Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

I fin­ished Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Red by Anne Car­son this morn­ing because I woke up at 5am, for no rea­son, for the third con­sec­u­tive day. It is a “nov­el in verse” and a blend­ing of Greek myth and con­tem­po­rary life.

This is an adap­ta­tion of the Gery­oneis which was put togeth­er by an old poet called Stesi­choros [which means “cho­rus mas­ter”]. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for him, at least in Anne Carson’s eyes, is the prob­lem of com­ing “after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a dif­fi­cult inter­val for a poet”. So right off the bat we get two hints at the influ­ences that are going to help dri­ve this work.

Nev­er­the­less, she prais­es Stesi­choros for being the first Greek poet to use adjec­tives to make nouns and verbs dance. Instead of the ubiq­ui­tous Home­r­ic “swift-foot­ed Achilles”, Stesi­choros was able to see the mal­leabil­i­ty of the mod­i­fi­er and make hors­es “hol­low-hooved”. So much so that nowa­days folks say adjec­tives are overused in poet­ry. I’d nev­er heard of this guy but he rocks.

Stesi­choros was also appar­ent­ly blind­ed by Helen for telling a slan­der­ous tale about her, but his sight was restored when he com­posed the Palin­ode, retract­ing his state­ments. All of this knowl­edge is nec­es­sary for Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Red.

In the myth, Gery­on is a mul­ti-head­ed, six-armed red-skinned mon­ster with wings and a lit­tle red dog. Her­ak­les comes and wastes the pooch and the mon­ster and takes the cat­tle as his 12th Labor. In Carson’s ver­sion, Her­ak­les and Gery­on [still with wings and red skin] are lovers, but the fall­out in this instance is just as bad, if not worse for its dura­tion. I see Carson’s retelling as a par­al­lel to the dual sto­ries of Helen by Stesi­choros.

Gery­on is very sym­pa­thet­ic as a char­ac­ter, we can iden­ti­fy with his emo­tions, but it was hard for me to under­stand most of his out­ward behav­ior. He becomes a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, appar­ent­ly a very inter­est­ing one and descrip­tions of his pho­tographs in con­text do more to shape him than read­ing about his actions alone. Some­one who con­stant­ly asks ques­tions like “What is time made of?” seems strange even to some­one as inquis­i­tive as myself.

The writ­ing style is excel­lent; there is no need to be turned off by this book because the fact that it is in verse intim­i­dates you. Stesi­choros might have first taught adjec­tives to dance, but Anne Car­son keeps them jig­ging 2500 years lat­er. There is an inno­cence and vital­i­ty that comes forth from Gery­on in Carson’s writ­ing. Even when he is grown, Geryon’s pho­tog­ra­phy is as change­less as he always has been men­tal­ly. It must come from being a mon­ster. He seems to both feel more than a human and feel less than a human. There are some sub­tle but puis­sant metaphors that I will not describe lest I detract from the sur­prise at their real­iza­tion. It is book­end­ed in humor, but even in those cas­es it is impor­tant to make note of what is said and what is not said. I def­i­nite­ly get the feel­ing that I’ll be read­ing this one again and again.

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