27 January 2021

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I bought Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts after Meg had sent me a link to an interview with Greta Gerwig saying this was one of her favourite reads. I respect Gerwig's taste for many reasons ... her movies and scripts are excellent, and her directorial debut opened with a quotation from Joan Didion's Where I Was From. I picked The Argonauts up off the shelf in early August and finished it within two days.

The Argonauts is a short "literary" memoir of about 140 pages. I say "literary memoir" because throughout the book Nelson has notable writers, philosophers, and academics cited in the margins. The book is a continuous 140 pages with small, broken up passages the entire way through. A lot of The Argonauts is focused on Nelson's relationship with Harry - a trans artist she meets and marries, and whom she has a child with. The rest of the book's contents range from being in a new relationship and gender identity, to motherhood and writing. 

Even though Nelson does a great job tackling these big topics, she constantly stresses how oftentimes words simply aren't enough. In fact, she spends a lot of time worrying about this ... that she won't be able to express herself when it really matters. This is one of the elements I loved most about her book. She doesn't just rely on her own words to express what she is trying to say about love or motherhood, she takes from other writers and reflects on their writing. 

After reading a poem about completely giving yourself over to your child she says, "I have never felt that way, but I'm an old mom. I had nearly four decades to become myself before experimenting with my obliteration." But she also concedes this:

But here's the catch: I cannot hold my baby at the same time as I write."

And it's not just lessons from famous writers or philosophers that Nelson considers. She also reflects on her own childhood and the type of parenting she received. When thinking about her relationship with her estranged father she considers something he wrote in his last letter to her: "I think you overestimate the maturity of adults." This seems obvious, but it knocked me over the head. 

I always keep a note in my phone for the book I'm reading so I can go back and write out passages I really enjoyed. In my notes for The Argonauts I had written "all of page 34 ... very true." On page 34 Nelson talks about American poet George Oppen and a piece of writing about his wife he pinned above his desk. Nelson goes on to mention how often she thought about this note and how she had an "almost sadistic urge" to uncover evidence that Oppen and his wife had been unhappy. She says:

This wasn't scahenfreude. It was hope. I hoped that such things might have happened, and that Oppen, bobbing in the waves of bewilderment and lucidity that characterize a cruel neurological decline, would still be moved to write: Being with Mary, it has been almost too wonderful it is hard to believe."

She quotes American writer Leonard Michaels expressing a similar impulse: 

I was grateful to him, relieved, giddy with pleasure. So others lived this way, too ... Every couple, every marriage, was sick. Such thinking, like bloodletting, purged me. I was miserably normal, I was normally miserable." 

I spend a lot of evenings begging my friends to tell me how their relationships are less than perfect. I even love to hear about relationship troubles from friends-of-friends. I am obsessed with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne's marriage and often considered it to be the gold standard. But I was happy to read about their difficulties in the Didion biography The Last Love Song. The Argonauts reveals this is pretty common, which I find comforting. 

I found page 34 to be the absolute best part of this book, and completely worth reading the other 110 pages for. 

Maggie Nelson

Nelson includes so many lines of wisdom that I wrote a lot down in my journal incase my computer ever crashes ... I'll end this review with another favourite:

What if where I am is what I need? Before you, I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too."

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