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.

Medium: Author Anne Carson. Photo: Peter Smith/Random House

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.

Antigonick: Bloodaxe Books, 112 pages, £15 (around 1,300).

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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