Words for This-Worldly Things

This week I’ve been reading Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, translated by Charlotte Mandel, and… just… wow. It’s a gem of a novella and it really confirms for me that Énard is like the James Joyce of our time. That level of greatness in literature is with us today, here, now. Énard can do rapidly unspooling yet tightly controlled maximalism. He can do finely honed, exquisite minimalism. Just when you’re thinking that he’s got a particular groove he works in, because you’ve read Zone or Compass, along comes Tell Them to upend your preconceptions.

Most importantly, Tell Them is a book that relies on the unique possibilities of language to invest a very slight dramatic situation with extraordinary philosophical depth. “How can a person achieve immortality?” That’s the question running like an undercurrent through the book. Various religions offer one answer to this question. They say: follow these rules, attend to the spirit, and you’ll live beyond death. But human culture offers a slightly different answer. It says: do something magnificent to distinguish yourself, achieve some level of greatness, and your name and your memory will outlive you.

So, then, does immortality inhere in another plane of existence, or “severally” in the mass of people who inhabit this one? Is it really a matter of attending to the spirit, or does it have more of a physical and socio-cultural basis? The narrative of Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants transplants a man (Michelangelo!) from one deeply religious setting, the Vatican of the sixteenth century, to another, Constantinople, where the artist is tasked with engineering a magnificent bridge. Every step of the way, he brushes up against the “this-worldly” prohibitions of both Christianity and Islam — prohibitions that must be observed (eg. against iconography) lest one’s immortal soul be at peril — but instead he finds a sort of holiness in very worldly things. The book absolutely revels in the phenomena of this world — varieties of flora and fauna, varieties of human experience and senses and sensations — and filters it through the perspective of a man bent upon making himself great, indeed immortal, through his this-worldly art.

But this is made explicit in only one sentence, very early on: “The names of things give them life.” Afterwards, it’s there in the gap between the narrative with its conflict between this-worldly and otherworldly priorities, and the language — the diction — which is thoroughly sensual, committed to the wonders of this world. Beyond that one sentence, be on the lookout for absolute precision of diction: “lateen sail, storm jib, topping lift, halyard, unfurling… gasket, capstan, floor timber, gangway, keelson… tow, tinder, tinder box, wick, wax, oil…” And be on the lookout, too, for sights and senses which are so unfamiliar to Michelangelo that his diction doesn’t have sufficient range to capture them: “A lute, a mandola, and a viol that Michelangelo does not know are called ouz, saz, and kaman, accompanied by a tambourine played with fingers alternately caressing and violent by a young woman dressed as a man…”

I can only assume that Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants boasts an unusually high unique word count, and the fact that it is so short — 137 pages, most of which don’t have more than half a page of text — intensifies the effects of the refined diction, sharpens the sensations it conjures up.

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