Claire Lowdon in The White Review:
‘Before we met,’ writes Maggie Nelson to her lover Harry Dodge, the addressee of The Argonauts, ‘I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.’ Nelson’s book, its intricate accretion of short philosophical observations, anecdote and commentary, belongs to a genre that we could call the piecemeal portrait. (Nelson herself might favour the word ‘prismatic’.) The apparent self-effacement of this indirect approach to autobiography is in line with modern sensibilities. As the smooth omniscience of the nineteenth century novelist gave way to the unreliable, fragmentary narratives of today, so the idea of straightforwardly ‘telling’ a life now feels at best staid, at worst existentially misguided. ‘The form is not “memoirs” but mémoires, fables from a time about a few people inside it,’ writes veteran-of-the-genre Adam Gopnik in The Stranger’s Gate. There’s a charming shrug here: oh, it’s not really about me, it’s just a bunch of stories I threw together. But of course part of the idea is that ‘me’ will emerge anyway. Join the dots. Or rather, intuit the inexpressible shape lurking in the interstices.
Other recent examples include Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, and now the poet Brian Blanchfield’s first book of prose, Proxies. We locate the author by a process of triangulation. ‘Is there a mythology of the mythologist? Doubtless there is, and the reader will soon see for himself where I stand,’ writes Barthes, a common ancestor, in his preface to the 1957 edition of Mythologies. ‘I’ve kept the essays in the order I wrote them, more or less’ – that shrug again, in Blanchfield’s preface to Proxies, modestly titled ‘[A Note]’. He goes on: ‘Whatever development can be tracked may correspond to what might be called a self.’ When Proxies was published in the US last year, its subtitle was ‘Essays Near Knowing [a reckoning]’. The UK edition calls itself ‘A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts’. Initially, at least, Blanchfield presses harder on the self-effacement pedal than Gopnik et al. But how does he measure up in other respects? Proxies is better than the Knausgaard (not difficult) but not as good as Gopnik or Nelson. (Nelson is a close friend of Blanchfield, referenced several times in the essays and also on the cover, where she claims to know of ‘no book like it, nor any recent book as thoroughly good, in art or in heart.’)