Sentences — January 16, 2009, 3:42 pm

The Gates of Forgetfulness

eecummingsselfportrait

“Just what I tasted, did, smelled, saw, and heard, not to mention touched, between ten thirty and the completion of the evening meal,” writes E.E. Cummings in The Enormous Room, “I am quite at a loss to say.” Cummings, exhausted by his journey–if not to the end of the earth then to the bottom of one very unusual barrel–is of course not entirely at a loss. “Whether it was that glass of pinard (plus, or rather times, the astonishing exhaustion bequeathed me by my journey of the day before) which caused me to enter temporarily the gates of forgetfulness, or whether the sheer excitement attendant upon my ultra-novel surroundings proved too much for an indispensable part of my so-called mind–I do not in the least know.”

What we know is that Cummings’s four months spent in the French prison of La Ferté make for one of the most memorable purgatorios in 20th century letters. Cummings’s high style is profitably set against the low theater of his surroundings–a productive tension. Cummings’s attitude, the high-table posture of his prose, could come across as stiff, like some humorless forebear of “Girl With Curious Hair”. Instead, a tireless parade of looking yields this great crowd-scene-of-a-book.

A text impossible to vet for factuality, The Enormous Room manages to moot the question of whether what is described ‘actually happened’. I will not go so far as to say that an artful lie licenses deceit, but I couldn’t care less, in this instance, what the facts are, given the larger truth that is the art of this artful book. Recent instances of memoirs that have proven to be chock-a-block with deceit mislead us as to their real failings: their lack of honesty was the least of their shortcomings.

Whereas, for this weekend’s read (and, incidentally, my 100th post), I propose Cummings. Download a copy of The Enormous Room to your computer or your e-reader, here. If you do, you’ll come upon, among other things, this:

He cannot understand the submarine. He does now know that there is a war. On being informed upon these subjects he is unutterably surprised, he is inexpressibly astonished. He derives huge pleasure from this astonishment. His filthy rather proudly noble face radiates the pleasure he receives upon being informed that people are killing people for nobody knows what reason, that boats go under water and fire six-foot long bullets at ships, that America is not really outside this window close to which we are talking, that America is, in fact, over the sea. The sea: is that water?–”c’est de l’eau, monsieur?” Ah: a great quantity of water; enormous amounts of water, water and then water; water and water and water and water and water. “Ah! You cannot see the other side of this water, monsieur? Wonderful, monsieur!”–He meditates it, smiling quietly; its wonder, how wonderful it is, no other side, and yet–the sea. In which fish swim. Wonderful.

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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.

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