Book Review

Fanny Howe’s A Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation emerges from the past even as it dwells within it. Future and past come together, united by images of a child at a threshold, a frozen foot poised to go forward, a mushroom cloud. She writes, “The future is only the past turned around to look at itself.” In this book, “now” is also five years ago.

The past that The Winter Sun evokes is visibly incomplete. Howe recognizes “the past always looks most complete when no one is in it,” and her book is populated. The lives of Robert Lowell, Emily Brontë, Henry Hampton, Antonia White, Sara Grant, Jacques Lusseyran, Abbé Dubois, Michel de Certeau, and others converge with Howe’s own. The convergences are repetitions, tapping out the rhythm of history Howe hears: “History seems to grind out the same grid and hole in the textbooks. In one lifetime, there are endings and beginnings to relationships that are astonishingly repetitive.” Howe renders fathers that resemble one another. The creators in Howe’s longest chapter, “Person, Place, and Time,” all search for cracks to document. These fusions prevent a finite identity; Howe’s own history blurs with Emily Brontë’s, Sara Grant’s, and Antonia White’s, and the others whose lives move within the book’s pages. Howe explains, “The person looking for ‘me’ (a fixed identity) is also the same person looking for (a vapory word) ‘God.’ This split search can only be folded into one.” The book enfolds a search for many identities.

Demarcations between self and other are as problematic as those between fictional character and historical figure. Undifferentiated from Howe’s biographical sketches is a depiction of a character in The Deep North, one of Howe’s novels. On more than one occasion, fiction affords Howe a chance to form an otherwise undocumented history: she speculates on novelist Antonia White’s life by transforming her into a fictional character. Howe’s biography categorizes this book as “lyric nonfiction,” but it has room for the fictional.

The book changes the boundaries of biography, autobiography, memoir, and autoethnography. It is all of these at once. Able to employ an autoethnographic research methodology because she was raised in a highly literate world, Howe’s archival research of her past permits her to act as weaver, interlacing the writings of her mother, F. O. Matthiessen, Liam Clancy, and others as they describe her childhood world. Howe draws on others’ texts, others’ lives, and thereby resists exclusive authority on her personal history. She calls the reader to Robert Bresson’s A Gentle Woman to learn of her first husband’s coldness and Howe’s existence relative to him.

As she does not claim sole authority of her past, Howe authors others’ lives too. She writes of restoring Michel de Certeau’s notes. As translator, she can take his nuanced footnotes and “remake them into even colder and more finessed notes than they are already.” Such is the collaboration of life-making and life-recording.

In the first sentence, Howe introduces herself this way: “Since early adolescence I have wanted to live the life of a poet.” But this word, “poet,” is not sufficient for the vocation that is discovered in The Winter Sun—a vocation that is spiritual conversion, companionship, and correspondence. The activity of poetry, after all, “was inseparable from the dialectical questions of my generation, from the paradoxes of a life spent in a cynical social terrain.” Howe’s vocation is nameless, and the nameless things we often want to write about. We translate what has no language in order to speak around it, to point to it knowing it can’t be directly touched. The question of naming follows us from page to page, as does the image of the winter sun.

Howe understands her past in light of the subtitle’s nameless vocation. She was a child intimate with sound. “I cannot measure how deep the shadows went in our household,” she writes, “but they translated into noise.” The progression of her life seems inevitable—of course “the child at the window who is naturally gifted at languages and nothing else” will remain a keeper of language—but Howe’s narrative is not tidy. She seems to warn against resting in a safety of fate in her second chapter, “The Message.”

As it accounts for the nameless vocation’s coming into being, Howe has much to reveal about the in-the-moment process of writing. She elucidates the poetics of not repeating, but of almost repeating. We discover how pages can order themselves. She reconstructs Bhartrhari’s theory of language. Her chapter “The Message” teaches us how to read as it asks, “Which way did I forget to go? Which turn did we miss? Which bend shall I follow back?” These questions are the reader’s as the book seems to resist the linearity of pages moved from right to left. Howe’s echoes seem to call us to bend the book back to previous utterances.

This is a text that calls attention to its own construction. It is intertextual and multigenre, and it resists the confinement of traditionally conceived genres. It may join other works, such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, in carving out space for a prose-poetic and historically meditative writing. With the sun falling on the pages as a living presence, Howe has expanded our knowledge of what it means to write (auto)biography.

About the Reviewer

Janelle Adsit's poems have appeared in Caketrain, Oyez Review, Inkwell, Euphony, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.