Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ciaran Carson's For All We Know: A love story memorised as a ticking fugue

It’s because we were brought up to lead double lives, I said. Yes, you said, because of the language thing it was one thing

with my father, another with my mother. Father tongue and mother tongue, all the more so when they separated irrevocably (66).

The bilingual Irish-English, Ciaran Carson is obsessed with music. The author of a classic work on Irish music, composed this verse novel in a sonnet-fugue of two parts –symbolising the separation of the couple, Gabriel and Nina – with repeating the titles of the individual poems in a chronological order in each part. Readers feel as if they could hear the “boisterous music” in a Bierkeller in Germany or the ticking of the Omega watches which Nina collects.

Not only is Carson obsessed with music, but also with languages. He uses English, French and German to express thoughts and feelings in For all we know. “Not that my German is anything to speak of”, admits Gabriel in the second The Shadow, hence, I was not surprised to read “Spiesewagen” in the first double sonnet To (45). A little irritated at first, I was tempted to ponder whether this is more than a typo or spelling mistake, but I just could not make sense of it, if it was.

What is striking, apart from Carson’s obsession with music and languages, is the recurrence of themes such as the ticking of time. Recurrent themes are typical of a fugue and we seem to hear the Omega watches ticking as in the following passage.

I think men and women run different times, you’d say.

I’m wondering if I wore a man’s watch would I speed up, perhaps we might become synchronized. But you drive too fast,

I’d say, and you often look at your watch as you do so, as if you could never get fast enough wherever

you’re going.

This obsession of time reminds me of Quentin Compson’s obsession with time and his inherited, cracked watch in The Sound and the Fury. The Shadows that occur as another topos are also reminiscent of that successful, modernist novel. Whether this is a coincidence or purpose is questionable. Both novels also share motives and symbols such as shadows, perfumes, and the questions whether langauge and narrative can truely represent reality. What the verse and prose novel also have in common is that there were both written in an uncertain period of time shortly before a financial crisis.

It is a very good idea to start the seminar with that verse novel as it includes feelings and sociological observations of the everyday life, all of us can comprehend and empathise with.

The quilt is a repeated motif which often covers and protects the lovers’ bodies and consists of many parts, like a human self consists of memories. Towards the end of the verse novel, the oyster, known as a aphrodisiac, is introduced and leads to the only explicitly sexual-connoted scene I found in this remembered love story (apart from the eating of an apple in turns, maybe).

The last sonnet Zugzwang then repeats the “babble of language”, “the bells”, the fugue’s “melodic fragments” and “different times” and Gabriel assures that his memories of the lost lover will “recede into the future”. Critics often criticised the bland ending of the verse novel, but I find it the icing of the cake of this fairy-tale like, memorised love story.

Those of you who have not read it yet, enjoy!

PS: The page number refers to The Gallery Press's edition.

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