Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In the Nick of Time

Editor's note: We will be taking this Friday off in celebration of Thanksgiving, and we will return to our regularly scheduled content Monday, November 26.  We hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

I wouldn’t call Antigonick a work of speculative fiction, at least not at first glance.  The cover credits list it as the play (Antigone) by Sophokles, translated by Anne Carson, and illustrated by Bianca Stone. But as the slight change in title might warn you, this is not a strict translation. There is one part added: “Nick a mute part [always on stage, he measures things]”. And in that one mute part, there is also the title change, and the added central question of this version of the play – how do we measure time?

The plot of Antigone is here and unchanged – an unfair law, preventing the burial of the dead, which is an affront to the gods. A sister, who breaks that law to bury her brother. The king, who condemns her to death for it. The king’s son, who is in love with her, and chooses death as well. The king’s wife, who follows her son. All, the punishment of the gods on the impious king who comes to regret his actions too late. Who cannot change them in the nick of time.

It is in personifying that Nick of time, and putting him onstage, constantly measuring, that turns Antigonick into a work of speculative fiction – especially as we remember that this is a mute character in a play that is presented on the page, not on the stage. It is up to the reader to imagine him, to imagine the unbearable tension of someone measuring and measuring – how long is the nick of time, anyway? – as it becomes more and more clear that no matter how long the nick of time is, it is too short.

Antigonick is an extraordinary book. Carson is not only a brilliant translator of Greek (I highly recommend If Not, Winter, her translation of Sappho’s fragments) but a gifted poet in her own right, and that shows in the text. This is a translation that is full of verbal pyrotechnics, and Carson’s Antigone burns across the pages like a rock star in front of a crowd. Stone’s illustrations enhance the text, and the book’s design, by Robert Currie, is gorgeous and affecting – this is a book that is meant to be read as physical object .

Antigonick is one of the best books of the year, and one of the most brilliant things I have ever read. It is the kind of book that makes you think about the way we tell ourselves stories, and how those stories change us.

By Kat Howard