visuality, aurality

Reading Nancy Huston rather obsessively at the moment, I'm struck by the degree to which her work is aural-- her writing is incredibly poetic in its adoration of and sensitivity to the rhythm, resonance, consonance, and assonance of the French language. Reading it aloud from time to time is almost better than reading it silently! Her predilection for wordplay amazes me-- not only because she is so adroit at it, but because she is adroit in her adopted language. (Huston was born in Alberta, Canada but moved to France at the age of twenty, and writes her novels in French). And while it is impressive, it's clear that it is only possible for Huston to write that way precisely because she's writing in an adopted tongue. For example, the interior monologue of an American in France, a character in Les Variations Goldberg:

"Find out what you have in common, homonym, comment, commère, comme mère, mare, cauchemar, mare au diable, diabolo menthe, mentir, m'en tirer, m'étirer, métier, quoi qu'ils fassent ils ont toujours raison de le faire, les ouvriers, les artisans, les businessmen, les chefs d'Etat, les intellos, moi je dirai jamais ça, je saboterai d'abord. Te rappelles-tu Lili comme on disait que les convaincus étaient toujours des vaincus quelque part? qu'ils avaient dominé et étranglé tous les doutes? C'étaient des cons, vaincus: beaucoup plus vaincus que les suicidés. N'est-ce pas?" (p. 98-99)

I found myself wondering how she would translate this section into English. I'd like to see how it was rendered, actually.

I love the musicality of language, and music itself, and rely heavily on all that is aural to inspire and contextualize my own writing. But (like my mother), I am mainly visually oriented. If you read something to me from the newspaper, I need to see the story and read it for myself before I'll truly understand the meaning. I prefer print news to radio or television. To understand something, I need to see it.

Art and literature are easier for me to intellectualize, whereas music is utterly intuitive. I don't know how I play the piano, but if I thought about my fingers they would falter. I don't care much to know how the vocal process works when I sing, and I'm not sure why there's always music in my head no matter what I'm doing at the forefront of my brain. C'est comme ça. (For example: what's on the radio in my head right now is a Chopin waltz I haven't heard or played recently, it's just stored somewhere in my brain). For the same reason, I don't like to write criticism about poetry-- I don't know what it is that's so affective about it but I feel that to analyze it would be, for me, to deflate it.

But! And this was meant to be the point of this post. To a certain extent, I can let go of the impulse to intellectualize the visual, and let it inspire a whole range of creativity and , yes, sentimentality. When I write, I'm certainly working off a visual composition in my mind, although sadly, I have no means for rendering that composition other than words. My father, an architect, is exceptionally talented as a draftsman, and does beautiful sketches and watercolors when he's on vacation, but this particular talent did not get embedded in my DNA.

Which is why I have to take my hat off again to Carol at Paris Breakfasts for her gorgeous series on Venice. I didn't get to see these posts before I left but they may in fact be more resonant now that I'm back. Between her watercolors, and Gill's photographs, I'm kept regularly inspired: they help nourish and refine the visual apparatus in my mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But to successfully make that translation, you need a superior picture. Here are a few I took in Venice with these two women in mind-- to point up the beauty in the quotidien details.

At the Rialto vegetable market

Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo: this one was actually deliberately composed in homage to Paris Breakfasts! Spritz, orange Claire Fontaine, tortoiseshell glasses, Lancel purse, brick church, sunset and conveninently located woman in red.

I wanted to buy my father paints from here but didn't know how, or if he could even use them.


Anonymous said...


As an Albertan, I have to admit that I had never heard of Nancy Huston. Thank you for pointing her out.

maitresse said...

really! she's from Calgary. And I am thrilled to be able to introduce you to her. Check out L'empreinte de l'ange, I think that's my favorite so far, and she has a new novel out for la rentrée called Lignes de faille. And a thoughtful reader (am, are you out there?) directed me toward the letters she exchanged with Leila Sebbar, called Lettres parisiennes, which are fascinating.

maitresse said...

Sebbah, nor Sebbar (clumsy fingers, for a pianist)

ParisBreakfasts said...

OH Big Merci Lauren :)
I LOVE your Venice Breakfast shot-it's so THERE! And I know that Venice pigment store..I went searching for another one I had a photo of, that had disappeared and happily found this one. Deja vu all over again. Lovely post.

lafashionista said...

This line made me want to respond: "I love the musicality of language, and music itself, and rely heavily on all that is aural to inspire and contextualize my own writing."* I aspire to that with my own writing as well. Strangely enough, the genre of writing that best lends itself to musicality--poetry--is not a genre that I enjoy very much. I have two favorite poets, but that's about it. I enjoy writing fiction, and my goal has always been to write flowing, rhythmic prose (that is neither pretentious nor forced). Trying to find that balance has been both fun and difficult.

*Which I think you did well with your post she and he.

maitresse said...

Thank you, S.
I know what you mean. I don't write poetry either, and I'm not conscious of trying to make my work poetic, but the music sets me on the right cosmic plane, so to speak, when I'm writing!

Out of curiosity, which are the two poets whose work you like?

I may do a blog post soon on poetry, come to think of it...

Carol, maybe I'll start a blog called "Venice apéritif!"

Anonymous said...

A fellow Calgarian to boot. I will definitely check her out! Thx!

lafashionista said...

My two favorite poets are Octavio Paz and Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez especially because many of her poems have a jazz-y/blues-y feel.

My favorite Paz poem is a winding epic poem called "Piedra del sol" ("Sunstone") and my favorite Sanchez poem, which I've committed to memory is:

I gather up
each sound
you left behind
and stretch them
on our bed.
each nite
I breathe you
and become high.

(Because the formatting is funky, the poem won't post the way that it's written. The line "each nite" is normally indented so that the "e" in "each" falls just below the period from the preceding line. Oh well.)

Chris said...

The shot from the market reminded me of the attractive Venice market photography in one of Marcella Hazan's recent cookbooks. If you at all enjoyed the food in Venice, you might want to look for them- the more recent two seem to emphasize the Veneto, where Hazan currently lives.

Clementine Gallot said...

yeah, we all have are nancy huston moments.
it's funny how you're reading about an american in pari and I'm reading about french in NY..