“The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form” by Douglas Glover
The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form by Douglas Glover
203 pgs. | pb | 9781771962919 | $21.95
Review by Brendan Riley
The Erotics of Restraint is an excellent companion—with a no less provocative title—to Mr. Glover’s previous collection, Attack of the Copula Spiders, published in 2013.
Glover’s essays are models of clarity, each offering a precise, finely articulated exegesis, and highly accessible, practical examinations of structure and rhetorical intention. With robust attention to detail, Glover illuminates how the living structure of powerful, effective writing draws readers to outstanding books and stories and makes other writers, both aspiring and accomplished, strive to compose them.
The title essay, one of nine, examines the dramatic social configurations of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which Glover declares “a brilliant book, a great book, breathtaking in its invention and orchestration.” In 10 laser-focused sections, this essay explores how the morally steadfast Fanny Price becomes the apophatic pearl of great price by not yielding to the superficial temptations of courtship, young love, and family pressure.
Glover’s admitted obsession with Mansfield Park—an unflagging, and equally steadfast, concern with the structural nuances of literary craft and meaning—also drives the other essays in this collection. These pieces are engineering symposia, and Glover takes stories and sentences down practically to the atomic level, not showing how to write a story, (not, as I mentioned in my review of Attack of the Copula Spiders, any rote, write-by-the-numbers instruction), but rather through careful analysis showing the results of the sometimes slippery, unquantifiable X-factor that imbues carefully composed, deeply accomplished writing. His studies reveal the life of detailed, complex prose and his cogent descriptions of plot mechanics, such as “patterns of inflection by antithesis,” always serve the structural analysis.
In “The Style of Alice Munro,” Glover points out how Munro “forges her style in the furnace of opposition”—showing how statement provokes counter statement or counter construction, subversion or complication; how Munro’s contrarian, counterpunching stories “advance by the accumulation of contravention.” His character study of her story “Lives of Girls and Women” notes the “motivational consistency, expanding symbols, tie backs, and memory rehearsals” of her novels. Examining Munro’s story “Baptizing,” Glover quotes a short sentence and then offers a typically impressive . . . breakdown? Might we call it a translation?
Munro: “Her agnosticism and sociability were often in conflict in Jubilee, where social and religious life were apt to be one and the same.”
Glover: “This sentence is constructed with the balanced antithesis of an aphorism (“conflict” vs. “one and the same”; “agnosticism and sociability” v “social and religious life”), and part of the reason for her compositional elegance is Munro’s habit of composing in opposed doubles. But the larger point is that much of any Alice Munro text will be taken up with a precise delineation of differences. Her style is to mark the differences.”
“Anatomy of the Short Story,” the collection’s longest essay, offers deep structural explorations of three stories Glover cites as exemplars of the craft: “Shiloh” by Bobbie Ann Mason; “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, Jr.; and “Brokeback Mountain” by E. Annie Proulx, minutely examining each in terms of plot, image patterns, thematic passages, and backfill.
Glover sees a story as “a composite text orchestrated around a dramatic plot,” and defines plot, which he calls, “the sonogram of the heart,” as “the backbone of a story, the first element of its architecture . . . a desire conflicting with a resistance over and over.” And his explanations blossom into greater complexity and sophistication—“The energy of plot is revelatory, illuminating character like ultrasound waves projected into the human body, exposing the inner workings beneath the surface”—which he renders as this basic formula:
“Plot = (d/r) + (d/r) + (d/r) time>>>
and then delineates specific examples of this structural formula as it operates in each of these three echo-logical compositions.
This chapter is an exegetical tour-de-force, and should enhance the way any reader or writer approaches fiction. Without bending any pieces to a single theory or perspective—analysis and theory often carve up stories and novels to oblige certain parameters—Glover’s microscopic analysis reveals fascinating structural undercurrents. Methodical, penetrating, and brilliant, this herculean essay is wonderfully lucid, perfectly poised, sharply focused—a classic.
Another valuable study, “The Art of Necessity: Time Control in Narrative Prose,” focuses on how plot is overwhelmingly time oriented: “narrative is a temporal art; time control is its essence, and good authors spend a surprising portion of their texts watching the clock.” In addition to exploring “Time, Consciousness, and Verisimilitude,” Glover explains time indicators, time shifts, time segments (which he calls “globs”), and “thought points,” and identifies a “short list” of no-less-than eight different “time switches [that] serve as relational and transitional devices.” He shows how narrative time is not chronological time, how authors create focus, emphasis, and transport by rearranging, managing, and curating time in their stories, and offers demonstrative dissections of passages from Proust’s Swann’s Way, and essays by Annie Dillard (“Seeing”) and Ted Kooser (“Small Rooms in Time”).
In “Building Sentences,” Glover offers a personal epiphany experienced when reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature”:
[Stevenson]was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating the platitudes he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a “knot” Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close. Suddenly, I understood both how to write those lovely, lengthy compound-complex sentences and also how to write paragraphs that had nothing to do with topic sentence-body-conclusion patterns (because I could construct a paragraph the way Stevenson constructs his long sentences).
More than just standard explication, Glover’s close analysis of prose structure is really a kind of translation, laying bare the mechanics in order to show how the direct, denotative meaning of prose is created; again, not as illustrative of theory or school of thought, but how writers shape their illusions, how they successfully transmit stories and ideas.
Regarding translation per se, Glover offers plenty to interest both readers of literature in translation as well as translators themselves, most notably in the essay “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’ L’Etranger.” Glover traces and retranslates his relationship to The Stranger, from what he first recalls of it—a casual impressionistic, attitudinal, hormonal relationship—to a deeper structural one; reading is, intrinsically, an act of translation, and Glover’s concern, as mentioned above, is to read better.
Glover mentions making the novel’s acquaintance in French in 1967 while simultaneously reading an English translation of it—probably Stuart Gilbert’s 1962 translation (The Stranger), the standard English version until Joseph Laredo’s 1982 translation, The Outsider; Glover notes the latter as the one he has most recently revisited. Since then, L’Etranger has also been translated into English by Matthew Ward (1989), and Sandra Smith (2012).
Glover discusses how Camus “borrowed”—(translated?)—The Stranger’s elliptical point-of-view structure from the American novel, specifically, and for the sake of practicality not preference, from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and quotes from Camus’ reply to interviewer Jeanine Delpech, who claimed to note a resemblance between The Stranger and “certain works by Faulkner and Steinbeck”: “I would give a hundred Hemingways for one Stendhal or one Benjamin Constant. And I regret the influence of this literature on many young writers.” (from Lyrical and Critical Essays, trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy).
Camus was more taken with Melville and Faulkner, whose discursive styles and twilight tones feel palpably present in The Plague, Camus’ longest novel. In his essay on Melville and Moby-Dick, (which, editor Philip Thody notes, Camus probably read in the French translation by Lucien Jacques, Joan Smith, and Jean Giono, published by Gallimard in 1941), Camus has this to say:
“. . . Melville never wrote anything but the same book, which he began again and again. This single book is the story of a voyage, inspired first of all solely by the joyful curiosity of youth (Typee, Omoo, etc.) then later inhabited by an increasingly wild and burning anguish. Mardi is the first magnificent story in which Melville begins the quest that nothing can appease, and in which, finally, “pursuers and pursued fly across a boundless ocean.” It is in this work that Melville becomes aware of the fascinating call that forever echoes in him: “I have undertaken a journey without maps.” And again: “I am the restless hunter, the one who has no home.” Moby-Dick simply carries the great themes of Mardi to perfection. But since artistic perfection is also inadequate to quench the kind of thirst with which we are confronted here, Melville will start once again, in Pierre: or the Ambiguities, that unsuccessful masterpiece, to depict the quest of genius and misfortune whose sneering failure he will consecrate in the course of a long journey on the Mississippi that forms the theme of The Confidence Man. (Camus, “Herman Melville,” Lyrical and Critical Essays, 291)
And in his 1957 “Foreword to Requiem for a Nun,” Camus offers these thoughts on translation:
“The Goal of this foreword is not to present Faulkner to the French public. Malraux undertook that task brilliantly twenty years ago, and thanks to him, Faulkner gained a reputation with us that his own country has not yet accorded him. Nor is it a question of praising Maurice Coindreau’s translation. French readers know that contemporary American literature has no better nor more effective ambassador among us. One need only imagine Faulkner betrayed as Dostoevski was by his first adapter to measure the role Monsieur Coindreau has played. A writer knows what he owes to his translators, when they are of this quality.” Lyrical and Critical Essays, 311).
Glover himself subtly raises the specter of betrayal with this question about Laredo’s translation of L’Etranger: “Why is the climatic murder scene so gorgeously oneiric with its crescendo of heat and glare as Meursault approaches the spring (la source in French—my goodness, what gets lost in translation)?” A firm nod to the translation blues—familiar imputations of linguistic neglect, betrayal, loss, or debt—in response to a novel deeply concerned with those problems on a social scale.
Some insights from scholar and translator Karen Emmerich may help to gather these seemingly disparate threads:
“A work, once it enters the world, is subject to the textual condition, one of variance, difference, proliferation, and iterative growth, including growth in new linguistic contexts. Negotiating the tension between work and text, in and between languages . . . thus involves the underlying question of the relationship of the one to the many: how different can two texts be before we cease to see them as iterations of the same work? How much of Moby Dick can we sacrifice to the abridger’s scalpel, saw, or scimitar? Is Moby-Dick still Moby-Dick in Urdu?” (Literary Translation and the Making of Originals (Literatures, Cultures, Translation).
Glover’s essays, especially the aforementioned forays into style and structure, may certainly be read as “iterative growths”—translated iterations, iterated translations, of the source texts. Not interlingual translations, of course; the task Glover has undertaken here, is to elucidate, to reveal, to illuminate, and his readings, fired by fascination, render good service to these works, perhaps nowhere better than in his essay on Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, “Consciousness and Masturbation,” which translates this novel, (whose first English-language translation came from the French and German translations from the original Polish text) into meaning, showing the deep concerns of a work that can seem, upon a first reading, trivial, superficial, or inconclusive, (admittedly, my own experience), revealing the novel’s concern with the dominance of form in human existence, how the inherent limitations of form and structure are overbearing, even monstrous—certainly human structures often approach this reality.
This is one of the major, underlying concerns in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Immortal,” another work about obsessions with textual variants and iterations. The endlessly symmetrical dungeon and its counterpart, the vast, cataclysmic City of the Immortals, (a mashup of every known architectural form, a sort of demiurgic Winchester Mystery House) through which the narrator wanders for years, are both nearly inescapable perfections of the hideous replication of forms—only through limitless time and chance does one trapped within stumble on a way out. One needs cosmic access to elude form which, as ineluctably as gravity, perpetually defeats us.
Glover also shows how Cosmos, for example, exemplifies the need for translation: “Gombrowicz hates form but loves form; he can’t escape form because that would look mad (schizophrenic), and, besides, he also loves to play with form” (194). So do translators. Gombrowicz’s worrying of form affirms the need for translation, for form to be pitted against form, meaning that translation is neither intrusion, incursion, theft, betrayal, sales ploy, or simply shabby simulacrum; it is an organic response, a psychological need; a reader’s encounter with an incomprehensible text, not a Finnegans Wake but a coherent text, in a language unknown to the reader which stimulates a need to make sense of it, to impose some comprehensible order on it, and that begets itself, iteratively. Thus that desire, the desire to imitate, to replicate is a kind of necessary madness; the urge to translate is a temporary escape, refuge within a simulacra of which the translator momentarily, and only momentarily, senses ownership before the bramble traps them by growing, cascading, whirling into a prison beyond control and overwhelms again. This may or may not be liberation; Glover points out that Gombrowicz does not so much redefine the novel as seek escape from it. Yet it is by means of patterning and pattern recognition that Gombrowicz performs his apophenic legerdemain.
In the essay’s final statement, Glover claims that “In this sense, all beautiful texts, insofar as they practice this kind of elaborated structure of repetition, are uncanny, horrifying; rhyme is mechanical and inhuman, structure destroys reason.” And yet rhythm, as astrophysicists, musicians, physicians, and children alike all know, is organic—it impels us to build sensible empowering structures of sound: drumbeat, dance, melody, nonsense, to and from which we then seek, endlessly, return and flight and return again.
Much of the satisfaction found in Glover’s essays lies within the reader’s encounter with his meticulous, patient demonstration of the results of thoughtful, intelligent writing—not apophenia but his eye for deliberate detail and, especially, a superior ability to explicate its importance.
To wit, the chapter “The Arsonist’s Revenge” provides an alluring structural study of linguistic patterning in David Helwig’s novella The Stand-In, while the “The Literature of Extinction” presents three brief, dizzying sections (“Nostalgia (the Death of God)”; “Cynicism (Lifting the Veil)”; and “The Return of the Repressed, or the Aesthetics of Extinction”) that touch on Cervantes, Kundera, Rabelais, Nietzsche, Saussure, Plato, Kenny Goldsmith, zombies, Heidegger, Surrealism, Duchamp, Oulipo, and Ccru writing.
Among the many approaches and techniques identified in “Building Sentences,” Glover also shows an interest in writing lists, and mentions notable list stories: Steven Millhauser’s “The Barnum Museum” and Leonard Michael’s “In the Fifties.” In terms of lists, this dazzling, kaleidoscopic collection sadly lacks—and fully deserves—a proper index in order to help readers explore its wealth of knowledge. In lieu of one, and in addition to the many authors, stories, and subjects already mentioned, here is a partial list of other subjects mentioned or discussed in The Erotics of Restraint:
- Christa Wolf’s novel The Quest for Christa T, and her essay “The Conditions of Narrative”
- Constance Garnett, translator
- Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot
- E.M. Cioran
- Edmund Husserl
- Edward Topsall’s Historie of Serpents
- Forrest Gump
- French noir: Francis Carco, Georges Simenon
- Gertrude Stein
- Glover’s own short stories “Fire Drill”; “The Obituary Writer”; “Pender’s Visions”; “Heartsick”; “Tristiana”; “Bad News of the Heart”
- Hans-Georg Gadamer
- James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice
- Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet
- Leon Surmelian’s Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness
- Mark Anthony Jarman’s “Burned Man on a Texas Porch”
- Nabokov’s Pale Fire
- Pico della Mirandola
- Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
- Sartre’s essay for The Atlantic Monthly – “American Novelists in French Eyes.”
- Spanish novelist Germán Sierra
- Ted Kooser: “Small Rooms in Time”
- The New Yorker
- Theodor Adorno
- The St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V
- Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser
- Thomas Wyatt: “They Flee from Me”
In sum, The Erotics of Restraint is a superlative collection—smart, judicious, clear, interesting, sharp, expertly crafted, infectious as the metonymic impulse—an education in and of itself, a brilliant primer on how to understand, and possibly emulate, modern and postmodern literature.