the L notebook
As temperatures hover in the upper 80s, summertime’s fantasy of ease takes over, gives rise to a self that, in lieu of work, throws on flip-flops and a swimsuit and heads to the pool. This summerself, only partly satisfied by hours under the shade of an umbrella reading trashy novels, contemplates a fling with that gorgeous creature sunning across the patio. In such a mood the summerself might think romance too much work—unless, that is, one was able to keep the pleasure simple, physical, charming. But is this possible, the summerself wonders, shifting in her lounge to get a better view: the dangerous ones start out easy and charming but then maneuver into mystery and complexity, creating the kind of bliss that does more than just please. Such experiences alter us.
Sabine Macher’s the L notebook, translated by Eleni Sikelianos and published in La Presse’s extraordinary series of translated contemporary French writing, immediately lends itself to summer’s mood of languid seduction. Chronicling a love affair between the speaker and a man named only by the letter “v,” the book moves from attraction and expectation through rendezvous and climax to the affair’s likely dissolution. Narrating the romance is a speaker whose intimacy and details fascinate with sensory precision, holding us so very pleasurably in physical and emotional space. Here’s a taste, the entire first page, which unfolds as follows:
it’s cold again
it’s the day before easter
the computer lights up
the yellow rose is before me
everyone in the house is quiet
the hosts and the guests
i think of whom i thought of when i bought this notebook
yellow outside red within
of the shadow around his eyes
shadow in his mouth
i don’t know his hands very well
i’m on the mezzanine with a daisy in an eggcup
i turn the first page of the l notebook
there are notebooks for everything
the left hand is poised fingers fanned out
a fingernail pins the page
the index curved like a claw to keep it company
i’ll make no record of the hour or date
we’ll bathe in the sea once
Like so the book continues, without punctuation or stanza break, for 39 pages until the narration, still without punctuation, ends.
This short passage, representative of Macher’s writing in form and tone, contains many of the elements that create the book’s seductive atmosphere. First, there is the conceit of the notebook and the pleasure of transgression and voyeurism that this framework affords. We are invited to imagine that were the book not published we couldn’t—or at least shouldn’t—be reading it. Such a notebook-journal, the game goes, is private. And even though the book is public, published, the framework provides a feeling of documentary intimacy creating easy access into the narrator’s emotional flow.
This notebook conceit is reinforced by the mise-en-scène with which the book begins: the narrator is at her desk and tells us she turns “the first page of the l notebook”: the very notebook that we are reading. If we aren’t curious about the intimate contents of the notebook at this point, Macher deepens the play by suggesting that “there are notebooks for everything,” implying that this notebook is no ordinary day book of random thoughts and appointments. Instead, it revolves around a specific, mysterious subject: that of l, which, given the context surrounding it, we can’t help but to surmise that l = love.
Along with the seduction of the notebook conceit, Macher’s craftswomanship of form and narration creates a reading experience that feels “natural,” and it is so easy to be swept up into the book’s world. Notice, in the passage above, the power of the lack of punctuation and lowercase “i” to create a casual, unedited tone. Notice the short, stable sentence structures ghosting beneath the unpremeditated effect of doing without punctuation. Appreciate the way that these structures—along with linebreaks that pause where punctuation or speech would pause—allow us to move effortlessly down the page without stumbling on syntax. The smoothness of Macher’s (and here I must add Sikelianos’s) unguarded effect requires technique that anyone who has written sans ponctuation can appreciate.
Just as sentence structure and lineation offer scaffolding for the casual “diaristic” movement of language, narrative context scaffolds plot, cluing me in to what is going on without breaking the conceit of private writing not meant for outside eyes. The first page tells us what time of year it is: spring, “the day before easter” (by the end of the book, when the romance seems to have run its course, we are told that it is July). On this first page we also learn that the narrator is a guest in a house, that she is a writer and has a lover. We also learn, at the book’s opening, that the speaker does not know her lover extremely well: “i don’t know his hands very well” she writes and, on page 3 we learn: “i don’t write to him/ it’s too early/ first i must write to the paper/ to the ink.”
By continuously providing us with such narrative scaffolding Macher eases anxiety we might have as to what is “going on,” floating us through the plot so that we can relish the intimacies of tone as the narrator reflects on her surroundings. Most often these reflections focus directly on the topic of romance, such as “l unfolds in time/ the windows have been shut again/ we spend all day in bed/ we sleep separately at night/ most beautiful is hair” (13) and “we woke up together/ i hear his voice better on the telephone than next to me/ i have an image of the red couch melting” (21). At other times the narrator provides us with the raw physicality of the self alone: “i’m at the very little window in my niche/ i fart out the strawberries more gorgeous than good/ i slept in the single bed without leaving a dent” (6). Lacing these moments together are observations on the act of writing: “i look out the paper-sized window/ the pen i’m moving registers the temperature in letters” (8). Remarkable throughout is Macher’s ability to carry across the role of physicality, of sensuality, in the acts of writing and consciousness.
If what I’ve written of the L notebook thus far leads you to believe that Macher’s book would make a perfect summer fling: fairly uncomplicated, easy on the eyes and on the mind, I haven’t misled you. The book could be read solely on this level should such a “readerly” reading experience appeal. However, I also would not be giving you the whole truth if I were to end my thoughts here, for when, in the course of reading, I became attuned to the theme of the self in the act of writing—which is to say the self in the act of forging relation, for what is writing if not this—the work deepened with complexity and mystery, inviting me to take a writerly relation to the book and follow its traces and clues.
While this happens on several levels, I will focus on what I have come to think of as “the mystery of the letter l.” The letter repeats, in solo italic, throughout the book and is, of course, importantly displayed by the book’s title. It is also, we have learned on the first page of the book, the subject of the notebook. Given the plot-context of the book, we are invited to assume that the notebook of l means “the notebook of love”; however, throughout the book l’s referent is continually revised, upsetting the easy equation of l = love. This invites a reader to play the game of solving for l. In doing so, we might pull out all of the references to l and create a sequence of clues, a skeleton text:
i turn the first page of the l notebook (1)
the notebook of l of lack (2)
words of l (2)
notebook of l and notebook of o (5)
the sun’s light on the paper of the l notebook dazzles me (7)
l like the yellow and black leafhopper: brought (7)
notebook of l and notebook of o (9)
in the end we won’t be able to tell when what was written of l (9)
notebook of o and notebook of l
forget the l (12)
l unfolds in time (13)
the lure of l (13)
absolute l (14)
l l and so l (15)
i forget l in the l notebook (18)
a desk of l with two inkwells side by side (19)
in the tgv bathrooms l is honored (19)
parsimony and cruelty are in l (20)
after l after the acquisition of the house (20)
l sleeps when man is a dream (24)
an enormous notebook of l (25)
i rest in l laid to waste (27)
l of all the notes in his voice (27)
l in the armoire (33)
l ends here? (35)
the world without l (38)
The allure of this running list shows me that the simplistic level, upon which I equated l with the word love, got me close to nowhere. This makes sense: like other abstract categories such as “pain,” “love” opens itself into a series of questions such as “how do I know if what I mean by ‘love’ even somewhat approximates what you mean by love?'” By defining, re-defining, circling around—embroidering—the referent to which l, love, points, Macher creates an associative portrait not only of this particular relationship (from “lack” to “the world without”), but also suggests the range of emotions that accompany love in all of its complexity. Love is the pure physicality of sound (“l l and so l“) it is philosophical (“l sleeps when man is a dream”), playful (“in the tgv bathrooms l is honored”), hurt (“parsimony and cruelty are in l“); melancholy (“i rest in l laid to waste”).
And, if you like your texts complex, we can take “the mystery of l” one step further, although, in doing so I must admit that I might be guilty of over-stepping the boundary—if there is one—between what is in the text and what is in me. But I wonder what you make of the fourth, sixth, and eighth reference to l in my list above: “the notebook of l and the notebook of o” (page 5); “notebook of l and notebook of o” (page 9) and “notebook of o and notebook of l/ forget the l” (page 12)? These lines pique my curiosity, for they contain the only references to “o” in the book, and there are no other “notebooks of __” mentioned in the text. Furthermore, unlike lines such as “l unfolds in time” and “l like the yellow and black leafhopper” these lines are opaque and certainly difficult to unpack while their repetition, which doesn’t seem to be in the service of clarity, shows that they are particularly important to the text.
Here’s the story I made up about what these lines are doing: When I read the line “the notebook of l and the notebook of o” on page 5 I become curious. Who or what is “o” I wonder. Maybe oooo or orgasm or, perhaps, the lover’s name? Oscar? On page 9 I learn that the lover will be referred to as “v”: “i’d like to see v’s lips move around the pearly teeth”. This line, with its solo v, is followed, three lines later, by the repetition of the phrase “notebook of l and notebook of o.” Naturally, I string these solo letters together and begin spelling l-o-v. L-o-v of course lands me at l-o-v-e and I begin wondering if the book performs a writing-through of the word “love”. I further speculate that perhaps this sort of writing-through, wherein the affair will end when the word has been written in full, offers an alternative structure to the book, one that functions simultaneously with the surface narrative that spins the love affair from Easter to July.
The fact that the solitary letter “e” does not appear in the book makes me wonder if I was over-analyzing the text, but the prevalence of the letter “e” in the book’s last lines:
i wait for him near where he told me the age difference makes no
it’s the softest of separations
the heat makes an oily bath of everything
everything you feared comes to pass without exception (39)
makes me think, again, that perhaps I am not entirely wrong. Of the 66 vowels in these lines there is 1 u, 12 i’s, 13 o’s, 12 a’s and…28 e’s. While “e” is the most common vowel in the English alphabet, the fact that it appears twice as many times as any of the other vowels stresses its importance. Not only is there a certain metaphorical charm to the notion that the “e” that ends an affair is present in echo instead of solo, but the end of this particular affair is narratively ambiguous. On page 35 we read “when love is said to be over it can begin again”; on page 39: “i am in the world/ the world without l“. Although the writing is on the wall, so to speak, perhaps the romance is not entirely over. There is a feeling, a tension unexpressed, that the “e” is yet to come, but must come to pass in order for the romance to be fully written.
After reading that Théâtre Typographique first published the book in French as carnet d’a, I considered emailing the translator to ask if the French text suggests a writing-through of a-m-o-u-r. I considered this, but decided not to, preferring to wonder. I wondered if my reading of the text spoke to my (admitted) predisposition to complicate all things. And I considered whether or not I had a fear that the book—and my attachment to it—would seem sentimental unless I compensated with a conceptual lens. And I wondered what other complexities I missed when I allowed myself to be swept along by the romance of the text. For example, near the end the speaker writes not only of “v” but of “he” and “you”. What happens to the narrative if these are read as separate characters? Alternatively, how does this plurality speak to the multiple ways we relate to any singular person: the lover as “v” is not the lover as “you, the lover as “he”.
After all of this wondering—is the mystery in the book? in the reader?—I knew that both the readerly and writerly qualities of the book created a rich experience by which I came to understand more about the act of relating to both other breathing humans and to those found in texts. As such I find myself doubly-bewitched by this pleasurable and stimulating book.