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.