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THE EROS OF LANGUAGE : AUREOLE. By Carole Maso (Ecco Press: $22, 214 pp.)

November 24, 1996|Charlotte Innes | Charlotte Innes writes reviews for the Nation, Book Review and other publications

When so many significant, contemporary novelists have given up on fiction's traditional consolations--redemption, affirmation, meaning--the reader has to wonder: What's left? Yet astute literary observers may catch another message that has to do with the way audacious language can hint at life's ungraspable essence. In that glimpse of mystery through a crack in the door of language--and in pushing open the door a little further--lies modern fiction's real excitement.

Carole Maso is a writer who succeeds brilliantly at relaying the fragile notion of life's enigma. In her four novels and now "Aureole," a collection of short poetic pieces exploring the nature of sexual desire, she progressively flees what she perceives to be the artificial forms of traditional fiction. Instead, she tries to capture something of life's true rhythms, to "express the extreme, the fleeting, the fugitive states that hover at the outermost boundaries of speech," as she says in "Aureole's" preface.

Paradoxically, or perhaps inevitably, this grasping after the ineffable means shedding words. Each of Maso's works is successively more fragmentary, from the long, lyrical, loosely connected pieces describing the break-up of a family in "Ghost Dance" to the smaller, more diverse snippets of "The Art Lover"--not just text, but lists, press clippings, reproductions of classical art, star charts, even a lost-dog poster--portraying a woman whose best friend is dying of AIDS and whose world is consequently dissolving. "The American Woman in the Chinese Hat," about a manic-depressive woman clinging in vain to a series of charged erotic encounters, is a tightly written prose poem in which sentences fall apart and images vainly repeat in a stylistic death, anticipating the real one in the story.

Yet it wasn't until "Ava" that Maso approached genius in this fragmentary form. Composed of short incantatory lines--with equal weight given to the empty space around them on the page--"Ava" provides a realistic impression of a woman's fleeting, repetitive deathbed thoughts.

Having discovered this new stylistic world, Maso in "Aureole" sends out exploratory prose poems, in different rhythms, to fathom the varied terrain.

What she gives us is a largely lesbian celebration of erotic freedom that touches on the broad themes of young love, promiscuity and loyalty, a difficult but mature relationship, old age, heroin addiction, love of self and loss. Maso never leaves the world of real people behind. But the true heart of this thoughtful book lies in that gap between language and silence (the door propped open), as Maso strains toward the body made manifest, in "the sexual energy of the sentence, the erotic surge of the phrase," bravely trying to cross the chasm between wordless sexual ecstasy and written description, between the world and the page.

Thus images keep repeating--a beautiful young Indian woman, an older woman with a walking stick, roses, knots, rivers, the sea, bones, pearls, oysters and death--that "fragrant cupful of dark light"--suggesting the eternal ebb and flow of life as well as its immediacy and utter groundedness.

More often, in a modern version of the ancient Greek poet Sappho's torn papyri, sentences break off, words drift alone, thoughts remain half-spoken, as if to say: I've done my bit, reader, the rest is up to your imagination, or it's too mysterious to reach.

For this is a book about the difficulty of thought, of truly feeling experience, of really connecting with the physical world--as well as the joy of trying. Others will consider "Aureole" a cerebral quest to nowhere, decked out in luscious imagery a touch on the melodramatic side. Yet Maso's greatness flowers in her tendency to overreach, to walk where others dare not, even if it means failure, as it does at times here.

Still, "Aureole" never fails to charm with its good humor and its sense of delight. "The Women Wash Lentils" explores various French euphemisms for sexual acts and body parts--placing sex firmly in the everyday world but also contributing to its mystery.

To truly understand this book, it helps to have read Maso's other works, even interviews with her, since there are numerous references to her novels and to her life--to the point sometimes where these pieces seem more like autobiography or essays than fiction. It especially adds to one's reading experience to be familiar with Maso's literary mentors--Virginia Woolf, feminist French literary theorist Helene Cixous and the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachman--seekers of a language that properly expresses female experience or at least resists know-it-all tradition.

Yet even without such foreknowledge, "Aureole" stands alone as a courageous exploration of what it means to be alive--to revel in life. And the light that shines through Maso's half-open door of language, though it may not always illumine, is dazzling in its originality.

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