Friday, May 4, 2018

Karen Elizabeth Gordon, “The Ravenous Muse: A Table of Dark and Comic Contents, a Bacchanal of Books”

 – Pantheon, 1998. Illustrator, Dugald Stermer, Designer, Fearn Cutler. ISBN 067941861X; 248 p.

Read from April 9th to May 2nd 2018

My rating : 

You know that old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, I have always considered it to be true, especially in its literal sense, therefore the cover of a book has never been a criterion in my reading choice – until now. I mean, until I was given, as a birthday present, some three months ago, Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s Ravenous Muse, and I so fell in love with Dugald Stermer’s drawing on it that it gave me the impulse to read it as soon as possible, despite the huge pile of books reproachingly hovering over me.

And I have not, for a single day of all 23 spent on reading it, regretted this impulse, not only because I so enjoyed looking at its amazing cover every time I closed it, but also because the cover really delivers, keeping its promise to feed the reader to his entire satisfaction, promise reinforced by the introduction:

Since you are here, you too must be a bibliogourmand, taking sensual as well as cerebral pleasure in the act of reading. And that’s what’s on the table here: creation caught in the act, writer and muse in flagrante delicto, biting each other’s mouths.

If the cover is not misleading, nor is the title, whose very fortunate jeu-de-mots is an appropriate forewarning of the essay, sending the mind tous azimuts, from Homer to Nabokov and from Poe to Borges, zigzagging ravenously, so to speak, literature timeline. All along its wandering way the book gives the trophic levels a new meaning, sketching a food chain with no beginning nor end, since ravens – and rats and crows and other hungry book-eaters – are eaten in turn by carnivore trees in the process of becoming books, thus transforming one particular story from Joan Perucho’s Natural History into a general one, that is, into common knowledge:

Considering that trees turn into books, imagine the ones created of fibers from this carnivore! And did that carnivore eat crows? Our ravenous muse’s mother is getting out her handkerchief to say nothing of his fiancée. Is there a moral along this treacherous path? He who eats books will also be eaten by them. Oh, lovely, libidinal fate! Oh, literated state of grace!

Made of quotes about food from many writers’ creations (including her own) cleverly grouped in chapters, Karen Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s oeuvre is as elegant and elusive as its title (and the cover, do not forget the cover!) promises, seasoning it here and there with some witted comment, or some spicy, ludic information, or some clever answer to an otherwise rhetorical question. For example, after letting us know that Chekhov died in Germany while drinking champagne, and after quoting Henry Troyat’s biography which stated that Chekhov’s body had been transported back to Russia in a dirty wagon with “oysters” written on it, the author gives new meaning to this historical truth in a brilliant footnote:

My friend the Palestinian author Soraya Antonius suggests it must have been a chilled car, and they were taking care of the body, not humiliating the man. I would also add that oysters are ever the perfect accompaniment to champagne, and Chekhov’s final meal was now complete.

Equally entertaining in its metaphorical gratuity is the information, also put in a footnote, that just before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed, a foreboding cookbook containing recipes that used only one ingredient – breadcrumbs – had been published. Or the bits of inside stories that form the final chapter, Biographies of Authors Quoted and Anecdoted: how the 23-year-old Nabokov did the best translation of Alice in Wonderland into any language, with the help of some Russian toys; how Gregory Rabassa, himself the best translator of Cortazar, Marquez and Lezama Lina, ensured that the only pear his pear tree on Long Island produced for the first time not be eaten by squirrels by smearing the tree with Vaseline; and how the author herself read for the first time Donatien Alphonse Francois, marquis de Sade’s Justine at sixteen, because of a serendipitous misunderstanding: complaining she had lost her Justine (Durrell’s), a friend generously lent her his own (Sade’s). There are times, of course, when the information is mandatory, like this one:

Honore de Balzac deserves special honor in this book for having written all his human comedy with a crow’s quill, or the quills of many crows.

As for the intertextual dialogues, there are many enthralling one, but this one I loved most:

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

So the muse will come and mate with it, of course.

Textuality, metatextuality and intertextuality are the secret ingredients brewed carefully to prepare a truly effective elixir of immortality for each one of us, thus explaining, in one pantagruelic feast, the apparent oxymoronic association between the raven and the muse:

Ravens and crows have traditionally been associated with the dead, and not only in Poe’s “The Raven”, so the crow who landed on our cover came from far away and for an endless stay. Trees have died to make this book: can’t you feel their leaves quaking as the pages turn? Death after all is a ravenous muse indeed, the surest to have its plate of muscles and bones. But also its books, art, and music, which death takes from us as we live, that we will outlive ourselves.  

Enjoy it as you would enjoy a reinvigorating meal, but one final advice: this unusual book is to be relished in small portions – ten or fifteen minutes a day – to keep its whole flavor, every page being an exquisite dish to savor without haste.

I hear that Karen Elizabeth Gordon has also written two grammar books, with equally inciting titles, The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire, which I will read for sure. However, it will be a while - for now, I feel as replete as the raven on the back cover, thank you so much, dear wonderful author… and illustrator, and designer:

(Oh, that cover – I bet I will dream of it for a while!)

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