COLON.

A section of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is called “Colon” (pages 91 to 103 of my Ballantine paperback); here is a small segment from near the end:

This is all one colon:
Here at the center is a creature: it would be our business to show how through every instant of every day of every year of his existence alive he is from all sides streamed inward upon … by that enormous sleeting of all objects forms and ghosts how great how small no matter, which surround and whom his senses take: in as great and perfect and exact particularity as we can name them:

I confess I’ve never really warmed to Agee’s overheated style, which strives for Faulknerian High Modernism but too often achieves merely bombast, but he is certainly worth a close reading, and Ashley Makar (“a writer who wanders genres while deep in Yale Divinity School, where she studies religion, literature and whatever metaphorical theology she can get her hands on”) gives him a colonocentric one in “This Is All One Colon,” which begins: “It is that clarity of mystery, that precision of blank—gesturing to certain immensities—that astounds me about James Agee’s peculiar use of colons.” She reawakens my interest in him, but I still can’t get through more than a few pages of Famous Men at a go. (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. Which reminded me of WS Maugham comic take on the masters of punctuation in ‘Creative Impulse’
    …She had discovered the comic possibilities of the semi-colon, and of this she had made abundant and exquisite use. She was able to place it in such a way that if you were a person of culture with a keen sense of humour, you did not exactly laugh a horse-collar, but you giggled delightedly, and the greater your culture the more delightedly you giggled.

  2. Heh. I love Maugham, who I fear is unfashionable these days. I recommend his A Writer’s Notebook, which I got for a few cents at a library sale and have greatly enjoyed.

  3. There’s a lot of shit up that colon.

  4. Dan Milton says:

    I was once on a Carolina Geological Society field trip to the Durham Triassic basin that had a stop at the Colon Cross-structure. The leader had some sort of story about the colon-like interruption of the continuity of the basin, apparently unaware of the tiny community of Colon, NC, which I believe (but can’t substantiate) is where the loaded COAL ON the railroad.

  5. Ø & I just discovered that colum means pigeon, in Latin. Thence Ireland’s & Scotland’s St Columba. Pigeon, not column.

  6. Well, columba means ‘pigeon,’ if you want to get all technical about it. The given name Colm is the Gaelic descendant of the Latin word.

  7. Maugham, who I fear is unfashionable
    why do you think he is unfashionable? Is it for the same reasons as Kipling is unfashionable? Glorifier of imperial past? ‘white man’s burden’?
    I’ve enjoyed his top ones – O* H* B* (ha-ha, your filter does not allow this title to be submitted), The Moon and the Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, but The Razor’s Edge is my favorite. His polemic with Chekhov in Ashenden is amusing. I haven’t got round to his plays, but they are still staged in England.

  8. why do you think he is unfashionable? Is it for the same reasons as Kipling is unfashionable?
    I’m sure that’s part of it, and also, he was a storyteller, and storytelling hasn’t been fashionable since WWII. If you’re not using fancy narrative techniques or détournement or whatever, you’re not a Serious Writer.

  9. When I was very young I read his memoir / reflections “The Summing Up” and liked it. A few years later I was told that what he wrote was just pulp fiction, but I still have good memories of that book.

  10. storytelling hasn’t been fashionable
    which is exactly the substance of his annoyance with Chek.-lit.
    But hasn’t JK Rowling proved them wrong? Or, like the fans of Maugham’s Mrs Forrester, they think she isn’t a serious writer?
    The Summing Up is very good too. I don’t see how it can be classed as ‘pulp’.

  11. storytelling hasn’t been fashionable since WWII
    Really? My impression is that it’s always the “pure story tellers” with “invisible styles” who fare best in the book reviews: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Tobias Wolff, etc. (not that they don’t deserve it). The experimenters seem on much shakier grounds, told that they’re “Nabokovian” one book, then “preening” and “navel-gazing” the next.

  12. Once again, I agree with Jamessal.

  13. Once again, I agree with Jamessal.

  14. I agree with Jamessal
    which bit: not that they don’t deserve it or told that they’re “Nabokovian” and “navel-gazing”?

  15. Or, like the fans of Maugham’s Mrs Forrester, they think she isn’t a serious writer?
    Not only do they think she isn’t a serious writer, I think she isn’t a serious writer. I read the first Harry Potter book and thought it was a decent young-adult fantasy book but pretty awful if considered as literature. But who am I to argue with six billion fans?
    My impression is that it’s always the “pure story tellers” with “invisible styles” who fare best in the book reviews: Alice Munro, William Trevor, Tobias Wolff, etc.
    To my shame, I haven’t read enough of Trevor or Wolff to know, but Alice Munro certainly doesn’t have an “invisible style.” In fact, I was thinking of her when I mentioned fancy narrative techniques. I frequently have to read her stories twice to be sure I know what’s going on.
    I’m thinking of purging the jamessal-Crown clique before they stage a palace coup.

  16. storytelling hasn’t been fashionable since WWII tertius
    Yes, language hat – that’s far too sweeping a curmudgeonliness.
    Prizes are a notoriously unreliable guide to persisting sensibilities of taste, but they do register both popularity (of a kind) and high reputation (of sorts) at some particular moment. Here’s an incomplete list of Booker-Prize-winning writers from whose books I’d recommend at least one novel:
    Naipaul, Farrell, Gordimer, Middleton, Murdoch, Fitzgerald, Golding, Rushdie, Coetzee, Brookner, Kingsley Amis, Carey, Ishiguro, Byatt, Okri, Unsworth, Kelman, Swift, Atwood, Banville, Mantel
    Sure, several of these writers have departed from 19th century norms of plotting and character development (none more so than departures anticipated by Sterne . . .), but their books all stand – for whom they stand – as much on the grounds of “storytelling” as on any other criteria. Among younger British writers at the highest level of “storytelling”, I’d add Mitchell, Norfolk, and Tobias Hill.
    And that’s just a handful of Booker-eligible (necessarily post-war) novelists whom I’ve read — there are also American writers, and the many novelists in other languages, and genre ‘storytellers’.
    By “fashionable”, do you mean something unsuspected?

  17. Whoa – cross-posted.
    You find Munro’s stories ‘fancily’ told? I’d say they’re remarkably subtle, but she pretty much tells you what’s happening either as it unfolds or as some particular character catches on. Perhaps what unfolds during that second reading is a matter of beauty, rather so much than information?

  18. But who am I to argue with six billion fans?
    Do I detect a whiff of irritation? Without arguing with the multitudes, is it not worth, in good literature terms, to understand what it was that made the Potter book click. It wasn’t just fantasy (there isn’t much) or gripping story (it’s slow and straightforward).
    After her husband ran away with the char woman Mrs Forrester takes a lesson in writing from both of them – and produces a bestseller applauded also by the semi-colon fans.

  19. Sure, several of these writers have departed from 19th century norms of plotting and character development
    Well, that’s what I’m talking about: “plain” storytelling, so to speak. I certainly didn’t mean that nothing that conveys a narrative is successful in any sense these days; that would be not just curmudgeonly but idiotic. I mean that ever since the advent of the formalists and New Critics, in the higher critical circles (which is what I’m talking about, not sales, which are of no concern to me unless and until I write a book that will get me royalties), writers have not been taken seriously unless they write interestingly from a formal standpoint, in ways that will support, say, a doctoral dissertation on their structures, their allusions, their anti-hegemonic whatsis. They can tell stories if they want, but that’s a minor matter; if they are seen to be only telling stories, no matter how good those stories are, they are not taken seriously. I submit to you that that is precisely the respect in which the names on your list differ from the neglected Mr. Maugham. (Compare the fate, until recently, of pictorial art and tonal music.)
    Do I detect a whiff of irritation?
    You sure do. I think Rowling is a terrible writer in all the ways that matter to me. I’m glad she’s “getting young people to read” (though I’ll be more impressed if those young people move on to better things), but you couldn’t pay me to read another of her books.

  20. Well, that’s too harsh. I don’t mean that she’s a terrible writer but that her writing, effective in its way, is aimed at a basically adolescent readership, and I guess I’ve lost my susceptibility to it.

  21. And I don’t mean to put down those who are susceptible to it; there are people I respect and am very fond of who have devoured every word of the Potter series. I’m sorry I can’t enjoy the books, because enjoyment is a good thing. I suppose in a way I’m like the people who turn their noses up at Maugham. But I can’t help it, I like what I like and am irritated by the massive success of things I don’t like.

  22. Hat knows that it is unwise to offend the Harry Potter cult.
    I refuse to say what my opinion of the books is.

  23. Alice Munro certainly doesn’t have an “invisible style.”
    You know her work better than I do (my impression was similar to deadgod’s, and people are always calling her “our Chekhov,” but I’ll get back to you about the straightforwardness of her style after I’ve read her latest), and I know better than to argue literary trends with someone so much better read. I only spoke up because it seems literary figures are always praising pure story telling to high heaven (often as if it were a minority position) — off the top of my head I can think Salman Rushdie expressing such a sentiment on Fresh Air not too long ago, also Junot Diaz on the current New Yorker podcast — but that doesn’t necessarily lead to more pure stories being written, of course, and your position seems more nuanced anyway.
    Crown: He’s onto us again. You know the drill: let’s get the gear on the goats and start all the fuck over.

  24. who turn their noses up at Maugham
    but you said hereinbefore that you liked Maugham?

  25. Well of course adolescent books aren’t that interesting for adults, although at one point I did reread Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but that was when I first returned to the U.S. and was trying to remember what not being Arab was like, decompressing. But they work visually on the screen don’t they? (Harry Potter, I mean.) The characters and the action? And they teach basic truths about friendship, etc. And what on earth is wrong with Kipling? I love the “Stories from the Hills”. It’s silly to reject an author just because of the the era they were born in. “Colonialism, blah, blah..” He didn’t choose the political systems of his time. If I lived in that era I would have loved to have been a mouse in the corner of his newspaper room.

  26. Oh, but the Kipling is Plain Tales from the Hills, isn’t it. Who could forget Mrs. Hawksbee.

  27. it seems literary figures are always praising pure story telling to high heaven (often as if it were a minority position) — off the top of my head I can think Salman Rushdie expressing such a sentiment on Fresh Air not too long ago, also Junot Diaz on the current New Yorker podcast
    But those are writers you’re citing. I’m talking about literary critics. Very different beasts!
    but you said hereinbefore that you liked Maugham?
    Yes, I do; I’m comparing my distaste for Rowling to other people’s distaste for Maugham.

  28. But those are writers you’re citing. I’m talking about literary critics.
    I hope you’ll forgive me for inching out of the room — for the now — just as the outlines of our debate begin to take shape. I should be trying to tell a story myself!

  29. JE: I refuse to say what my opinion of the books is
    You haven’t read them, JE. Why not come out and admit it? I had to read every damn one aloud, except the final one. By then, even my daughter didn’t care.
    Thirty years ago, I enjoyed all of Somerset Maugham except the one with the cripple and the blonde, is it Of Human Bon-you know what? Around the same time I went through all of Christopher Isherwood’s European travels, which I loved. I wonder if Grumbly likes Herr Issyvoo?
    Jamessal, of course I agree. Didn’t you tell me Junot Diaz wasn’t any good, though?
    Kipling’s pretty good in places Nij, but the Just So Stories haven’t completely held up to the passage of time.

  30. JE: I refuse to say what my opinion of the books is
    You haven’t read them, JE. Why not come out and admit it? I had to read every damn one aloud, except the final one. By then, even my daughter didn’t care.
    Thirty years ago, I enjoyed all of Somerset Maugham except the one with the cripple and the blonde, is it Of Human Bon-you know what? Around the same time I went through all of Christopher Isherwood’s European travels, which I loved. I wonder if Grumbly likes Herr Issyvoo?
    Jamessal, of course I agree. Didn’t you tell me Junot Diaz wasn’t any good, though?
    Kipling’s pretty good in places Nij, but the Just So Stories haven’t completely held up to the passage of time.

  31. Didn’t you tell me Junot Diaz wasn’t any good, though?
    I think I said that I admired more than enjoyed Oscar Wao, meaning I found it boring. But that’s more my problem than his — he’s quite talented.

  32. I refuse to say what my opinion of the Harry Potter books is, OR whether I’ve read them or not, OR what my reasons would have been for not having read them, in the hypothetical case that I had not read them. The Harry Potter Mafia is not to be trifled with.

  33. the Just So Stories
    was one of the last books I read to my children at bedtime about two years ago and we all loved it, especially the Cat Who Walked by Himself and How Leopard Got His Spots, or maybe it is because we have cats and dogs – and, having lived in Wales, love roast lamb, the magic used to tame the wild animals in the Cat story.
    But going back to our muttons, the colon post also reminded me of a terrible row Gorky had with his Soviet publisher in the 30s when a young editor ‘corrected’ Gorky’s famously unusual syntax and added a note to proofs saying that it was only a small part of work the manuscript needed. Gorky’s hallmark was a dash as in the phrase ‘Море – смеялось’. I wonder how it is best to show this in an English translation? (no suggestions from Isidor Shneider please)

  34. They can tell stories, if they want, but that’s a minor matter
    Perhaps this is so at the Academy of Fine Ideas, but it doesn’t look that way to me; I thought the theory people bent over backward to discover – ‘to discover’ – discursive, anti-discursive, and de-discursive trickeration in popular, unacademic novels. I mean, I thought it was considered, and has been for decades (??), embare-assingly easy to theoreticize Beckett, Borges, Barthelme — and much more impressive to wring a thesis out of, say, Ludlum.
    With respect to those prize-winners, my favorite is Penelope Fitzgerald. She writes linear plots, characters that change (or not) in accordance with events, characters whose inner lives are sometimes told to the reader and sometimes are revealed by their actions, you’re told what you need to know to know what’s happening — she’s an old-fashioned storyteller, and the respect she gets, as far as I see, has to do with her writing stories superbly well, and not with her conscious illustration of theory.
    I think I know what you’re saying about off-puttingly theory-magnetic ‘text’ (someone like Lydia Davis, a good writer, but, to me, no Fitzgerald) – but I’m pretty sure that: a) many theoreticians are quick to approve of well-told stories (high-brow people love to prove their street cred, especially in circles where such a thing would be least practical); and b) there are lots of fine storytellers around – I sure haven’t got to the end of them.
    With respect to ‘dissertations on structures, allusions, and anti-hegemonicism’, aren’t writers like Dickens among the greatest threats to becoming Miss Congeniality when it comes to defending theses on liminal coloniality, etc.?

  35. the sea – was laughing
    you are welcome

  36. Yes, Penelope Fitzgerald is wonderful. I’m probably exaggerating the anti-story movement, as usual.

  37. Maugham wrote better stories than Of Human Böndage? Drat, the only one I ever read. Same thing happened to me with Graham Greene. After The Human Factor it took me forty years to pick up another one; that’s the only one I don’t like.

  38. Ha, ha. Bøndage. I’m into böndage.

  39. Ha, ha. Bøndage. I’m into böndage.

  40. Dave Lovely says:

    “laugh a horse collar” is a good phrase, which I’ve not come upon before. Whether related or not, pubs in the North of England regularly have ‘gurning’ competitions, in which a prize is awarded to the person who, thrusting their head through a horse collar, can pull the most grotesque face. Not that this has anything to do with colons, or story-telling, but, you know, fyi..

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