Carson’s memory of him is fragmented, and the design of the book reflects that fragmentation. The text includes photos, some of which show a shadowy figure in the foreground; bits of letters, folded and unfolded and torn in pieces; and paragraphs of Carson’s own thoughts about Michael’s life and death. On the left side of every page, there is a definition of a single word from Catullus’s poem 101, an elegy to Catullus’s own brother. The work as a whole feels like Carson’s attempt to translate both the poem and the life into something whole.

The format is obviously the most immediately striking thing about Nox, but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the format overshadows the writing. Carson’s thoughts on how we understand history, especially that of those close to us, are perceptive and beautiful. In crafting her own thoughts, she looks back at the words of Hekataios and Herodotos.

Herodotos is an historian who trains you as you read. It is a process of asking, searching, collecting, doubting, striving, testing, blaming and above all standing amazed at the strange things humans do. Now by far the strangest thing that humans do—he is firm on this—is history. This asking. For often it produces no clear or helpful account …

In cigarette-smoke-soaked Copenhagen, under a wide thin sorrowful sky, as swans drift down the water, I am looking a long time into the muteness of my brother. It resists me. He refuses to be “cooked” (a modern historian might say) in my transactional order. To put this another way, there is something that facts lack. “Overtakelessness” is a word told me by a philosopher once: das Unumgängliche—that which cannot be got round. Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of. And about which one collects facts—it remains beyond them.

Much of Nox is a collection of facts and artifacts, interspersed with Carson’s attempts to make meaning of them. At times, her frustration breaks out in words, with the letters “WHO WERE YOU” etched in white against a black background. At other times, there’s a quietness to her quest, as when these small words appear at the bottom of a page: “Always comforting to assume there is a secret behind what torments you.”

Carson’s memories are particularly fragmented because Michael left home in 1978 and only made contact a few times after that before his death in 2000. The few words she has from him become objects of meditation, of translation even. She takes them apart, just as she’s taken apart Catullus’s poem. But those few words don’t reveal a lot. Michael, like history, like ancient poetry, cannot be fully brought back. Even Lazarus, as Carson observes, had to die again. That muteness awaits us all.

Nox is an extraordinarily rich piece of art and literature. But don’t let its unusual form put you off of it. The richness does not equal inaccessibility. The bits of prose scattered throughout are beautiful—practically all of them are worthy of a place in my commonplace book. It’s a literary experiment that works. I hope you’ll think so too. I’m especially grateful to Jenny, Frances, and Emily for sharing their love for Nox. I never would have read it were it not for their enthusiasm. I’m thrilled to have it in my collection to experience again and again.

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20 Responses to Nox

  1. What a powerful book! I’ve read a review of this one in I think it was the New Yorker but I didn’t buy , now I regret it.
    Just one question, isn’t the book hard to read if the pages are accordion-folded?

    • Jenny says:

      I liked that the book was a little bit (not much!) hard to read. It made me slow down when I was reading the book, and this is a book that is worth a slow read. It’s not difficult in the sense that you will be struggling with it all the time, just in the sense that you can’t read it on the subway.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree with Jenny and Emily. It’s only a little bit hard to read. Most of the time, I just held it as I would a regular book. And the format does make you slow down, which is helpful.

  2. Jenny says:

    I’m glad you liked it! Is this Make Jenny Happy Summer, by the way? Look at you reading Fire and Hemlock and Nox and Metamorphoses! It’s like what I would tell people to read if I were making a reading list. :p

  3. cbjames says:

    I think this is the probable future of books. As more and more people and publishers move to e-readers, books as objects will have to become something more than a collection of single pages, economically bound. Books as art, books as object, may be what we think of when we think of books 30 years from now.

    I’d love a chance to take a look at this one.

    • Teresa says:

      I agree. I wouldn’t want it to be the whole future, but I think there’s a lot of room for authors to be creative with print (and to be creative in different ways with e-publishing).

  4. Nadia says:

    This book sounds fantastic! I remember Frances raving about it and writing down the title, but now after reading you effusive post about it, I realize that I need to get my hands on a copy of it ASAP! Thanks :)

  5. Yay, glad you loved this! And love your points about how Carson contrasts the long, continuous strand of a life with the fragmentation involved in trying to reconstruct that continuity—an impossible task, and yet one for which the process itself may be of value. Certainly I found it to be a rewarding process to witness.

    Also agree with Jenny’s points about how the (slight) discomfort of reading Nox actually adds to the experience.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes. There’s no way to get around the fragmentation, but the work of trying has meaning in itself. And I loved how Carson tied that to the idea of how we understand history.

  6. anokatony says:

    Of all the books out there, this is probably the one I most want to read. I’ve read enough Anne Carson to know she is a magnificent writer. The packaging of ‘Nox’ presents problems for librarians, and it is also quite expensive. However I will get it somehow.

    • Teresa says:

      I can definitely see how the format is an issue for libraries. I ended up having to buy it (and it was on back order, so it took a few weeks). Luckily, I’m trying to cut down on the number of books I buy for space reasons, but I haven’t had to cut my spending so much, so the expense wasn’t a big issue, though it did give me pause.

  7. Kathleen says:

    This sounds really powerful and certainly the format of the book seems to add even more to the story.

  8. rebeccareid says:

    I’ve seen the other posts about this. It sounds so fascinating…and there is a library nearby that was able to get it…Definitely one I want to check out at some point!

  9. Melwyk says:

    I’d love to buy myself a copy of this…I do want to read it. Will have to make more of an effort to search it out!

    But selfishly, I’m not sure I want my library to get it…because I will have to process it for the shelves somehow ;)

    • Teresa says:

      Ha ha! I’m guessing a lot of librarians feel the same way. It can sit on a shelf just as a regular book would, but I’d worry about damage as it changes hands.

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