Five Strange Languages


Notes and Materials

James Elkins

Table of Contents


Guiding ideas



Images of the whole

Principal Concepts

Examples to avoid

Sanity and Insanity


The title, and alternatives

By book

Table of contents of the books

Reason there are five books

Book 1 Stories, Like Illnesses

Book 2 A Short Introduction to Anneliese

Book 3 Weak in Comparison to Dreams

Book 4 Ghosts Are

Book 5 An Inventory of the Dead

People, places, dates


Narrated time



Books that influenced this one

Word counts, work hours


Four Sour and Stringent Proposals for the Novel

An Introduction to My Novel


This publication collects notes and materials for Five Strange Languages. This is not like Joyce’s so-called Buffalo notebooks or Georges Perec’s Cahier des charges de La Vie mode d’emploi, because the authors did not initially intend those notes to be seen—though perhaps there’s a difference between notebooks Joyce knew would be preserved, and those, like the Buffalo notebooks, that he intended to discard. These notes are also unlike Barthes’s Preparation of the Novel, because that is a coy and abstract meditation on a novel that only intermittently even seemed possible to its author. And they’re definitely unlike Eliot’s notes for The Waste Land, whose scholarly voice is integral to the poem.

        For me, reading becomes more interesting if there is an archive, as there is with Finnegans Wake and Life A User’s Manual. When there are notes to consult, reading moves back and forth between fiction and something that is half outside it.

        Almost all the material here was written to help me put ideas into words and keep track of narratives, tenses, times, and places, but also with the intent of having it available along with the books. It developed over the same period of twenty years as the novels.

At the end I have included the essay “Four Sour and Stringent Proposals for the Novel” (an earlier version was published in Athenaeum), and “An Introduction To The Novel,” never intended to be published as the opening of Five Strange Languages.

 James Elkins

July 2024

Guiding Ideas


In one sentence

Samuel falls five times: three times figuratively (Books 1, 2, 3), once literally (Book 4), and once, inevitably, finally (Book 5).

In five sentences

Samuel Emmer’s memories, his career, and his family stop making sense. He calculates and executes a staged retreat from his own life. Five Strange Languages describes the final year before he disappears. Each book is in a different style and format to express a different attempt. Forty years later, the older Samuel provides notes, redescribing his earlier life as music.

Themes of the five books, in one sentence each

Book 1

A story about the failure of stories to explain a life.

Book 2

The fascination and insanity of complex books.

Book 3

How a life is torn apart by day and night.

Book 4

What it is like to live as a ghost.

Book 5

Where we are all going.


I claim several things as innovations:

  1. A life experienced as divided, without reason or trauma. The notes in each book, written by the narrator in old age, present an experience of aging so extreme that the bonds of memory are broken, naturally, apart from the usual incremental losses of memory and without injury or dementia. This goes against the assumption that a life is a whole.
  2. Multi-volume novel comprised of disparate parts. The five books have different structures and styles, unlike multivolume novels by Balzac, Dickens, Proust, etc. There are parallels between this and the first point. Examples of multivolume novels where each book has a different style or format: Agustin Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, Philipp Weiß’s Am Weltenrand sitzen die Menschen und lachen, Beckett’s trilogy, Tom LeClair’s Passing novels, and (if it’s considered as a whole) Marianne Fritz’s Fortress.
  3. Music as memoir. The older narrator’s writing about music is a new kind of biography and autobiography. For him the scores retell the characters and places in the book as music.
  4. Music in fiction. Before this project only a few novels had sheet musiceg, Beckett’s Watt. Book 4 contains an extended musical composition, Twelve Variations and a Theme. The music is seen by the reader. It does not need to be played or heard.
  5. Diagrams as emblems of irrationality. The diagrams, graphs, and mathematical formulas are legible but not useful. Like the music, they are images, signs of the narrator’s crisis.
  6. A novel with notes. These Notes and Materials were written with the books, as a parallel text, inviting readers to move between different kinds of writing.

Images of the whole

These are ways I have visualized the set of five novels. They illustrated the writing and they also guided it. They were modified as I wrote.

As architecture

The sizes and shapes of the books as I imagine them, not including the notes added by the elderly Samuel. Disasters: red. Childhood: green.

As an underwater landscape

This is adapted from a cross section of the ocean off Antarctica, with salinity in the water as clouds.

Samuel sinks and rises like the ocean floor. Anneliese is an enormous block, an obstacle, which remains just underwater. The abyss in Book 4 is like rising darkness.

The salinity clouds are like Samuel’s drifting sense of himself.

The psychology

The black line = Samuel's sense of how close he is to his childhood. He doubts it in Book 1, and it falls steeply. There is almost no mention of it in Book 2 (dotted line).

The green line = our access to his thoughts. In Book 2 his thoughts are almost nonexistent until the end, then difficult to locate in Book 3, because dreams are at odds with his waking life, and again absent in Book 4, because he is affectless.

The red line = Samuel's distance from himself. Rising, high in Book 4.

The subjective passage of time

This is imagined time. Black = regions not recorded in the book (not actively remembered). Shades of gray = awareness.

Emotional pressure

The emotional pressure Samuel feels goes up in Book 1. Samuel’s feelings are largely excluded from Book 2, but in retrospect Anneliese precipitated Samuel’s biggest crisis. Books 3-5 form a steep curve of rising and falling emotional intensity.