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 Adam, in 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.