This Month in Books: ‘The Minor Figure Yields to the Chorus’

The sleep of reason produces monsters (No. 43), from Los Caprichos by Francisco Goya, 1799, etching with aquatint, 18.9 x 14.9 cm (7.4 x 5.9 in), private collection. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I’m reading this book right now called The Manuscript Found in Saragossa; it was written in French during the Napoleonic Wars by a Pole named Jan Potocki. It’s a recursive story-within-a-story sort of thing, and it’s giving me nightmares. The stories are all subtly related; that’s kind of the source of the horror. Well, ok, no, not exactly: the actual source of the horror is that every time a new stranger tells him a story (which seems to happen to him a lot), the narrator of the “frame story” wakes up the next morning under a gallows in the embrace of two corpses! But also horrifying is that in each of the unrelated stories that this main narrator is being told by strangers, there is always a duo, a set of two people — sometimes the storytellers themselves are a duo — who seem to be eerily connected to the two corpses. Nothing ever tells you outright they’re connected; it’s just that they’re always introduced the same way, in pairs. So you start to get the feeling that it’s the same pair every time.

I bring this up because it reminds me a little bit of writing the books newsletter. Not the waking up in the embrace of corpses under a gallows part. (Not yet.) But being told a bunch of unrelated stories by strangers, then seeing a thread of connection? Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Especially this week, when the connections I can see are as thin as ghosts — recursion and repetition and doubling — things coming in twos. In an interview with Tobias Carroll about her new collection Screen Tests, Kate Zambreno talks about reading the same books over and over again, and how it has led her into a “ghostly correspondence” with long-gone writers and artists. Connected to this somehow, in my mind, is a startling point made by Will Meyer in his review of Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic, which is that everything terrible about the beef industry that Specht shows happened in the American West in the past — the dispossession and genocide of Native people in order to expand ranching — is happening again, right now, in Brazil. Or, maybe not again — maybe it’s always been happening, in one big beefy outward expansion? When the cowboys and saloons of the American West can be found in the Amazon in 2019, it’s also a kind of ghostly correspondence, is what I think I’m trying to get at.


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In an essay from Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World, he too is thinking about how the present is just one more layer of the past. “We build on top of ourselves,” he thinks while on a trip to an archaeological site in Vienna. “We live on top of the dead I thought while staring down into the ruins there snapping photos of the ancient culture’s bones on my phone so I could remember them some day in the future.” He also, like an archaeological dig or The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, tells many unrelated stories at once, and seems to wait with just as much curiosity as the reader to see how it’s all going to shake out:

Everything we do today comes at the expense of the future. That can be little things like how last night I basically ate an entire loaf of bread. You know the kind that sticks out of your shopping bag and you go like haha look at me I’m a French guy over here ayy forgetaboutit. Or it can be taking pleasure or comfort in all the things you know you shouldn’t do but nonetheless feel good right now in this moment and tomorrow is not your problem. Someone else is going to have to deal with it and even if that person is actually you it’s still you tomorrow and you don’t know that guy so let him figure it out.

It was about two years ago and there was a sadness inside of me I had been hoping to run away from and by chance an alcohol company offered to send me to Europe to go drink their specific type of alcohol there so I went and did that. Turns out though that for better or worse and no matter what this dude Marcus Aurelius might have said to the contrary sadness travels well across borders. Unlike hand lotion you can smuggle grief onto the plane and no one will know it. Pain doesn’t show up on the x-ray scanner at all it’s the perfect crime.

It is a very pretty piece of writing. I’ve been lucky to excerpt two (two!) exceptionally beautifully written books this past month; the other is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, in which she takes an interesting tack. Instead of noticing recursion and repetition in the past, she seeks out continuity; and where she can’t see continuity, she invents it. Hartman sifts through the archives for whatever records she can find that indicate how black young women and girls lived in the second and third generations after slavery. She wants to understand how they lived free, how they invented what living free looked and felt like. But there is very little in the record, and most of what’s there is carceral: punitive records created by social workers and police. So Hartman turns the lack of recorded history on its head; instead of the repetition of thousands of erased black women and girls, she sees one young girl’s life playing out in the archive — Hartman sees this girl peaking out of a window in one photograph, sees her hurrying past on the street with her eyes averted in another.

Fragments of her life are woven with the stories of girls resembling her and girls nothing like her, stories held together by longing, betrayal, lies, and disappointment…

The names and the stories rush together. The singular life of this particular girl becomes interwoven with those of other young women who crossed her path, shared her circumstances, danced with her in the chorus, stayed in the room next door in a Harlem tenement, spent sixty days together at the workhouse, and made an errant path through the city.

By seeing continuity instead of repetition, Hartman creates a narrative that is powerful rather than weak, glorious even if it is tragic.

The only thing I knew for sure was that she did have a name and a life that exceeded the frame in which she was captured… Anonymity enables her to stand in for all the others. The minor figure yields to the chorus. All the hurt and the promise of the wayward are hers to bear.

Time is “too precious to be passed telling stories,” one of the mysterious duos tells the narrator of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Then the rest of the book, of course, is spent doing nothing else. Enjoy your reading!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky

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