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July 10, 2008

Book Notes - Sarah Manguso ("The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Sarah Manguso's memoir The Two Kinds of Decay is filled with surgically precise, economical prose. It's no surprise that Manguso is an accomplished poet, and brings the best qualities of that genre to her book about illness and recovery. Manguso's honesty makes The Two Kinds of Decay worth reading, but it is her literary style that transforms a tragic story into an ultimately uplifting one.

Of the book, the New York Times wrote:

"In her sharp, affecting new memoir, “The Two Kinds of Decay,” Manguso writes from the far side of a long period of remission. “For seven years I tried not to remember much because there was too much to remember,” she writes. From an original welter of experience, she has carefully culled details that remain vivid. Filtered through memory, events during her illness seem like “heavenly bodies” that “fly until they change into new forms, simpler forms, with ever fewer qualities and increasingly beautiful names.” Manguso is acutely interested in these processes of renaming and remembering, the way time changes what we say about the past. Her book is not only about illness but also about the ways we use language to describe it and cope with it."


In her own words, here is Sarah Manguso's Book Notes essay for her memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay:

I tend to listen to one song at a time, for days. I listened to three songs while I wrote the first draft of the book.

Before I list those three songs, though, I need to mention Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere,” a setting of Psalms 50 and 51, the piece of music that drives the story, the second soprano solo of which I sang in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in March 1995, four weeks and one day before I was diagnosed with the disease that became the focus of my life.

An excerpt:

I sang in a choir and took good care of my throat, and when I caught a head cold in February 1995, during my junior year of college, I took tea and herbal lozenges.

I liked that our British choirmaster didn’t accept a head cold as a valid excuse for missing a rehearsal.

We took our duties seriously, for in serving our duties to the Memorial Church we might achieve excellence, which many of us valued above the other virtues.

I sang second soprano and I wasn’t fearless, so I chose only a few solo auditions per year. I sang the second soprano solo in Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere,” a setting of Psalms 50 and 51.

The piece was composed in the 1630s and has nine parts and is sung by three choirs standing in different parts of the church. When we sang it, the plainsong choir stood in the balcony, the solo choir stood behind the choir screen, and the rest of the choir stood before the congregation.

At some point in the seventeenth century, it became forbidden to transcribe the music. The piece was allowed to be performed only in the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. Writing it down or performing it elsewhere was punishable by excommunication.

For more than a hundred years, legend has it, the piece was performed only at those two services.

In 1771, the fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Allegri’s church. He had a notoriously accurate ear and was a quick transcriber. Later that day, he wrote the piece down entirely from memory, and that was the end of the secret “Miserere.”

I nursed a cold for weeks, trying to stay well enough that I could perform the piece in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Sunday, March 5, 1995.

Our choirmaster gave us his notes on Tuesday. He said the solo choir had performed very well, especially the second soprano, for singing a part which is quite difficult to keep in tune and which holds the group together. I wrote that down.

I’d kept the virus hidden in my blood for weeks. The next day I let myself get sick and prepared to let the head cold run its course.

That head cold triggered an autoimmune response that paralyzed me.

Thirteen years later, on the day my book was published in the States, I flew from Rome to Vienna. The first thing I did was walk into the center of town, inside the ring road, and into the Stephansplatz. It was almost dark. The cathedral was still open. What the hell—I went in. A piece of recorded choral music was playing. It was the Allegri.

The three songs I listened to while I wrote the book were “Moonrainbow” (The Comas), “Monster Hospital” (Metric), and “The Dead Flag Blues” (Godspeed You! Black Emperor) for its recitation, which taught me what happens after a sentence seems to end but then its next clause changes it into something better than a sentence, and a dark wind blows.


Sarah Manguso and The Two Kinds of Decay links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at the publisher
Reading Group Guide for the book
upcoming author appearances

Barnes & Noble Spotlight review
Bookforum review
Boston Globe review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Corduroy Books review
Kenyon Review review
L Magazine review
Library Journal review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Slate review
Stop Smiling review
Time Out Chicago review

Believer contributions by the author
Esquire short story by the author
SMITH interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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