I was in a North Carolina Bookstore when I saw a thin pamphlet sticking out between two thicker volumes. Simple stitching, a black thread down the center. I Dated Graham Greene. Lucy Ellmann centered on my attentions as I had been waiting—waiting—on a copy of Ducks, Newburyport (the title like a lost Marx Brothers routine) to make its way into my hands. No bookstore I had gone to had it in stock, and it seemed none would carry the volume unless it won the Booker. (This changed of course when it jumped to the shortlist, with no one wanting to repeat the delay of last year’s Milkman into American reader’s hands.) It seemed fitting to find this small book about the author’s life in bookstores by chance, published for Independent Bookstore Day. It also seemed fitting to spend a moment on the author’s shorter work, given that the first comment often made by reviewers is the massive page count of Ducks, Newburyport.
Much of the criticism (in the sense of both analysis and the discussion of faults) I’d read of Ellmann’s work strikes me as short-sighted—a hot take cribbed from the same Cliff’s Notes. Instead of seeing how others categorize her, here we see a glimpse into how an author sees herself through the lens of what should be a natural partner in her profession: a bookstore. Instead, the author pushes expectations to the side: “Bookstores scare me. So do books.” What follows is a 16 page analysis of the difference between the Platonic ideal of a bookstore and the reality of the physical space itself. Ellmann lists—bullet-point style—the many faults that can stress out the bookstore visitor, from “Amnesia, trying to remember all the books I meant to seek out” to “Geriatric affronts, when they don’t have the children’s books I remember.”
Through the text, Ellmann crafts the titles of books into the structure of her narrative. The Collector. Some of these are surface-level connections, while others suggest something deeper—an ironic meaning that can be understood only if you’ve read the reference. One can pull the list of books like yarn from a sweater to make the syllabus of a personal and sentimental education, gathering texts in the haphazard way of a lifetime’s reading material. Passionate Minds. These are moments that shape the text into the realm of prose-poetry:
Shakespeare & Co. in Paris—I sat on a couch there one summer when I was about twenty, waiting to be picked up by some literary type. A Sentimental Journey. Nothing happened. This surprised me, but I think I only sat there about ten minutes. Maybe it takes an hour.
There is something in these moments reminiscent of Gertrude Stein (let’s skip the ever-present Joyce references—even if Shakespeare & Co. does seem to invite them). The text is made of small sections—ideas, memories, moments, feelings, provocations, the ubiquitous and the unique—circling and adding to each other. The style of Ducks, Newburyport is visible here as it is in Ellmann’s other works: the humor, the lists, and the sense that all of these items counted out before you are what go into the making of a life. All of these pieces of Ellmann’s text work towards a joke, towards the boom-crash of the drum and cymbals of Portnoy’s Complaint (referenced on page 11). It is here that the movement of the essay moves beyond the cheap laugh of Philip Roth into the humor of Anne Carson—to make multiple layers of meaning gather together in a reflection of both the writer and the reader.
Walking through the language of Ellmann’s works as I make my way through Mimi, her previous novel and the only other one easily available in America, I could see how other readers make the obvious connection between her father’s work and her own. (Her father makes a fleeting cameo in the essay.) I picked up a copy of Thinking About Women by Mary Ellmann (the author’s mother, born in Newburyport) and saw a very different direction. The lists, the experimental structure, and above all they playfulness of the text exists there too. That it seems the Ellmann family has given English letters so much of substance is remarkable. Discovering Lucy Ellmann’s work, wandering through a bookshop, has brought one of the rarest delights into my reading life—an experimenter who can be a storyteller of equal power. The Divine Comedy.