I didn't know ee cummings had ever written a novel, but Ella knew it: "[...] ee cummings, too, isn't exactly an unknown, but his memoir The Enormous Room is, and that's probably the book I'd save from a burning bookshelf. It's a luminescent and wonderful thing."
Some 2 years after first hearing about it, I found a used copy, Modern Library no less, of which 1934 is the latest date it bears. And now I've read it.
It's a great title, ripe with metaphor, which Cummings spells out in his introduction of 1932:
When this book wrote itself, I was observing a negligible portion of something incredibly more distant than any sun; something more unimaginably huge than the most prodigious of all universes —
This is a fictionalized account of an actual biographical event in Cummings' life. In France as a Red Cross volunteer, it's never entirely clear why he is taken away for questioning and held beyond for association with a suspicious character (his friend and fellow American), whose own transgressions we never know. It's the red tape of le gouvernement française. But the book is not about B, or even about Cummings per se; it's about this finite space teeming with infinite life. And that space includes the mind that must cope with regulations and unsanitary conditions and the tedium of such a daily life.
But Cummings is a poet. He glories in it, all of it, and above all in people.
When Cummings is first being transferred, he is almost excited to be travelling through Paris (though all he is to experience of it is la gare and the sidewalk just outside) on his way to what he hears as "Mah-say." Marseilles! At last, they (he with his guards) reach the town, and this passage stops me dead:
I was too tired to think. I merely felt the town as a unique unreality. What was it? I knew — the moon's picture of a town. These streets with their houses did not exist, they were but a ludicrous projection of the moon's sumptuous personality. This was a city of Pretend, created by the hypnotism of moonlight. — Yet when I examined the moon she too seemed but a painting of a moon, and the sky in which she lived a fragile echo of colour. If I blew hard the whole shy mechanism would collapse gently with a neat, soundless crash. I must not, or lose all.
The punchline comes a few pages later, when he learns that this, as it turns out, little shithole of a town he's arrived in is in fact: Macé.
He paints beautiful portraits:
"Assieds-toi là" (graciousness of complete gesture. The sheer kingliness of poverty. He creased the indescribably soft couverture for me and I sat and looked into his forehead bounded by the cube of square sliced hair. Blacker than Africa. Than imagination).
I mean: blacker than imagination! How black is that!
He is humble, before others, before his art:
His angular anatomy expended and collected itself with an effortless spontaneity which is the prerogative of fairies perhaps, or at any rate of those things in which we no longer believe. But he was more. There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort — things which are always inside of us and, in fact, are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them — are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS. The Zulu, then, I must perforce call an IS.
[. . .]
He could not, of course, write any language whatever. Two words of French he knew: they were fromage and chapeau. The former he pronounced "grumidge." In English his vocabulary was even more simple, consisting of the single word "po-lees-man." Neither B. nor myself understood a syllable of Polish (tho' we subsequently learned jin-dobri, nima-zatz, zampni-pisk and shimay pisk, and used to delight The Zulu hugely by giving him
every morning, also by asking him if he had a "papierosa"); consequently in that direction the path of communication was to all intents shut. And withal — I say this not to astonish my reader but merely in the interests of truth — I have never in my life so perfectly understood (even to the most exquisite nuances) whatever idea another human being desired at any moment to communicate to me, as I have in the case of The Zulu. And if I had one-third the command over the written word that he had over the unwritten and the unspoken — not merely that; over the unspeakable and the unwritable — God knows this history would rank with the deepest art of all time.
His language, whether poetic, descriptive, or waxing philosophical, is true:
When we asked him once what he thought about the war, he replied, "I t'ink lotta bulshi-t," which, upon copious reflection, I decided absolutely expressed my own point of view.