A Paragraph about a Paragraph I Love (Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death)

[Update 30 April 11: If you like this passage, check out my interview with Yuriy Tarnawsky: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

Part 4, “Death,” Chapter 27: “Why Is Water So Beautiful?”

It may shine like cheeks down which tears flow. It may shine like tears. It may be dark like tears. It may be dark like cheeks down which tears flow. It may be pale like cheeks down which tears flow. It may be dark like a room in which tears flow. It may be pale like a room in which tears flow. It may flow like tears. It may flow to where tears flow. It may flow to where tears flow from. It may flow like the world when tears flow. It may carry away with it tears after they fall off the cheeks down which they’d flown. It may carry away cheeks so that there’ll be no more place for tears to flow on. It may carry away rooms so that there’ll be no space for tears to flow in. It may flow past tears. It may flow past cheeks. It may flow past rooms. It may flow past clocks. It may make the sound of a clock ticking. It may move like the hands of a clock. It may move past Roman and Arabic numerals. It may be added or subtracted like numbers. It’s invisible like numbers. It’s invisible like time. It’s like time in the sense that it can be detected only through the effect it has on the material world. It’s like an idea in the sense that it can be detected only through the effect it has on the material world. It can look like a page in a book. It can cover a page like fine print. It can carry away print. It can carry away feet. It can carry away faces. It can provide a roof over one’s head. It can kill like a sword. It’s shaped like a sword. It’s shaped like an atom bomb. It can kill like an atom bomb. It can soothe like soft hands. It can mend broken bones. It can mend broken minds. It can sway like a branch after a bird has flown off it. It can sound like a bird singing. It can make a bird sing. It can sound like a telephone ringing. It can look like a telephone in an empty room. It looks like grass. It covers the earth like grass. It’s green like grass. It’s transparent like an angel’s eye. It’s shaped like an angel’s eye. It’s blue like an angel’s eye. It’s blue like an angel’s wing. It’s transparent like an angel’s wing. It can flow out of an angel’s eye. It can flow out of an angel’s wing. Angels’ wings and eyes can flow out of it. It’s parallel to angels’ eyes and wings. It’s parallel to everything. It can be compared to anything.

Three Blondes and Death is divided into four sections (Alphabette, Bethlehem, Chemnitz, Death). The first three each have 41 chapters, and describe three women that the main character, Hwbrgdtse, becomes involved with. More than half of the chapters relate dreams that these characters have. The final section, Death, has 52 chapters, and tells us more about Hwbrgdtse, but also contains meditations like the above. Each chapter consists of one long paragraph, a single block of staccato declarative sentences: “Chemnitz was at a party. She had a backache. She got it the day before. She’d apparently gotten chilled. Chemnitz’s back hurt very badly. Chemnitz had considered not going to the party. She decided against it however. This was because she liked parties too much. […]” The novel’s 451 pages, all in all, read like an absurdist coroner’s report. It’s a good example of what I mean when I talk about “an experimental page-turner”—you read one chapter, and then you can’t stop reading it, despite it not looking like anything else you’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of artwork that knows what its doing from the very first sentence, then proceeds to dazzle you with its doing it—gloriously. I wish more books were this courageous. I wish I could write something this courageous. It’s one of my favorite novels ever, by turns hilarious, erotic, sad, occasionally terrifying, bizarre, and always extraordinarily beautiful.

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19 thoughts on “A Paragraph about a Paragraph I Love (Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death)

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Yuriy Tarnawsky, pt 1 « BIG OTHER

  2. Oh my … this is the sort of writing that I would find good if the writer had a more interesting sense of rhythm (there *is* a rhythm here but a rather annoying one), and a more interesting way of constructing sentences that will all be part of the same paragraph.

    So much of the repetition is facile when it needn’t be. And some of the content of the sentences seems closer to the nonsensical than the meaningful. Here’s a graph that uses repetition in what I find to be a much more interesting way (it’s also imported fiction):

    “Yes, but who will cure of us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes. How much better, then, to make a pact with cats and mosses, strike up friendship right away with hoarse-voiced concierges, with the pale and suffering creatures who wait in windows and toy with a dry branch. To burn like this without surcease, to bear the inner burning coming on like fruit’s quick ripening, to be the pulse of a bonfire in this thicket of endless stone, walking through the nights of our life, obedient as our blood in its blind circuit.”

    A very different sense of rhythm, a very different effect–both a good deal better I’d say–and, using many of the same elements, just a fantastic graph.

    And none of the above is ever “explained” or elaborated on; what you see here is all there is. And while there’s plenty that’s enigmatic–and SHOULD be enigmatic–I never get the the sense the author is flinging handfuls of mud at the lens of my camera to ensure I don’t get a clear picture.

    • Perhaps the paragraph works better in the context of the whole book. This is the only chapter (out of 175) that uses such extreme repetition, and it comes very deep into the book, after other chapters have been building to such an effect. I find it akin to a crescendo.

      I also don’t find anything in the rhythm annoying…?

      Cortázar is wonderful, but Hopscotch and Three Blondes are entirely different animals. What works in one wouldn’t work in the other; each part depends on the whole.

      Cheers,
      Adam

  3. In A HISTORY OF ENGLISH PROSE RHYTHM George Saintsbury points out that one of the differences–in his day, the main difference–between prose and poetry is that poetry holds a meter; prose must alter the meter. While I agree with George, other may not. But I think that’s why sentences should vary in length, in stress, in structure. This is why you don’t have three or four simple declarative sentences (for example) in a row. Throughout the graph Yuriy often makes a point of failing to vary his sentence structure, sentence length, and sentence structure. it grates on my ear.

    • But, leaving aside whether one agrees with Saintsbury (I don’t), Tarnawsky is alternating the meter. Take the first six sentences alone:

      Anapest, iamb, anapest, extra stress.
      Anapest, iamb.
      Iamb, iamb, iamb.
      Iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb.
      Iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb.
      Iamb, iamb, anapest, anapest, extra stress.

      The entire paragraph proceeds like that: the sentence length varies, as does the meter. So I don’t really understand your criticism—this fits easily within Saintsbury’s fairly narrow definition of prose.

      (Or, taking a different tack, who’s to say this isn’t poetry, and not prose? Free verse and prose poetry have existed for over 150 years now. But what I really see here is a poetry/prose hybrid, which is large part of why I like it—that’s something I’m usually on the lookout, and tend to write myself.)

      And having said all that—who cares if this fits some fellow’s 100-year-old definition of prose or poetry? It’s just silly to insist that prose eternally be written one way, poetry another. Language changes, language use changes. Authors are free to do whatever they want—they can be as conventional or unconventional as they desire.

      So why not write dozens of declarative sentences in a row? Rules of thumb are just rules of thumb, and every rule can be broken. In case it’s not clear, Three Blondes is a rather experimental novel that locates most of its experimentation at the syntactic level; on some level, it’s a very deep exploration of the declarative sentence. (I wonder how you feel about Beckett. Or—dear God—Stein!)

      Certainly one might consider Tarnawsky’s experimentation interesting or not (and I think it would help your argument to, you know, actually read the book before you criticize it). But to argue that it should be more conventional—especially by Saintsbury’s outdated, ultra-conservative standards—is like saying that a Rothko should have some figures in it.

  4. I reserve the right to be wrong–particularly when it comes to aesthetics. But we break down Yuriy’s writing very differently.

    “It can carry away feet. It can carry away faces. It can provide a roof over one’s head. It can kill like a sword. It’s shaped like a sword. It’s shaped like an atom bomb. It can kill like an atom bomb.”

    This isn’t much variation. And it just comes off as facile–to me. Every sentence begins with It. Subject, verb, usually object. yes, a few syllables off here or there, but compare it to the Cortazar sentences. Even an “exploration of declaritive sentences” can come with a few that don’t begin with It and follow a simple S-V-O pattern I would think. Moreover, the sentences are fairly drab. Such generic words–feet, faces, sword. If someone pulled the sentences I wrote just above this graph and told me a six-grader had written them, I wouldn’t be surprised; i’d say so what? No sixth grader could have written four lines of the Cortazar piece. I simply don’t respond to work that’s so generic and textureless.

    Needless to say, I don’t see a prose/poetry hybrid at all. There is nothing poetic about the above. And Saintsbury was writing about the main difference between prose and poetry in HIS day. The differences are no longer located in meter although I think rhythm is incredibly important in prose (and it’ composed of lengths of meter as far as I can tell). That’s why I mentioned it. The graph by Cortazar is much MUCH closer to poetry; the whole book is a prose/poetry hybrid. That’s it’s strength. Some parts really are poetry disguised as prose/novel. of HOPSCOTCH I mean.

    Beckett is brilliant but leaves me cold. Stein … I can’t read her fiction. I know Gass found her prose revelatory, but Paul West (no slouch himself) found it rubbish.
    Which is why I like to reserve the right to be wrong.

    • I don’t know what’s gotten you so upset, or so vindictive (“If someone pulled the sentences I wrote just above this graph and told me a six-grader had written them, I wouldn’t be surprised”), but in any case I can’t really argue with you, since your sweeping arguments lack all substance (“it just comes off as facile–to me”; “There is nothing poetic about the above”). As for variety, and every sentence beginning with “It”—why don’t you look at the novel’s 174 other chapters?

      Meanwhile, you’ll have to excuse me, but I have better things to do than argue abstract hypothetical points with someone who hasn’t even read the book in question.

      Most sincerely,
      Adam

  5. Vindictive????? What’s vindictive in my response? Admitting I may be wrong both at the beginning and the end?? I think you have much misunderstood my e-mail. I haven’t the slightest animosity toward you or toward your very intelligent responses. I sincerely apologize if I’ve offended you or given you that impression! I don’t know how else to say you may very well be right, I may be missing the merit in this graph, and my taste should probably be broader. I’m so sorry you’ve taken this as a personal affront; I certainly had no such intention. And I like *you* as a person. You probably dont recall, but we met at BEA.

    When I said there was nothing poetic about the above graph, I wasn’t being malicious; that’s just my opinion. If *you* had written it, it might have been a tactless comment, but it’s still the truth. I’ve taught six-graders and this is well within their abilities; some actually write a good deal better.

    Judging from this, there is, of course, no reason for me to read the rest of the book when I can read John Hawkes (currently, it’s THE LIME TWIG) or Guy Davenport or Paul Lafarge or any number of writers who write in ways that interest me. I did say quite early on that these are just not the kinds of sentences–this isn’t the kind of work–that I respond to.

    Jeremy (Davies) and I have had differences over BEst European Short Fiction 2010, which I reviewed, mostly favorably, for World Books, and arranged for a podcast interview, conducted by Bill marx, will A. Hemon.

    As Emerson said, “if two people are thinking exactly alike, one of them isn’t thinking.”

    I’m sorry, again, if you think I was just being vindictive. I wasn’t. I have the same problem with paintings that look like … oh, a housepainter’s dropcloth, or something a sixth-grader could have done. So did William Gaddis. He once pulled off the kitchen fridge a painting one of his children had done (aged maybe 10 or 12), entered it as his own work–or some other adult–in some show and guffawed as critics appraised its strengths.

    You can’t tell me a sixth-grader can’t write “It can carry away feet. It can carry away faces.” etc. In fact, I ran this whole graph past Samuel R. Delany at lunch today. He wasn’t any more accepting of the prose–and he does have much broader taste than I. he found it equally facile.

    Now I know you are upset because I didn’t read the book, but John didn’t post the book. He posted a graph. Maybe you should be angry with him for not choosing a better graph.

    Again, very sincere apologies for upsetting you. not remotely my intention. But I am fairly straightforward in my views as well as my reviews. I praised ROSE ALLEY to the heavens; I was almost as generous with Lance Olsen’s CALENDAR OF REGRETS. My review of Thad Rutkowski excoriates HAYWIRE. Aeshetics is (are?) a dicey area. If you get to know me better you’ll see I’m not trying to upset anyone, but if I can’t see the emperor’s clothes, I’m likely to say so.

    I hope you’ll accept my conciliatory cyber embrace. I respect anyone who’s passionate about the arts, particularly literature.

    Very sincerely,

    Vince

  6. Hi Vince,

    No, please accept my apologies. I’m afraid you caught me in something of a disgruntled mood, and I should know better than to comment when out of sorts.

    I suppose what bothered me was the sense that you were judging Yuriy’s book and writing ability without having read the thing, and judging it in a rather sweeping manner. But–to each their own. Although I’m sorry if the above paragraph discourages you from checking out Three Blondes, as I regard it one of the finest novels of the past 30 years.

    As Emerson said, “if two people are thinking exactly alike, one of them isn’t thinking.”

    True enough. And there should be room enough at Big Other for those different thinkers. Again, I’m sorry for having made it sound otherwise.

    I do look forward to seeing your own book.

    Again, very sincerely,
    Adam

    P.S. What was BEA? I’m afraid you’ll have to refresh my often very poor memory.

  7. Apologies accepted of course.
    BEA … Book Expo America. June or so last year. At the Dalkey display.
    As far as THREE BLONDES … don’t worry; I’m not judging the book (you didn’t post the book). I was just commenting on the graph. My interest in the book, after all this, has been piqued. I will certainly pay it some attention if I come across at my local bookshops–and there are a couple of good ones here on the Upper West Side. In fact, just picked up two John Hawkes books at the Westsider, which is ONE block from Barnes & Noble, where I sometimes look but almost never buy.
    Let me apologize as well. Looking over what I wrote, I said things that were untintentionally inflammatory. I should have been more circumspect in trying to make my points. Let me also rephrase: no kid could have written that whole graph (unless he were a Mozart of the literary variety). There were just sections (it’s quite long) that struck me that way.
    If nothing else, Yuriy’s name is now cemented in my memory, and I will be curious about ANY of the books he’s written!
    I have a weakness for Eastern/Central European writing … Danilo Kis, Ivo Andric, Milorad Pavic, and I really loved “The Allure of the Text” by Giedra Radvilaviciute in Best European Fiction 2010.
    And I really will work on broadening my tastes.
    Good thoughts for good things,
    Vince

    • Hi Vince,

      Good, good, promotions all around! What a great club!

      Let me know if you read anything further by Yuriy. Incidentally, Meningitis is written in a style similar to Three Blondes, though there are also substantial differences. (I consider Three Blondes more complicated and better realized, overall.)

      His more FC2 recent book, Like Blood in Water, is written in a relatively different syntactic style from those first two, and organized according to a different concept (although, as with any author, there are similarities).

      He’s also done some other recent writing, little of which has been published (to my knowledge), which is quite different from all of the above, and which is to my mind some of the most experimental fiction I’ve seen from any contemporary writer. “Lenin’s Brain,” which he sometimes reads from, is an example of this body of work. These pieces remind me somewhat of Robert Walser’s short prose (although I don’t know if Yuriy’s read Walser; I will have to ask him): deceptively simple, deceptively “cheerful” works that gradually strain the reader’s/listener’s credulity. They require a lot of patience, and I wasn’t sure what to make of them myself at first, though as time’s passed I’ve gotten used to them and now think them rather intriguing.

      One of the things I like best about Yuriy (both the man and his work) is that he’s relentless in his experimentation, yet remains fairly approachable, accessible. I consider that a difficult trick to pull off. It’s something I’ve tried to learn from him, and emulate in my own work.

      Kindest regards,
      Adam

  8. Emulate away. That IS a very difficult balancing act, but also a very very worthwhile one.

    And now I must read some Greg Gerke … seems one of his stories was nominated for Pushcart Prize. It ought to help with this long subway ride I have this afternoon.
    and I’ll keep you posted on Yuriy sightings.

    All the best,

    Vince

  9. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other « BIG OTHER

  10. Pingback: A Dozen Dominants, part 2 (aka, “You used to know what these words mean”) | HTMLGIANT

  11. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other (reposted) « BIG OTHER

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