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.