Book Review

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Photo on 22-12-2015 at 11.24

A few months ago I read Anne Carson’s recent, (rightfully) acclaimed Red Doc>, a narrative collection of poems about G, a man who is winged and possesses wings. This was a character she had written about before in the volume now between this laptop and my thighs, Autobiography of Red. Here, G is younger – we watch him, known as Geryon – grow from being a small, inquisitive child, through his brother’s incestuous abuse, out into the wider world and his first love affair, the development of his career (or very serious hobby) as a photographer, and then his travels around South America with his returned first lover and the other man’s new boyfriend.

According to the introduction, Geryon is a character in Greek myth, a red, winged monster who guards a load of special cattle. Collecting these cattle and killing Geryon is one of Herakles’ tasks (I believe the 10th), and this was written about – from the perspective of the monster – by an ancient Sicilian poet called Stesichorus. Carson opens the volume with a brief discussion of Stesichorus – how he was rumoured to have lost his sight after slighting Helen of Troy in a poem, only for it to be recovered once he produced a retraction. She includes a translation of some of the surviving parts of his epic about Geryon, which describes a simple, gently warped trad class tale: monster lives harmlessly on an island with his dog and cattle, hero comes along and kills everyone, mercilessly and violently. Even the little doggy, which hits me hardest as I’m in the final procrastinating stage before I buy myself a pup.*

I don’t know if Stesichorus is real. I know that something to do with cattle is a real Herculalean task, but I know no more details than that. I’m writing this on a plane** so have no access to the fucking internet to look any of these things up. (I may as well be in a hot air balloon for all the tech in here.***) If the translation of Stesichorus here is real, then it is a loose translation – anachronisms abound, though that could be Carson’s artistic choice of nouns settling the reader’s mind into a timeless arena, the easier to open you or I up to pleasures to be found in the adventures of Geryon that follow.

There is a quite graphic child abuse scene near the start of the book, but once G starts having consensual sex, there is almost a gentle repression – because it is a pleasurable and private experience there is no need for it to be shared. The lack of erotic gay sex within the poem doesn’t come across as a squeamishness, but rather a shrewd posturing of the nature of desire.

Autobiography of Red is about adolescence and the discovery of what is at the centre of an identity – for Geryon it is his sexuality and his photography, and Carson gifts us the reading of the growth of both. His first lover is called Herakles, and it is in this that Carson’s story mirrors the Greek myth: Herakles comes from far away and destroys the red monster – but not through a violent death, but rather through romantic pain, for Herakles cannot stay and will not be faithful.

The narrative skips forward, and we then see Argentina and Peru, and Geryon gets some limited closure after the reappearance of his life-changing first lover.

We constantly see volcanoes, wings, bodies, books, words, ideas, philosophies: Autbiography of Red is an involving and intellectually demanding work. As with all poetry I read, I went through it twice. I was worried that its prominent narrative thrust would diminish the second reading, but Carson’s writing is so loaded with imagery, human truth, wit and capitalised Poetry, that I may well pick it up again before my holiday is over.

This is neither an informed or informative blog, I get that, but my point is that Autobiography of Red is great. Less sexy than Red Doc> and not quite as upsetting, but it is a glorious and impressive work, and I will be reading more of Carson’s work

YEAH!

_______________

* As in I’ve got the money put aside, like. As in there in £700 in my savings account with dogdogdog written all over it in permanent marker. I’m presuming that’s been done by HSBC – I did sent a series of emails requesting it and I know they store all the money as cash.

** #yeahbabyohbaby.

*** Long haul, something I very rarely do. I’ve left Europe by plane (not counting Istanbul) only four times in my life before , and the last time was over four years ago (here’s a link to the uninformed New York city guide I made back then). The general feeling on these kind of planes is different to what I’m used to, because I do travel quite a lot. People seem to behave worse – there is free food and there are little screens in the back of all the seats, but the reaction to technical faults or running out of a dish seems to be greeted with tart rudeness. On the packed RyanAir flights I regularly take there is a kind of shared mentality, a mutual willingness to endure – two, three hours, of this crap and then we’re on fuccen holiday. Up here, though, spending ten plus hours above the Atlantic, there is far less give in the customer’s eyes. Worth remembering. And this, to be open, is cheap long haul. The question arises thusly: Am I surrounded by people used to expensive long haul expecting a level of service they’re not going to get, or by people (like myself) who aren’t used to planes this big and don’t know how to behave? A mystery. There are two aisles! Imagine that, a plane with TWO AISLES!!!

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