Celebrating Strange Faces, Gorgeous Sentences and Circular Prose

A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate
By Daniel Mendelsohn
116 pp. University of Virginia. $19.95.

The circle is a form of both focus and misdirection. To circle a place is to defer arrival, but circling something is also a way of calling attention to it. For instance, a critic might circle an especially beautiful passage, as I did over and over when I read Mendelsohn’s exquisite “Three Rings.”

Originally a series of lectures delivered at the University of Virginia, the book is about — and full of — circles. Its official topic is the literary technique known as “ring composition,” in which “the narrative appears to meander away into a digression (the point of departure being marked by a formulaic line or stock scene), although the digression, this ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed.” Mendelsohn is a trained classicist, and as he notes, one of the ancient Greek words for “digression” doubles as the language’s term for scholarly commentary. The critic is a digresser par excellence: His task is to wander away from a text in order to devise a richer route of return.

“Three Rings” digresses from its digressions, whirling with elegiac elegance from the “Odyssey,” which itself veers away from the main tale only to wind home again; to Jewish communities lost in the Holocaust, to which no one can ever loop back; to various attempts to resurrect bygone forms of life, for instance Mendelsohn’s youthful efforts to construct models of ancient buildings; to the philologist Erich Auerbach, himself displaced by the Holocaust, who wrote about the mode of literary modeling known as mimesis; and ultimately back to the longing for return that animates so many of our myths, projects and fictions. The world of “Three Rings” is so mad with interconnections that it elicits both paranoia and enchantment. Ornate and oneiric, the results are well worth circling and circling back to.

By Namwali Serpell
Illustrated. 182 pp. Transit. Paper, $15.95.

The cliché has it that the eyes are the windows to the soul — and, by implication, that the face is the seat of the self. But the critic, novelist and Harvard English professor Serpell maintains that the face is mere facade. In her sharp new collection, she sets out to investigate the aesthetics of faces.

Of course, a book that casts countenances as works of art also has an attendant ethics. Serpell is adamant in her rejection of what she calls “the Ideal Face,” a visage assumed to be smooth, symmetrical, human and readily racially legible. Her aim is to “break” this tired mask, focusing instead on “the disabled face, the racially ambiguous face, the dead face, the faces we see in objects, the animal face, the blank face and the digital face.”

Perhaps despite itself, her collection performs an ethical gesture in treating such faces as objects of attention and pleasure. The essays that follow are wise, warm, witty and dizzyingly wide-ranging: Serpell writes about the humanoid mop Norman uses in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” about the mixed-race author of a fugitive slave narrative and about the ambiguity of emojis. Her clear prose unknots a dense tangle of academic concepts along the way.

But Serpell may be at her most thrilling when she interrogates the very humanity of the Ideal Face. In essays about Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, and Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” a documentary about an environmentalist who aspires to become a bear, Serpell proposes that humans-cum-animals captivate precisely by dint of their hybridity. After all, “they didn’t call Merrick the Elephant or the Elephantine Man. The Elephant and the Man sit in an uneasy balance.” Merrick fascinates us because he seems to be both human and animal and neither human nor animal — and is therefore as unintelligible as a bear to which we try and fail to impute a person’s familiar emotions. Stranger faces refuse to signify or symbolize, which may be exactly why we try so hard to read them — and why it is so fun to read about them, at least when Serpell is doing the writing.

By Brian Dillon
228 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $17.95.

It takes Dillon a long time to read a single sentence. “Is that what I’ve been trying to do with all of these sentences?” he asks in his agile new collection. “To read them in slow motion?” In the ensuing essays, he succeeds, sometimes devoting more than a dozen pages to a short formulation. He spends a page meditating on the moan Hamlet emits on his deathbed, “O, o, o, o,” and he reflects for 14 on a caption Joan Didion once appended to a photograph in Vogue.

Each chapter focuses on a sentence chosen not for its historical importance, nor for its connection to the book’s other essays, but simply out of love. As Dillon puts it, his chief criterion is a sense of “affinity.” What emerges is a record of appreciation, a rare treasure in an age that rewards bashing. Even “O, o, o, o” becomes an occasion for enthrallment. (By Dillon’s lights, it is “nothing more or less than the vocal expression, precisely, of silence.”)

Dillon’s affinities prove eclectic and unexpected. He knows some authors, among them Roland Barthes, exhaustively. Others, like the jazz critic Whitney Balliett, he admits he has just discovered. He admires James Baldwin, Maeve Brennan and Annie Dillard. Best of all, he loves writers who craft sentences crooked with clauses, like Thomas Browne and Thomas De Quincey. John Ruskin’s prose, he writes, acquires “more and more echoes in sound and sense, until the thing, the sentence, gets out of hand, cacophonous.”

Dillon writes similarly digressive sentences. “Suppose a Sentence” has many rewards, but its greatest gift is its exuberant style. The New Yorker’s pages, with their diereses, are “exactingly, but eccentrically, punctuated,” and a choice sentence from Elizabeth Hardwick is “perfectly weighted.” Flaubert’s “struggle with his prose” involved “hours of dull agony upon the couch for every racking adventure with the sentence.” Dillon’s own efforts are full of such racking adventures.

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