Sentences — May 26, 2008, 10:17 am

Wanted to Swap

olt

“Feeling that a style is natural and inevitable,” wrote Guy Davenport in his The Geography of the Imagination, “is like being among people with whom we share tradition and prejudices.” The sentence is allegedly about what literary style is like, but ends up, in the Davenportean way, being equally a thumbnail of how human societies make themselves at home, through unthinking inheritances of behavior and thought. “Style can therefore be invisible,” Davenport continues, “blending with our ignorance.” That is to say: if as readers we find ourselves at home in a style, we are less likely to find ourselves able to question the choices the writer has made. Such choices are coherent to us readers, in the way a dialect would be comprehensible to a particular group of natives.

One of the writers to whose style Davenport alludes approvingly in the above is Kenneth Gangemi. My early edition of Davenport’s book (bought for a buck on ABE—it’s another I regularly give away) misspells it “Gargemi,” and although current editions remedy this error, that seems to be the only correction to Gangemi’s reputation that the intervening years produced: his work is mostly out of print and Wikipedia suggests he doesn’t exist.

Gangemi’s best book is a little novel called Olt (1969). Not fifty pages long, comprising three brief independent narratives, the novel exemplifies a definition of style that Marcel Proust gave in a 1913 interview:

Style has nothing to do with embellishment, as some people think; it’s not even a matter of technique. Like the color sense in some painters, it’s a quality of vision, the revelation of the particular universe that each of us sees and that no one else sees. The pleasure an artist offers us is to convey another universe to us. (Trans. Roger Shattuck)

Olt offers very little plot, very little character, and certainly no character development. In its place, we are inside the head of the eponymous Robert Olt, looking at things with him as he walks and sits. His quality of vision defies tedium; a visit to a zoo is a visit to another universe of careful seeing:

During the winter he had watched the macaques turned out to play in the snow. He had watched the keepers take buckets of neat’s-foot oil and long-handled brushes and oil the elephants. They had told him that one of the performing elephants, in order to avoid punishment for mistakes, secretly practiced her act at night.

Olt had seen a bighorn ram mount a small female, forcing her to her knees. He had walked through the Australian collection and seen the kangaroo, boobook, bandicoot, cockatoo, kookaburra, numbat, nardoo, wallaby, wallaroo, and jackeroo. He had gazed with admiration at the furry, black-and-orange scrotum of the Bengal tiger and had wanted to swap.

Imagistic and spare, Gangemi’s stylistic choices are so restrained as to be almost invisible. Descriptions bubble with emotion nonetheless, owing, I think, to small touches that take plain writing and color it gently: the elephant who avoids punishment through secret work practices “her” act, not “its”–a humanizing gesture. The female ram, described only as “small,” is forced to her knees, but that smallness adds perceptibly to the violence of the act. That black-and-orange scrotum, though, is the most particular Gangemi touch. The seeing of it; the rapid transit of it in Olt’s brain—his wanting to swap his with the tiger’s. I suspect that detail—the sight of it and the thought about it—gains or loses a reader.

Some will feel something unwholesome about that kind of intimate regard, whereas others will find something, as Davenport wrote, “natural and inevitable” about that style—of seeing, of thinking, of writing. The whole of Olt, which if it’s about anything is about the free-ranging nature of the human mind when unobserved and unjudged, is as particular.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2016

Unhackable

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Imperium

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fighting Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Front Runner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Elisabeth Zerofsky on Marine Le Pen, Paul Wachter on the quest for an unhackable email, Rebecca Solnit on cynical people, Andrew J. Bacevich on truth and fiction in the age of war, Samuel James photographs E.P.L. soccer, a story by Vince Passaro, and more

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Front Runner·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Memoir
I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A paean 2 Prince
"And one thinks, Looking into Prince's eyes must be like looking at the world."
Photo ©© PeterTea
Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it."
Article
Plexiglass·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Photograph (detail) by Karine Laval

Age at death last March of the sturgeon Nikita, Khrushchev’s gift to Norway, after an accidental immersion in salt water:

38

There were new reports of cannibalism in North Korea.

The Finnish postal service announced it will begin mowing lawns on Tuesdays.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today