What a puzzling book! Or rather — what a puzzle of a book. How to review it? I think a good way to start is by contrasting it to books that failed me where it succeeded. About a year ago I reviewed Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. My feelings toward that book have declined sharply, in part because it has come to represent — surely unfairly — something I despise. To me, it was obfuscated solely for the sake of appearing more substantial than it was, mistaking opaque for profound. That is about as bad in my book as being clever just to be clever. I like inovative and unconventional and even obfuscated style, but it should serve and not detract from the substance of the book. When I started Inger Christensen’s Azorno (1967; tr. by Denise Newman 2009), I was a bit wary because there are enough blatant contradictions and perspective shifts early in the text to suggest Christensen is just poking fun at the reader because, as the author, she can. (However, there were never parts with strange abstractions like in Gordimer, and I remember that being the worst part of that book.) Well, my worries quickly went away when Azorno, though not being clear in itself, clearly settled on some fascinating themes — and the obfuscation enhanced those themes (yes!).
The first line is very interesting. It also introduces the loose boundaries of the text and the uncertain nature of the facts presented.
I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight.
I admit, I didn’t wait to read pages one through seven before skipping to page eight to see who was talking. Strangely, there is no encounter of this sort on page eight, so either that first page is not talking about this book or it is lying. Disoriented, I read on to discover what it was talking about. A writer named Sampel is working on a book. Azorno is the main character. The woman who wrote this introductory sentence thinks she is the inspiration for the lovely woman Azorno meets on page eight of Sampel’s book. In the next section, another narrator takes over, though at the time the transition is not apparent. It soon becomes obvious that we are dealing with multiple narrators who are writing letters to one another. But then come the contradictions:
But if the truth is finally to come out, there’s one thing that can’t have two meanings: Yesterday I was with Azorno here in Rome. It was the first Sunday in May, and the noon hour was unbelievably hot.
It was the first Sunday in May and the air was unusually cool. I had just said good-bye to Azorno and wasn’t sure which direction to walk now that I was alone after three uninterrupted days with Azorno, who always decides which direction to take . . . .
Slowly, despite the uncertainty of who the women are and where they stand in relationship with each other and with Sampel and Azorno, the women take shape in the minds of the reader. Then Christensen blurs the image, and we’re just not sure (and I never was again sure) who was real and who was imagined, who was writing what I was reading and who was the potential pseudonym. Was one of the women writing this book under an assumed name? Was Sampel himself writing it? Is it Sampel’s wife? Is it Adorno?
This might sound frustrating, and I suppose it could be if approached with the wrong expectations. However, as I alluded above, the technique is not without its purpose. Furthermore, the story itself is very compelling. See, there are five women in all. The one who is silent for the first part of the book takes a greater role in the second half. This is Bet Sampel, Sampel’s wife. Here is a heartbreaking thing she says when she finally gets her voice and is not merely the subject of the other women’s letters.
As early as page eight I noticed a very incisive and loving account of the woman Azorno, the main character, meets.
At first I was flattered to think that Sampel had used me as a model for this compelling description, but gradually, as I read on, it became clear that he was describing someone else.
Trying to figure out just who is the inspiration for that fabulous description, Bet narrows it down to four candidates and, using a telegram from Sampel, invites them all to their house while Sampel is away. Sampel has been away for months, and during this time Bet has found out she is pregnant with his child. All four women show up, and all of the other four are also pregnant. Christensen doesn’t let this go to melodrama, though, and the scene where the women sit awkwardly around while Bet analyzes them is fantastic. It also ends bizarrely, alluding to the possibility that someone is insane, perhaps institutionalized. And maybe someone has been murdered. Maybe not. Figuring out the truth is not the point.
There is nothing to be solved, but something to bind. Bind one to the other. Bind yourself to a random person whose random circumstances cause you to no longer recognize yourself simply as a human being, but rather as a human-made being.