18 February 2008

Tapping out the messages that signify communion

Raymond and Hannah take no photographs. In three days, it won't be as though it never happened, but close enough. Species and languages die out every day. The whole world is clamouring with lost things, and every day an army of mourners—editors, lecturers, curators, writers, archivists—rush to preserve the frailest relics of everything we love that vanishes. The vanishing makes us all want to burst into song and to burn something and to blow up. Every library is an incomplete encyclopedia of the vanishing's spread. The stuff we call the material world is leaves that go green to turn red and fall off, and stones ground to smooth pebbles to become dust, and our own bodies and the bodies of those we love.
She is to leave for Jerusalem to study Torah at an Orthodox yeshiva for nine months. Her last week in Toronto, she meets Raymond, who is struggling to complete his doctoral dissertation on Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The inevitable happens, leaving them at opposite ends of the world with only words and memories to connect them...
Abelard and Eloise turned absence into the substance of their fever, and grew old in the expectation of no reward.

Raymond and Hannah poured themselves into light signals fluttering in the space over the Atlantic. They sit at desks taking notes and are lovers.
In Raymond + Hannah, Stephen Marche structures the emails and events of the couple in ways that resemble poetry with the practice of placing brief summaries in the margins of each "stanza," rather than numbered lines. We follow their separate preoccupations with their studies in between the messages they're able to send to each other across the sea.

Hannah, on the authority of Torah:
Another curious Jew, Eliezer, called the walls to witness that he was right in his dispute with Joshua, an argument concerning the purity of ovens. A river ran backwards for him. A tree uprooted itself, and finally a voice from heaven called out that Eliezer had judged properly. The walls leaned, but did not collapse. Joshua pointed out that miracles should never decide questions of real importance, such as the meaning of the Torah. God had already had his say. Because Eliezer was right, but proven only by means of heaven, he was declared anathema.
Raymond, on The Anatomy of Melancholy's dictum, "Be not solitary, be not idle":
Reading requires two conditions: solitude and idleness. It takes gall to end a thousand-page book with instruction that could fit on the back of a matchbook and rule out the two conditions necessary for reading in the first place. Like ending a global encyclopedia of cookery with the advice: Best to eat potatoes only. And of course you must take the advice, because you are done reading. Your solitude and idleness are over, and you must go do something, you putz, Raymond.
The emails themselves are typical enough, although the lack of epistolary conflict seems a bit unrealistic (even though something horrible does happen). But after all, Marche appears to be more concerned with the lovely form and language of this work than the plot, which is completely fine with me. It's one of the more aesthetically fulfilling reading experiences I've had in the past few months.


Jana Swartwood said...

This looks fascinating....

amcorrea said...

It is--and such a pleasure to read. Also, Hannah's private quest to learn about her Jewish heritage and figure out what exactly she believes is completely engrossing. At the yeshiva, she practices a way of studying Torah that I think would be invaluable for us.