Sentences — January 14, 2009, 12:47 pm

Perfectly Different


“With the reader’s permission I beg, at this point of my narrative, to indulge in one or two extrinsic observations.” I find that request irresistible–not because I’ve come to know through repeated readings what E.E. Cummings is about to offer in exchange for my time, but because I like the strategy of asking. It’s a rhetorical tactic of apparent guilelessness that is actually all guile. Cummings is no more asking our permission than he was waiting to receive it; rather, the tone of chummy subservience is, functionally, its opposite: a tone of potentially grating Olympian assurance lubricated by a pose of politeness.

The book from which this false indulgence falls is Cummings’s The Enormous Room, about which I’m posting this week. Appearing in 1922 (as the notice in the 11 February 1922 issue of The Publisher’s Weekly confirms), the book isn’t read enough, however prized it is by some of our better younger writers. Consider one of the allegedly “extrinsic observations” that unfolds in Cummings’s narrative, a portrait of a person with whom the author was held in confinement in France, and to whom Cummings refers as the little Machine-Fixer:

The little Machine-Fixer (le petit bonhomme avec le bras cassé as he
styled himself, referring to his little paralysed left arm) was so
perfectly different that I must let you see him next. He was slightly
taller than Garibaldi, about of a size with Monsieur Auguste. He and
Monsieur Auguste together were a fine sight, a sight which made me feel
that I came of a race of giants. I am afraid it was more or less as
giants that B. and I pitied the Machine-Fixer–still this was not really
our fault, since the Machine-Fixer came to us with his troubles much as a
very minute and helpless child comes to a very large and omnipotent one.
And God knows we did not only pity him, we liked him–and if we could in
some often ridiculous manner assist the Machine-Fixer I think we nearly
always did. The assistance to which I refer was wholly spiritual; since
the minute Machine-Fixer’s colossal self-pride eliminated any possibility
of material assistance. What we did, about every other night, was to
entertain him (as we entertained our other friends) chez nous; that is
to say, he would come up late every evening or every other evening, after
his day’s toil–for he worked as co-sweeper with Garibaldi and he was a
tremendous worker; never have I seen a man who took his work so seriously
and made so much of it–to sit, with great care and very respectfully,
upon one or the other of our beds at the upper end of The Enormous Room,
and smoke a black small pipe, talking excitedly and strenuously and
fiercely about La Misère and himself and ourselves, often crying a
little but very bitterly, and from time to time striking matches with a
short angry gesture on the sole of his big, almost square boot. His
little, abrupt, conscientious, relentless, difficult self lived always in
a single dimension–the somewhat beautiful dimension of Sorrow. He was a
Belgian, and one of two Belgians in whom I have ever felt the least or
slightest interest; for the Machine-Fixer might have been a Polak or an
Idol or an Esquimo so far as his nationality affected his soul. By and
large, that was the trouble–the Machine-Fixer had a soul.

Cummings produces portrait after portrait of his fellow confinees in the titular enormous room where all of them are, at length, detained. Elaboration builds on elaboration. It’s not unlike, in structure, how Saul Bellow would build a description of a person piece upon piece, although Bellow was more specific in his vision than Cummings could or would be. Cummings’s shadings skitter from random externals (a boot, a pipe) back to statements less about the little Machine-Fixer than about Cummings himself–the portraiture is most often self-portraiture, as befits a book that is, ultimately, about presumption. I always finish The Enormous Room thinking I would have liked to detain Cummings, too.

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