Anne Carson is a Professor of Classics as well as an innovative and well-regarded poet: Autobiography of Red
draws on both in a highly original "novel in verse". But this is by no means a straightforward narrative poem--rather it is a formally inventive and diverse investigation into the nature of story, its inheritance from the past and its transformations of inherited materials. The foreword gives a brief account of the work of the Greek poet Stesichorus, of whose twenty-six books only a few fragments have survived. Stesichorus was a poetic innovator--he disrupted the stable descriptive traditions of oral Homeric poetry and, perhaps equally importantly, reinterpreted epic themes through the medium of lyric verse. It is this which gives the clue to Anne Carson's own reinventions, for concepts of the fragment, innovative language and formal revisioning are key elements of this long and ambitious book.
Among the Stesichorus fragments are parts of a poem known as the "Geryoneis" which deals with the slaying of the winged red monster Geryon by Herakles (Hercules). What is interesting is the fact that many of these fragments deal with the monster's own experiences: instead of the epic struggle, the fable of "culture versus mostrosity", we see Geryon, for example, as a child playing with his dog. Carson extends this frozen moment of youth: as well as translating passages from Stesichorus, she expands, reworks and invents a whole childhood for Geryon, relocating him into a more contemporaneous milieu with him and Herakles as young, strangely antagonistic lovers. The idea of the fragment is taken up in the pastime of the child-monster Geryon--photography, the art of snatching fragments from the real, the lived, the experienced-- and in the language given to Geryon, for Carson fuses the beast with the classical poet so that the fresh descriptive energies of the latter are grafted onto the naive eye of the creature outside of culture.
What Carson achieves is admirable: the book is an exploration of youth and a philosophical project while at the same time formally varied and challenging. In exploring ways of inheriting and responding to a literary past, it also invites us to be more generous with our freedoms and to be creatively ambitious--we should see naively and make the world anew, like Stesichorus, and like Carson's Geryon. --Burhan Tufail
"Like all of Anne Carson's writing, this book is amazing - I haven't discovered any writing in years that's so marvellously disturbing. I just feel so happy that she's around" (Alice Munro)
"Her work is full of moments of startling originality and beauty. The poems play with character and plot, myth and magic; they are rich with attitude and wit and the undertow of grief. If she was a prose writer she would instantly be recognised as a genius" (Colm Tóibín Times Literary Supplement
"Anne Carson has created, from fragments of the Greek poet Stesichoros, a profound love story...forty-seven compulsively readable long-lined poems of intense cinematic detail. Carson writes in language any poet would kill for: sensuous and funny, poignant, musical and tender, brilliantly lighted" (Ruth Padel New York Times Book Review
"Anne Carson is a daring, learned, unsettling writer. Autobiography of Red
, which perhaps comes closest to representing the range of her voice and gifts, is a spellbinding achievement" (Susan Sontag)