Time to Work My Critical Muscles

I’ve been thinking lately about attention. Where do I put mine? Why do I have such a hard time focusing it these days? One reason this has been on my mind is that next Fall I’ll be teaching a literature a class again after several years of teaching only Academic Writing (my choice, long story). I’m ready for the change–indeed I requested it–but I also find myself thinking “But can I still read?” 

Of course I can, obviously! I read all the time. But it feels like it’s been a while since I’ve read with my full attention, read critically or analytical, practiced the habits of close reading that are part of what I work on with students. It’s a second year British Novel course in which we read mostly 19th century novels, and there’s definitely part of me wondering “Can I still read a book that long?” 

This is great, really, because I will likely have more understanding of and sympathy for what my students face in the course than ever before. But it’s also time to work those atrophied critical reading muscles, and I hope that will be impetus for giving more time and attention to blogging (no, this time I mean it) because writing helps me do that. I’m not planning to write coherent little essays on everything I read–let’s start small!–but I’ll try to write something, and to dig into the texts a bit more, at least some of the time, instead of review-type impressions. Just coming up with this plan has given me some ideas of things I want to write about. I missed that feeling! To start off, here are a few thoughts on Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants.

Énard’s novella (translated by Charlotte Mandell) is an alternate history of sorts: what if Michelangelo had accepted Sultan Bayezid II’s invitation to go to Constantinople and design a bridge across the Golden Horn? (The invitation was real; the visit was not).

The novella is fragmentary, a series of short scenes. Énard imagined it from fragments of the historical record. (This is my excuse for having just a few fragmentary thoughts about the book). The form suits his story, which perhaps never quite coheres, though it does have a lot of plot, rather suddenly, at the end. The novella could be seen as a kind of sketchbook. Michelangelo keeps a notebook during his time in Constantinople, in which he lists things, keeps a budget, makes small sketches. For a long time, it seems that his wanderings and observations won’t cohere into an idea for a bridge.

A bridge is almost too neat a metaphor for this East-meets-West story, isn’t it?

Supported by an invisible foundation that barely reaches above the waves, a majestic footbridge gently joins two shores, reconciling their differences. Two hands placed majestically on the waters, two slender fingers that touch each other.

How can you read this and not think of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adamin which the “two slender fingers” of God and Man do not touch? This is the story, after all, of a bridge that was never completed–in reality, because Michelangelo rejected the commission, in Énard’s reimagining, because the foundation was destroyed by an (historical) earthquake.

Is Michelangelo touched by the East? How? Most of Tell Them of Battles is narrated in the third person, but interspersed throughout are first-person sections narrated by an Andalusian dancer and singer, by whom Michelangelo is enthralled, and who attempts to seduce him (maybe? I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe it). Michelangelo can’t open himself to this experience, though:

There is nothing palpable, nothing attainable in the body, it slips between the hands and disappears like snow or sand; never does one find unity, never does one attain the flame; once separated, the two heaps of clay will never join. . . .

He would like to be opened up, so the passion inside could be set free.

Is this a story of missed connections, then? Of the possibility of building bridges between East and West? Not entirely, I think. Though Michelangelo doesn’t allow himself to open to Constantinople, it remains with him, Énard suggests, coming out in his later work.

Here are two pieces on this novella I really enjoyed. They, like the book, are well worth reading.

Julian Lucas in the New Yorker puts the novella in the context of Énard’s body of work; I was really interested by what he says about Orientalism, which I’m not sure the novella entirely escapes

Dennis Zhou in Art in America (this piece is actually called “Missed Connections”) puts it in the context of art history and gobalism

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10 Responses to Time to Work My Critical Muscles

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    The Énard sounds fascinating. I know what you mean when you say you miss the feeling of coming up with things to write about. Honestly, what keeps me blogging is exactly that feeling, though it often doesn’t rise to the surface until I’m actually writing up a post. Then I remember why this is a thing I keep on doing. I’m looking forward to having more posts of yours to read!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One thing I really enjoy about your posts is watching you work out your ideas about a book. I had started feeling “I can’t do that/think like that anymore! What happened?” But then I realized it’s just a practice we have to keep up (the ideas won’t come if I don’t think), like working out to keep our muscles strong, so I’m going to do my best to set aside time for it. Today I just figured I had 45 minutes and I’d post whatever I could do in that time. Seems like a good way to start.

  2. lauratfrey says:

    I love this review – of these fragments. I had a case of right book, wrong time with this one, it wasn’t coming together and I had many other books on the go, so I let it go. Now I can see that “not coming together” was the point.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you! I’m not sure if it was really the point—I did find myself wondering what the POINT was—but it did seem form and theme resonated with each other. I think if the book had been any longer I might have become impatient with it.

  3. Sunita says:

    I’m so glad you found the Enard worthwhile! It’s not a Big Book like Zone or Compass but it is written within the same intellectual framework, and while it was fragmentary and not entirely successful, I was fascinated by the world he created. I’m really intrigued and provoked (in the good way) by the way he is working through issues of Orientalism and hybridity.

    Writing really is a practice. I started posting online via reviewing and blogging because I had writer’s block, and 750-1000 words on something that interested me seemed like a reasonable place to start. It has helped, and I always come back after a hiatus because it’s a way to ease into the “from thinking to writing” process.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m definitely interested in reading one of his Big Books now. This one was provocative and even though brief, evoked a whole historical world so clearly.

      I kept waiting around for ideas to come. “Why don’t I have any ideas anymore?” And then I realized that if I don’t practice, they won’t come.

  4. KeiraSoleore says:

    I am glad you plan on getting into blogging more. Writing begets more writing. I have found doing Morning Pages and LiveJournal has really helped me getting my thoughts to flow the minute my pen touches the paper or my fingers the keyboard.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      For me, morning pages is such a different kind of writing that it doesn’t transfer over into blogging. I don’t want to spill my guts here!

  5. Liz–lovely essay and review. Good luck on whipping the critical analysis part of your reading brain into tip-top shape. I don’t believe you have much to worry about.
    I read the Enard a while back and enjoyed it. I was seduced by the prose; some of the episodes were so dream-like, others so glittering. The result reminded me of a shimmering Renaissance painting. I did so want the bridge to have been real. Thank you for those links to the two reviews.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thank you, Barb! This did send me to read up on the history of the (non) bridge. The Art in America piece talks about the version of da Vinci’s concept that was built in Norway. It really is a lovely book that evokes the feeling of being in a strange place you can’t fully understand.

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