Of all the arts, variation is the most philosophical. One must start with a theme both simple and easily sticking to memory, like the Aria of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or Cézanne’s peasant sitting at a table and smoking a pipe, so its successive metamorphoses will be, on retrospect, the more dazzling. Variation is a play with the two most basic categories of thought, the Same and the Other, each episode being both the same as the original theme yet clearly other. That requires ingenuity. And on the whole, it takes a special skill to make the variations succeed each other so that no fatigue or boredom ensues, and so that marvel is sustained.
Sarah White takes as her theme an aged Alice who has got rid of her mirror and now stays home and worries at the spider veins in the inner side of her right thigh. Simple and memorable enough. Ms. White has worked on French and Provençal literature, and as the notes at the end and an Afterword explain, the sources of inspiration for this work of variations were Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style of 1947 and Georges Perec’s two books, La Disparition (1969) where the vowel e is never used, and Les Revenentes (1972) where the only vowel to be found is e. But those Oulipo masters are surely not the whole story; many of the pieces in Alice Ages and Ages are masterworks of pastiche, in the line of A la manière de… pieces by Reboux and Muller, of the 1920s. There are in the Alice book, just as in Reboux and Muller, take offs of Dickens, Baudelaire and Mallarmé. There are episodes in verse, others in prose, and even in the contemporary lingo called “text.” To give an idea of the range of styles, however, I will quote from a few of the pieces. One, titled “Questionnaire,” starts as follows:
“Dear Customer: In hopes of enjoying your patronage soon again, we ask that you complete and return the following:
1. Reason for discarding Mirror (model no. QV960):
a. did not like style
b. insufficiently resistant surface
“Reverb,” a piece where every syllable indeed reverberates, ends thus:
“Right or wrong, she longs to be attacked by a Kong, not the small arachnid laying throngs of winy strands along her thigh. Still, she’s strong. No Sturm und Drang can quell her song or sully her sarong.”
The one titled “I Ching” begins:
“A top pool mirrored in a bottom pool.
Wind blows over a marsh.
To cross the sea is advantageous.
Dolphins are auspicious
provided you win the confidence of every creature.”
Sarah White’s wit is exhilarating. You come out of this set of variations on the Ageing Alice theme refreshed, almost happy that you are ageing too.
Ricardo Nirenberg is the publisher of Offcourse.