Objects would suddenly fall or fall apart, cars go off course, dogs drop to their knees. The army was doing sound experiments at a nearby desert in those days. I was nervous all the rest of my life (she wrote). She was a novelist and enjoyed some success. But always she had the fantasy of a different kind of novel, and although gradually realizing that all novelists share this fantasy, she persisted in it, without knowing what it would be except true and obvious while it was happening. Now I’m writing, she would be able to say.
She broke off.
Where would you put a third arm? is a question asked in creativity assessment tests, or so I have heard. Will this different kind of novel be like that, like a third arm? I hate creativity (she said). Certainly not like a third arm. It would be less and less and less, not more. Barthes died, he never got there. She named other attempts, Flaubert, etc. Other renunciators, none of them clear on what to renounce. This chair I’m sitting in (she thought). Its fantastic wovenness, a wicker chair, old, from the back porch, brought in for winter. Me sitting here, by a lamp, wrapped in a quilt, beside the giant black windows, this December blackness, this 4.30 a.m. kitchen reflected on the glass. The glass too cold to touch. The loudness of the silence of a kitchen at night. The small creak of my chair.
To be a different kind of novel it would have to abolish something, abolish several things—plot, consequence, the pleasure a reader derives from answers withheld, the premeditation of these. Abolish, not just renounce them. To renounce is weak, reactive, egoistic. If she were ever really writing it would pull her down into itself and erase everything but her decency. She would correspond at all points to her story but her story would not be a story of heaven, hell, chaos, the world, the war at Troy or love, it would be just telling itself. It would have no gaps, no little indecent places where she didn’t know what she was talking about. Because (she wanted to say) it would be a story of nothing and everything at the same time, but by now, while only dimly realizing she was more or less quoting Flaubert’s famous 1852 letter about “a book about nothing” that everyone quotes when they have this idea the first time, she knew she had lost it, the murmur, the trace, the nub where it was her own and (whatever “own” means in a world where it is also “again”) she was forfeit, foolish, flailing, inexact and rattling on, it had eluded her, it lets me go! I cannot bear to be let go, clenched in my quilt, a phantom receding, it rustles off, the dawn barely blueing the air, the static stopped.
Chilled and stale as the old night itself she stood up and folded the quilt, wishing she were hungry but she was not, wishing she was the kind of person who took baths but, as a rule, she did not bathe. Part of the reason for this was that at the exact moment of lowering her body into boiling hot water, for a split second, this always happens, she is five years old again and it is Sunday night and she is horrified. Horrified why? She doesn’t know. School on Monday? But she did not dislike school. Or maybe she did at first. Not later. At any rate there is a rolling all-pervasive upwash of dread, one great hot shooting surge of dread-sensation through mind and body, a sense—perhaps?—of Time, carrying a body on from Sunday night to Monday morning to every Monday morning after that and on and on to extinction, this progress, this exasperating, nonnegotiable, obliterating motion forward into the dark, the dark what? And what about the sheer searing thrill of it—boiling hot bath water, this could not be denied, a brilliance shot up through it and the body fairly sang. Then it was gone. Is there a childhood sublime? Does it end where expectation begins? For the sublime is punctured by egotism, by the rapt, hard, small beak of my self demanding to be me. My self finding the words for that. If I can find the words I can make it real, she thought and that was when she sat down to be a writer.
At first the energy required for using her new beak obscured anxieties or questions like, What to write? and Who cares? She wrote about her friend Martha who knocked over a pile of coins in the library. She wrote about going to church with her mother-in-law on Xmas Day. She wrote about snow. It was while writing of snow, in contemplation, that doubt seeped in. And all her sentences turned their blank awful faces to her in blame. It was in the numismatics library, she wanted to say to them, but the sentences did not show pity. The same old faux-naive stuff about Martha, oh stop! they cried. Snow again! they scoffed. She went on awhile with the mother-in-law-on-Xmas-Day story anyhow, she liked that one. To comment on knees in church had seemed a bright idea, a bit of an edge.
During the sermon I crossed my legs. It worried me (she wrote). Once in Berlin she’d sat at dinner beside a man who made his living translating American crime fiction for a German publisher. Got fired. Couldn’t find a non-obscene German equivalent for “she crossed her legs.” Can this be true? She studied what she could see of her own legs, two knobby knees in black tights. Glancing around she saw no one else had crossed theirs. Places like church, does everyone worry? Does anyone know the rules? Were the rules discussed before I came in? Being respectful in church is a matter of impersonation. Being a daughter-in-law is too. We all impersonate people who know the rules. “I am always making myself up as I go along” (Sartre). She’d received a book on the existentialists for Xmas, people who denounced impersonation, people who said they were made nauseous by rules. She crossed her legs in the other direction. Is crossing itself the issue? Are straight lines ethically preferable to bent lines? Why do we call criminals “crooks?” She recalled studying Pythagoras in school. Early philosopher. Not existentialist. He made a list of everything in the world in two columns. He put Good, Male, Light, Limit, Straight, Accurate in one column, on the right, and Evil, Female, Dark, Unlimited, Bent, Lost in the other, on the left. There’s fear in rules. Oh that Helen of Troy!
Straighten her out? Not likely! “Any man might do a girl in, any man might have to,” sang Sweeney.
Sartre would have liked Sweeney. There’s fear in rules and stupidity in sentences. All the old hatred of women and crookedness since Pythagoras’ time having got packed down into stupid sentences, she saw it as one big grindstone grinding through days and nights and history and philosophy and novels. She thinks suddenly of Martha in the numismatics library knocking over a pile of coins. The sound was like coins, there is nothing else sounds like that being knocked over. The numismatist glared. Martha laughed later but not at the time. Her mother was in the ICU, in a city some miles away, recovering after a nine-hour surgery. Or not recovering. The doctors were obscure, the nurses overworked. Martha wished the numismatist could know this. He might have taken Martha’s arm. Martha might not have wept in the stairwell.
Once she and Martha had gone to Greece together, to an international writers’ conference. While they were there she’d renounced writing. Instead she made sketches in a sketchbook and titled it The Glass of Water, as if that’s what everyone was looking for, a glass of water in Greece, not a different kind of novel or some not-stupid sentences. The sketches were a bit cartoonish but loving. We see the glass of water disappearing up the stairs with a Russian poet. Or gripped fast by a Turkish Cypriot novelist (who has poured it into two glasses). Or lost behind a mountain of toast by a Spanish writer at the breakfast table. She found toast difficult to draw convincingly, from a side view. Drawing on the Peruvian poet, on the other hand, who claimed he had videotaped his llama drinking from the glass of water, was a joy as she already knew how to draw llamas. The videotape was mostly blank. Meanwhile the former Nobel Prize winner from Ireland had seen the glass of water being hoisted (by Samuel Beckett in a bar) and “there was no pronoun for that” (he kept saying). The Serbian poet fell off the bus. He got no sympathy. He never drank water! Then finally all the writers posing after the group reading in their “owl of Athena” costumes on the last day, an indelible memory. An excellent sketch. All their crazy signatures. She and Martha had, as we say after vacations in Greece, learned a lot. They had found sharing a hotel room fairly unbearable due to their very different temperaments. It brings tears to her eyes now. She isn’t sure what kind of tears they are. She opens the Glass of Water sketchbook to the last page. It is a drawing of empty hotel balconies. Someone has scrawled “5 a.m.” on the side of the page and on the bottom “Already tomorrow is here” with a bunch of green and blue marks she can’t remember making.
“Flaubert Again,” by Anne Carson, from Wrong Norma, copyright © 2024 by Anne Carson. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing.