Book Review | In the nick of time

A great poet’s hand-lettered translation of ‘Antigone’ carries a century’s weight
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First Published: Mon, Aug 20 2012. 11 19 AM IST
Medium:Author Anne Carson. Photo: Peter Smith/Random House
Medium:Author Anne Carson. Photo: Peter Smith/Random House
Antigonick by Anne Carson
Besides the minor change in the title, there’s nothing to indicate there is anything unusual going on in Anne Carson’s translation of Sophokles’ Antigone. Then on the first page of Antigonick, Antigone and her sister Ismene argue over whether a quote comes from Beckett or Hegel.
photoAntigone is the daughter of Oidipus, who is dead when the play opens. Also dead are her brothers, Polyneikes, who died attacking the city of Thebes, and Eteokles, who fell defending it. Kreon, ruler of Thebes, has ordered that Eteokles receive a proper burial while the traitor Polyneikes’ body should be left to rot. Kreon’s civil statutes, meant to maintain order in the city, are the antithesis of Antigone’s belief in the importance of kinship. She defies the law, claiming her moral duty to bury her dead, and is sentenced in turn to death. As is so often the case in Greek tragedy, this sets off a series of deaths.
The German philosopher Hegel sees Antigone as a collision between the two extreme positions, neither particularly wrong in itself, taken by Kreon and Antigone. The tragedy arises from the fact that the two simply cannot coexist.
It’s obvious from the beginning that this is not a literal translation. Carson strips the dialogue of most of its punctuation and adds large blank spaces of silence, turning the whole into a form of poetry. “She was the child in her birdgrief the bird in her childreftgravecry howling and cursing she poured dust onto the body with both hands she poured water onto the body with both hands I seized her,” says the usually flippant guard who catches Antigone. “Your soul is blowing apart,” says the chorus, a single line in the centre of an otherwise blank page.
photoKreon arrives in a motorboat and there are anachronistic references to later writers (Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf among them). There is even a new character; the mute “Nick” remains on the stage for the entire duration of the play, but is only mentioned once, in the stage directions. Yet Carson is only ever credited as the translator, rather than the adaptor or reinterpreter of Antigonick. In a way, there is nothing here that is not in the original, but we are not reading this in Sophokles’ Athens. A reader of the Antigone in 2012 comes to the play with the history of the last few centuries behind her; our reading of the play cannot but include Hegel’s as well.
Frequently it seems that the characters are all aware of this. Ismene reminds Antigone of Brecht’s adaptation, which had Antigone carrying a door strapped to her back. Antigone prompts Kreon (“Antigone: Next word is death Kreon: Death”). Eurydike, Kreon’s wife, is barely given a few lines in Sophokles; here in an extended monologue she ponders the lack of space given to her character and even spoofs her own stage directions.
Eurydike is the only character to raise the question of “Nick”. “Have you heard this expression the nick of time what is a nick”. In tragedy there is no nick of time, there is no last-minute aversion of disaster. There’s a rueful inevitability about all the characters except Kreon, who sometimes seems to have lost the script. They have lived out this story before, through all of its many adaptations. They know they’re going to die.
Bianca Stone’s illustrations, printed on transparent vellum to overlay the text, are full of a sense of opposing, irreconcilable forces. Cosy domestic scenes are juxtaposed with wild, uncontrollable ones—a horse knocks over a dining table; a human body bursts out of a house too small for it; wedding cakes and staircases sit incongruously in wild landscapes.
Stone’s illustrations and the hand-lettered text make Antigonick a beautiful object, and it’s easy to forget that it is a play, and meant to be performed. But it’s also clear that the play is not lacking in dramatic power, with the perfect comic timing of some of the exchanges, the lyricism of the prose and the silent figure of Nick measuring in the background.
Is Antigonick then the synthesis of Nick, who measures, and Antigone, who is immeasurable? I’m not sure.
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First Published: Mon, Aug 20 2012. 11 19 AM IST