Where the Stress Falls

Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag Read Free Book Online

Book: Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag Read Free Book Online
Authors: Susan Sontag
readership. With a life story offered straight-out, in the first person, to as many readers as possible (a “public”), it seems only minimal prudence as well as courtesy for the autobiographer to seek
permission to begin. The splendid conceit of the novel, that these are memoirs written by someone who is dead, just puts an additional spin on this regulatory caring about what the reader thinks. The autobiographer can also profess not to care.
    Still, writing from beyond the grave has not relieved this narrator from showing an ostentatious amount of concern about the reception of his work. His mock anxiety is embodied in the very form, the distinctive velocity of the book. It is in the way the narrative is cut and mounted, its stop-and-start rhythms: 160 chapters, several as brief as two sentences, few longer than two pages. It is in the playful directions, usually at the beginning or end of chapters, for the best use of the text. (“This chapter is to be inserted between the first two sentences of chapter 129” “Please note that this chapter is not intended to be profound.” “But let us not become involved in psychology,” et cetera.) It is in the pulse of ironic attention to the book’s means and methods, the repeated disavowal of large claims on the reader’s emotions (“I like jolly chapters”). Asking the reader to indulge the narrator’s penchant for frivolity is as much a seducer’s ploy as promising the reader strong emotions and new knowledge. The autobiographer’s suave fussing over the accuracy of his narrative procedures parodies the intensity of his self-absorption.
    Digression is the main technique for controlling the emotional flow of the book. The narrator, whose head is full of literature, shows himself adept at expert descriptions—of the kind flattered with the name of realism—of how poignant feelings persist, change, evolve, devolve. He also shows himself understandably beyond all that by the dimensions of the telling: the cutting into short episodes, the ironic, didactic overviews. This oddly fierce, avowedly disenchanted voice (but then what else should we expect a narrator who is dead to be?) never relates an event without drawing some lesson from it. Chapter 133 opens: “The episode serves to illustrate and perhaps amend Helvetius’ theory that …” Begging the reader’s indulgence, worrying about the reader’s attentiveness (does the reader get it? is the reader amused? is the reader becoming bored?), the autobiographer continually breaks out of his story to invoke a theory it illustrates, to formulate an opinion about it—as if such moves were needed to make the story more interesting.
Brás Cubas’s socially privileged, self-important existence is, as such lives often are, starkly uneventful; the main events are those which did not happen or were judged disappointing. The rich production of witty opinions exposes the emotional poverty of the life, by having the narrator seem to sidestep the conclusions he ought to be drawing. The digressive method also generates much of the book’s humor, starting with the very disparity between the life (modest in events, subtly articulated) and the theories (portentous, blunt) he invokes.
    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is of course the principal model for these savory procedures of reader awareness. The method of the tiny chapters and some of the typographical stunts, as in Chapter 55 (“The Venerable Dialogue of Adam and Eve”) and Chapter 139 (“How I Did Not Become a Minister of State”), recall the whimsical narrative rhythms and pictographic witticisms of Tristram Shandy. That Brás Cubas begins his story after his death, as Tristram Shandy famously begins the story of his consciousness before he is born (at the moment of his conception)—that, too, seems an homage to Sterne by Machado de Assis. The authority of Tristram Shandy, published in installments between 1759 and 1767, on a writer born in Brazil in the

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