Language: Known/Unknown

  • Marianne Apostolides
    Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life. BookThug
  • Douglas H. Glover
    Attack of the Copula Spiders. Biblioasis
Reviewed by Lucia Lorenzi

I often imagine that for readers, writers, and literary scholars alike, one of the great motivations behind our love of books is a deeply-rooted desire, or perhaps, even a strongly-held obsession, to understand precisely how literature works—to unravel its intricacies and its mysteries. Through individual reading practices, classroom discussions, writing classes, and literary analysis, we attempt to pull back the curtain and peer behind it to understand the wizardry of words. How does a phrase hang together just so? How does a particular narrative weave its magic upon the reader, enthralling them in a world where fact and fiction may blend together? How do literature and book culture maintain their importance in an increasingly visually-saturated culture? While Marianne Apostolides’ Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life and Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders take radically different approaches to the subject of storytelling, their works both challenge the reader to consider and reflect on form and content, and on the relationship between language and experience, whether it be in the way we learn to interpret our world, enjoy novels, or negotiate the precarious narratives that constitute our lives and the lives of others.

Douglas Glover’s book is comprised of a series of short essays, in which he offers not only practical strategies for writing novels and short stories, but also a number of compelling arguments about the value of literature itself. Far from separating the mechanics of literary production and analysis from the larger implications of literary proficiency and cultural relevance, Glover sternly argues that the art and the craft of language are profoundly intertwined. The first two essays, “How to Write a Novel” and “How to Write a Short Story,” focus on the roles of narrative facets such as subplot, plot, theme, and image. However, by the time the reader arrives at the title essay, “Attack of the Copula Spiders,” Glover pulls back the curtain to reveal that the mystery of literature is deeply embedded at the level of language itself, and that by learning how to become good writers, we also become good readers, and vice versa. In a “post-literate” age where the study of English literature is often dismissed as a “fluffy” or somehow merely aesthetic pursuit, and where writing courses are often perceived as dry and mechanical, Glover’s book fiercely defends the value of studying language as both art and craft, especially in his careful analyses of texts by authors such as Alice Munro and Thomas Bernhard. The mechanics and aesthetics of language are inseparable; thus Glover makes a compelling argument for both rigorous reading and writing practices.

Marianne Apostolides’ memoir concerns itself with somewhat different questions about language and narrative, namely their tenuous relationships to lived experience and to “truth.” The memoir takes its title, in part, from a quotation by Roland Barthes, which is featured as the epigraph to the book. Barthes’ contends that the “voluptuous pleasure” of language lies in its murky inability to “authenticate itself.” So, too, does Apostolides’ prose delight and take pleasure in the slipperiness of language itself. The narrative delves directly into the complexities of storytelling, through the narrator’s attempts to tell the story of her father’s life, which begins during his complex childhood in wartime Greece. The narrator holds her father’s story in her hands “like unformed flesh,” and indeed, as the narrative unravels, the reader is compelled to consider the ways in which language shapes embodied experience (and vice versa). Most notable about this memoir is its intense self-reflexivity: Apostolides constantly questions and reflects on the roles of interviewer, writer, and reader of history, be they familial or otherwise. “We have given this void its unasked questions; we have held this exchange,” she notes, a reminder that language is always-already relational, and that the act of telling and sharing stories is about being mindful of those relations, of both their limits and their moments of productivity. Blending the autobiographical with the archival, the fictional with the factual, Voluptuous Pleasure is a powerful call for language to be both questioned and celebrated, dispensed with and relied upon.

Both Glover and Apostolides’ works reveal the known and the unknown of language. And while both offer insights into the workings of words, perhaps their most compelling literary contributions are the ways in which they allow us to acknowledge that behind the curtains of language, lie yet more curtains and yet more mysteries.

This review “Language: Known/Unknown” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 128-30.

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