Tag Archives: Roberto Bolaño

Knowing how not to swim

28 Oct

 

I have just picked up (and put down) a fat novel by a leading British novelist. It doesn’t matter which one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker a few years ago. It’s meant to be a cracker. But I can’t be bothered to read it. I know it’s supposed to be oh so very good and all that: ‘well-written’, ‘unputdownable’; ‘a masterpiece’ even, but can I be arsed to invest the amount of time needed to complete it, when essentially, I know what is going to happen from Page One, and also how it will be told, by glancing over the first few pages? Probably not.

There are two ways of looking at the world, and they lie behind two ways of doing literature. The first way, to quote Roberto Bolaño, consists of stories that are “easy to understand”. They imply a linear narrative, a degree of suspense, a beginning, a middle and an end – preferably in that order. As Bolaño wrote, these books “sell and are popular with the readers because their stories can be understood. I mean” – he goes on to say – “because the readers, as consumers . . . understand perfectly (these writers’) novels or their stories.”

Which brings me to an article I read over the summer in a newspaper by the novelist Enrique Vila-Matas. For those who read Spanish, it’s available here.

There are two groups of people, writes Vila-Matas – more or less, as I am paraphrasing. One lot insists that things are the way they are, that life is simply thus, and it’s not worth worrying your socks off about it. The other group, of whom V-M is perhaps a particular offender, believe that they don’t quite belong on this planet, that they are restlessly in pursuit of another place, which might be called death, but quite possibly has some other definition entirely . . . V-M likens the distinction between these two types of person to those whose literary predilections lie in the direction of a simple story, well told – the kind disparaged by Bolaño – and those others who are enthralled “by complexity and by the labyrinth”, and who will always find ways of constructing stories in a different and more complex manner, and will always try to see more. (In ordinary life, this latter group are often compulsive liars, or fantasists, or are confined to institutions of one kind or another.)

Put another way, in the lounges of those conservative writers who adhere to some kiss-and-tell narrative linearity based on the novels (and to an extent, the ideology) of the nineteenth century, the world is described as ‘given’. Whereas in the slums and squats occupied by these more complicated types, a kind of negativity is evoked which, suggests V-M, might find an allegory in this quotation from Kafka:

I know how to swim like the others, but I have a better memory than they do and I have not forgotten my old inability to swim. And as I have not forgotten it, the ‘knowing how to swim’ part isn’t of much use to me, and so, in consequence, I don’t know how to swim.

Perhaps then, some of us, although we have learned to swim, sometimes practise drowning, just to remember what it feels like.

So it is, too, that some writers, even though they know how to write in a certain linear way, to write a certain kind of story, that ‘can be understood’, elect not to, and opt instead for the labyrinth, or head for the deep forest. Perhaps they find it more of a challenge that way, more fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traveller of the Century

13 May

 

Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here

I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:

 

 

One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.

Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.

But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”

Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature:  a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.

 

This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolaño

17 Apr

 

In La Universidad Desconocida, the collected poems that Roberto Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, brought together after her husband’s death in 2003, she includes in the foreword an unpublished piece called ‘My Literary Career’ that Bolaño had scribbled in anguish after receiving serial rejections from all the publishers of Spain, which he lists fastidiously, and then: “under the bridge, while it rains, a golden opportunity / to see myself for who I am: / like a snake at the North Pole, but writing. / Writing poetry in the land of imbeciles.” Clearly Bolaño was under no illusions as to the readiness of the literary world to embrace his work. The poem is dated 1990, a year after The Third Reich was written, in longhand. We do not know what plans Bolaño might have had for the manuscript, which by the time of his death he had begun to type out and tinker with: it may well have come into print in a completely different form. Or not at all.

Udo, a German board-games champion, takes his girlfriend, Ingeborg, on holiday to the same hotel he last visited with his parents ten years earlier, as a fifteen-year old. They meet another German couple, Hanna and Charly, and with the help of a couple of local no-good-boyos called the Lamb and the Wolf, they do the nightclubs and bars of the resort by night and lie on the beach by day. Charly turns out to be a bit of a liability, and following a mysterious incident in which he appears to have assaulted his girlfriend, he takes his surfboard out to sea and does not return. Hanna and Ingeborg go back to Germany but Ido, a loner and a nerd, stays on in the resort, ostensibly to wait for Charly’s body to be washed up, but actually to carry out a forlorn pursuit of the hotel owner, Frau Else. At this point the narrative wavers, becoming repetitive and somewhat listless, and although there are hints towards a darker centre, there is nothing particularly threatening about the local lowlife, not even El Quemado, the disfigured South American who rents out pedal boats, and whom Ido adopts as his opponent in the marathon board game that gives the book its title. There are vague allusions towards a deeper connection with Nazi themes – notably with Frau Else’s husband, a tall, moribund character who seems oddly prescient of the writer Archimboldi in 2666 – but they only lead to dead ends.

As it is, The Third Reich, despite the promise of the opening half, is a strange and ultimately unsatisfying book. It feels incomplete, but that is not the problem: what this novel lacks is that paradoxical sense of intentional incompleteness, the unwillingness or refusal to tie up loose ends (perhaps because they retain more intensity for being left hanging) that is a marker of Bolaño’s mature style.

Ignore the cover blurb’s suggestion that this is the perfect place to begin reading Bolaño: it is not, and anyone unfamiliar with his work would be much better off reading By Night in Chile or The Skating Rink, another novel modelled on the seaside town of Blanes, where Bolaño settled in the 1980s. If it were not for the fact that it is an early work by a highly marketable author The Third Reich would probably not have been published. But for Bolaño’s many fans it displays, in emergent form, some of the themes and tropes that would be more abundantly explored in The Savage Detectives or 2666. Like those two great works, it is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer.

 

This review first appeared in The Independent, on 1 March 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘very special place of love': Roberto Bolaño, V.S. Naipaul, and sodomy.

13 Apr

The young Roberto Bolaño

 

A new addition to the mass of Bolaño miscellanea being published in English appears on the New York Review of Books blog. In an entertaining essay, Scholars of Sodom, Bolaño takes a delightful swipe at V.S. Naipaul’s absurd and arrogant attack on Argentina, in which the choleric Trinidadian decided that Argentina’s woes, political and cultural, stem from a typically macho predilection for buggery.

Luckily, the NYRB blog allows the reader to link to Naipaul’s original essayArgentina: The Brothels Behind the Graveyard, as well as two others; The Corpse at the Iron Gate and Comprehending Borges. Best to focus on the first of these, as this is where he first lays down his extraordinary theory. Naipaul starts from the premise that Argentina is a land founded on the principle of plunder – of the Indians, of the land itself – a theme which he establishes early on and which he develops, after a tortuous route, towards a startling conclusion. Considering the macho attitudes that dominate Argentinian society at the time of writing (the essay was published in 1974), and the prevalence of bordellos, Naipaul warns that “Every schoolgirl knows the brothels; from an early age she understands that she might have to go there one day to find love, among the colored lights and mirrors.” And then, his coup de grace:

The act of straight sex, easily bought, is of no great moment to the macho. His conquest of a woman is complete only when he has buggered her. This is what the woman has it in her power to deny; this is what the brothel game is about, the passionless Latin adventure that begins with talk of amor. La tuve en el culo, I’ve had her in the arse: this is how the macho reports victory to his circle, or dismisses a desertion. Contemporary sexologists give a general dispensation to buggery. But the buggering of women is of special significance in Argentina and other Latin American countries. The Church considers it a heavy sin, and prostitutes hold it in horror. By imposing on her what prostitutes reject, and what he knows to be a kind of sexual black mass, the Argentine macho, in the main of Spanish or Italian peasant ancestry, consciously dishonors his victim. So diminished men, turning to machismo, diminish themselves further, replacing even sex by a parody.

Armed with this knowledge, Naipaul feels he has finally understood the Argentinians, with “their violence, their peasant cruelty, their belief in magic, and their fascination with death, celebrated every day in the newspapers with pictures of murdered people, often guerrilla victims, lying in their coffins.”

No holds barred here then. As Bolaño put it, in his imaginative response to the article, “Naipaul’s vision of Argentina could hardly have been less flattering. As the days went by, he came to find not only the city [Buenos Aires] but the country as a whole insufferably aggravating. His uneasy feeling about the place seemed to be intensified by every visit, every new acquaintance he made.”

 

A recent photo of VS Naipaul

 

Bolaño takes up the thread of Naipaul’s argument, and extemporises on the theme:

I remember, he writes, that when I read the paragraph in which Naipaul explains what he takes to be the origin of the Argentinean habit of sodomy, I was somewhat taken aback. As well as being logically flawed, the explanation has no basis in historical or social facts. What did Naipaul know about the sexual customs of Spanish and Italian rural laborers from 1850 to 1925? Maybe, while touring the bars on Corrientes late one night, he heard a sportswriter recounting the sexual exploits of his grandfather or great-grandfather, who, when night fell over Sicily or Asturias, used to go fuck the sheep. Maybe.  In my story, Naipaul closes his eyes and imagines a Mediterranean shepherd boy fucking a sheep or a goat. Then the shepherd boy caresses the goat and falls asleep. The shepherd boy dreams in the moonlight: he sees himself many years later, many pounds heavier, many inches taller, in possession of a large mustache, married, with numerous children, the boys working on the farm, tending the flock that has multiplied (or dwindled), the girls busy in the house or the garden, subjected to his molestations or to those of their brothers, and finally his wife, queen and slave, sodomized nightly, taken up the ass—a picturesque vignette that owes more to the erotico-bucolic desires of a nineteenth-century French pornographer than to harsh reality, which has the face of a castrated dog. I’m not saying that the good peasant couples of Sicily and Valencia never practiced sodomy, but surely not with the regularity of a custom destined to flourish beyond the seas.

The danger in theorising outward from a single sexual act (one which seems to fill Naipaul with unspeakable horror) is that it creates a rather lopsided (and ultimately hilarious) simplification of Argentinian culture. It is a long time since I read Naipaul, and reading this quite demented essay, and Bolaño’s intelligent and witty response to it, reminded me why.

How interesting then, to read Ian Buruma’s review of Naipaul’s authorized  biography (by Patrick French), also available on the NYRB website, and to discover that – when not beating her up – sodomising his Anglo-Argentinian mistress was Naipaul’s preferred occupation of an evening, while the cockatoos sang and the sun went down. Here is the passage summarizing their longstanding relationship, and the very special role of sodomy within it:

In Buenos Aires, at the apartment of Borges’s translator, Naipaul met Margaret Murray, a vivacious Anglo-Argentinian:

I wished to possess her as soon as I saw her…. I loved her eyes. I loved her mouth. I loved everything about her and I have never stopped loving her, actually. What a panic it was for me to win her because I had no seducing talent at all. And somehow the need was so great that I did do it.

Margaret left her husband and children, and for the next twenty years would be at the beck and call of her master, who was finally able to do all the things that had horrified and fascinated him before . . .The more Naipaul abused Margaret, the more she came back for more. She wrote him letters, paraphrased by French, about worshiping at the shrine of the master’s penis, about “Vido” as a horrible black man with hideous powers over her. Her letters were often left unopened, and certainly unanswered, adding to her sense of submission. According to Naipaul, he beat her so severely on one occasion that his hand hurt, and her face was so badly disfigured that she couldn’t appear in public (the hurt hand seems to have been of greater concern). But Naipaul said, “She didn’t mind at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her.” And then there was the mutual passion for anal sex, or as Margaret put it (paraphrased by French), “visiting the very special place of love.”

Funny the way things come round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Fiesta

29 Mar

 

We met up in Nick’s bar, The Promised Land, to discuss literature in translation with some friends, editors, writers and such luminaries from the field of literary translation as Christopher MacLehose and Boyd Tonkin, chaired by the erudite and perennially entertaining Charles Boyle. By the end of the day I had the impression that we had achieved what we set out to do: we had talked about interesting stuff in good company; we had provided a forum for our guests to listen to and discuss literature in translation, and we had introduced to a Cardiff audience – for the first time but definitely not for the last – the prodigiously talented Argentinian novelist and poet, Andrés Neuman. More than that, most of us seemed to have enjoyed ourselves.

The day began with a reading and discussion with Andrés, who led us on a merry dance through Russian Jewish migration of the early 20th century, German Romanticism, the music of Franz Schubert, European identity in the 21st Century, an hilarious impersonation of Jorge Luis Borges, and an account of a chess game with Roberto Bolaño, in which the Chilean author plied his young admirer with whisky while playing Mexican heavy metal at full volume as a way of gaining tactical advantage.

There followed a delightful reading by the poets Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson, their lines bouncing off the walls with a playful (and sometimes darker) exchange of ironies.

The Fiesta was made by its participants, especially our Argentinian guests, and the fine writers who made the afternoon come alive: Des Barry, Zoe Skoulding, Tristan Hughes and the superb Philip Gross.

In the end it all went swimmingly, although  afterwards I wondered – rather like a medieval adventurer returning from the Forest of Enchantments – whether it had all been a mysterious dream. But that was probably just the lack of sleep.

 

Andrés Neuman

 

 

. . . in conversation with Blanco

 

 

Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson

 

 

Tiffany Atkinson

 

 

Tess and Charles take a break

 

 

Jorge explains a crucial point

 

 

Los tres amigos

 

 

The whole sick crew? - Barry, Boyle, Neuman, Fondebrider, Blanco, Mulcahy, Hughes.

 

 

 

 

 

Bank-robber poets

22 Dec

I am currently enjoying the pleasures of the essay and the short ‘occasional piece’, browsing through Roberto Bolaño’s Between Parentheses.What delights await you, gentle reader, between the covers of this excellent collection, if you are unfamiliar with the prose style of this fine writer. But be warned: here you will find speculation of the most dubious kind:

If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America, I’d take a gang of poets. The attempt would probably end in disaster, but it would be beautiful. (Bolaño, ‘The best gang’).

If I were to rob a bank the last people on earth I would recruit would be poets. They are generally indecisive, opinionated, and almost universally passive aggressive in relation to other poets, and they would therefore certainly take issue with some aspect of poetic discourse (meter, rhyme, assonance, metaphor, what have you) that took precedence over the planning and execution of the job in hand: indeed, once these theoretical differences gained a foothold, there would be no stopping some of them. They would move from poetics to defamatory statements of the most brutal kind, and from there to physical violence. I can assure you, dear reader, that the fiercest disputes occur between individuals when the stakes are really low: academics and poets are prone to the most vitriolic and bloodthirsty of vendettas precisely because the outcome is of practically no interest to anyone else.

This is true, I have hung around with poets and academics for years now, and I’m not sure which group is more inflated in their sense of self-importance, but it’s a close-run thing.

I’m not talking about all poets, of course, or even all academics, and I do hate generalising; but generalisations, like stereotypes, would not exist if there were not a ‘kernel of truth’ to the person, creature or object being generalised or stereotyped. Even if you disagree with the kernel of truth hypothesis on an intellectual level, you almost certainly – if unwittingly – subscribe to it in some aspect of your opinion-forming and decision-making.

But the type of poet or academic I am excusing from this general rule is actually a very small minority. Most of us, whatever we do, and however much we resist the idea, are a part of the herd. And although no one willingly considers himself or herself as part of the herd, the fact is that seen in retrospect, seen from the perspective of a hundred years hence, great swathes of poets (and other writers and artists) will be banded together indiscriminately and one or two exceptions, probably people who are lesser known now, will be isolated as exceptions and therefore bestowed with genius. The typical thinking goes like this: no one wants to think of him or herself as just one of the herd, and everyone thinks that is how it is going to be for everyone else.

We are certain of our uniqueness and individuality, and this would be the first and insuperable problem for Bolaño’s gang of poet-bank robbers, or bank-robber poets: lack of organisational discipline. I may be wrong, but don’t suppose there are many poets in the ranks of the SAS, nor, for that matter have I read any poems by any bank-robber poets. In fact, with all due respect to Roberto, I feel that poets are better suited to working a bank job solo, and probably not planning the job at all, but leaving it all down to fluke and happenstance. In other words, the only way a poet might successfully rob a bank would be alone, and by mistake.

 

 

 

 

Advice to aspiring writers, and smoking by the riverside

14 Dec

The question – the recurrent question – asked at those events (after a reading, say, or at a literary festival) when the author is expected to wax lyrical and wise on all manner of subjects is ‘what advice would you give to a writer who is just starting out?’ I asked it myself last Monday of Peter Finch, and he gave a damn good answer – the same answer I always give – which is to read more.

Andrés Neuman. According to Roberto Bolaño "The literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers."

On his blog, Argentinian poet and prizewinning novelist Andrés Neuman (whose fabulous novel, Traveller of the Century will be available in English from February next year) says he was recently asked by a magazine to give six items of advice to beginners, and his perplexed reply was, in my loose translation, as follows:

1. Don’t conform to the patronising attitudes of older writers. They were also young, and in all probability more clueless.

2. Tradition doesn’t weigh on us, but invites us in. We write as we read: writing is a supreme form of re-reading.

3. Try, make mistakes and try again. A bad manuscript is worth far more than a supposed genius who abstains from writing, just to be on the safe side.

4. Keep correcting, to the limits of your patience.

5. Remember that we are all beginners: writing is an inaugural art and lacks experts.

6. Don’t accept six pieces of advice from anyone. One is already too many.

Otherwise – and this is completely unrelated, I was flicking through the cyberworld yesterday, and I discovered that Joseph Hill of the reggae band Culture died five years ago already, when I wasn’t looking. At the risk of going on like an old fart I remember going to see Culture at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, must have been 1977, and being knocked for six, unless that was just from inhaling the fumes from all the people who had been consorting with Mr Bong and Mr Spliff. Anyway, here is a song to remember him by.

 

 

 

 

 

And Borges too

8 Dec

What makes a piece of critical writing ‘creative’? How do we distinguish between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ writing? Does anyone care?

Is the literary world divided between ‘creative’ writers and ‘critics’ or is this a fantastically outdated model? Who writes the best criticism of fiction; literary critics or other fiction writers?

If you read Tuesday’s post about Roberto Bolaño and what he had to say about good, creative criticism being an integral part of literature, then I suggest you take a look at what Bolaño’s fairy godfather, Borges had to say on the same theme:

. . .  as to Eliot, at first I thought of him as being a finer critic than a poet; now I think that sometimes he is a very fine poet, but as a critic I find that he’s too apt to be always drawing fine distinctions. If you take a great critic, let’s say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think – at least I always feel – that he’s agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another. Consequently, he’s not creative. He’s an intelligent man who’s drawing fine distinctions, and I suppose he’s right; but at the same time after reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet has been created for you, or after reading Emerson on Montaigne or whoever it may be. In Eliot there are no such acts of creation. You feel that he has read many books on the subject – he’s agreeing or disagreeing – sometimes making slightly nasty remarks, no?

(from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1 p. 137)

So when Borges says about a critic’s words needing to be based on a ‘personal experience’ of a writer, that is, as a reader, then we are on precisely the same ground as Bolaño saying that a critic needs to be a reader, and that if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, [they] are also throwing everything overboard.

Again, back to reading. I am a writer, that is to say, a reader who writes. Sometimes, the acts of reading and writing become contiguous, such as now, and I forget where the one ends and the other begins. But essentially I have learned this through the process of reading and writing, and what both Borges and Bolaño write only serves to confirm it: a good writer, a certain kind of good writer, always leaves me wanting to drop the book and start writing. A good critic, by which I mean a creative critic, almost always has the same effect. Bad writing, by contrast – either bad fiction or bad criticism – simply sucks energy from its reader, before the book is cast aside with a curse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bolaño and criticism

7 Dec

My last night in Mexico, after a quiet dinner with a friend, I dreamed a strange and involved kind of dream that, when I awoke, left an aftereffect of mystery and sadness. Bolaño was there; my friend also (who in fact knew Bolaño far better than I ever did) and we were in a city that felt like Barcelona, but might have been Guadalajara. It was cold. We were walking back from a party at dawn; myself, my friend and Bolaño. A car pulled up. The driver and the passengers all wore masks; wolfmask, pigmask, V for vendetta, something else. They offered us a ride to the next party, we said we’d rather walk. I don’t think we were going to a party. Near the cathedral a river was flowing and in the dirty brown, fast-flowing water was all the furniture of the city: desks, bookcases, refrigerators, lampshades, sofas, kitchen tables, dishwashers. I remember thinking it was important to remember all this, but when I woke could not think why it might be important, nor what happened next.

So when I get home I start reading through a book of interviews with Bolaño, interviews I have read before in Spanish and am now reading in English. There are a few silly mistakes in the translation of one of them. And then I notice a passage that I remember from before, I mean remember having noted it the first time I read in, in the original. Bolaño is answering a question about the relationship of writers to critical writing:

Literary criticism is a discipline that represents more for me than literature. Literature is prose, novel and short story, dramaturgy, poetry, and literary essays and literary criticism. Above all, I think it is necessary that there be literary criticism – without accident – in our countries, not ten lines about an author the critic will probably never read again. That is to say, it’s necessary to have criticism that mends the literary landscape along the way . . . I view criticism as a literary creation, not just as the bridge that unites the reader with the writer. Literary critics, if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, are also throwing everything overboard. The interesting thing about literary critics, and that is where I ask for creativity from literary criticism, creativity at all levels, is that he assumes himself to be the reader, an endemic reader capable of arguing a reading, of proposing diverse readings, like something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or a diatribe. For me, Harold Bloom is an example of a notable critic, although I am generally in disagreement with him, and even enraged by him, but I like to read him. Or Steiner. The French have a long tradition of very creative critics and essayists who are very good, who illuminate not just one work but a whole era of literature, sometimes committing grave mistakes, but us narrators and writers also commit errors.

If we ignore a couple of mistranslations (what can he have meant by “without accident”?; “narrators” is better translated here as storytellers or even novelists) this passage reflects a fairly radical approach whereby Bolaño sees critical writing as not simply an extension of (or a parasite upon) ‘creative writing’ but as an essential component of it. His writing is full of writers and of critics (one thinks especially of the four literary scholars in Part One of 2666) and there is throughout his work a sense of a writer observing himself at work. This accounts in part for his apparent indifference, at times, to the actions of his protagonists – the kind of utterances that populate his work, that go like: “he might have said so-and-so but equally he might have said such-and such”; “she took the book from the table, or was it the photograph, I forget, and held it tightly to her chest”  (no, these aren’t precise examples, I don’t have time to search, I have to go to work, but you get my drift): it seems at times as if Bolaño is a writer observing himself ‘doing writing’. I am not sure if this is the same as meta-fiction, it probably is, and there is certainly an element of detached self-criticism. (I should find genuine examples if I am to do this properly, otherwise I will end up writing a blog that consists of a dream and a series of suppositions about Bolaño’s writing that uses examples I have made up). But what strikes me more than anything is Bolaño’s generosity of spirit towards criticism, of viewing it as being part and parcel of the same enterprise upon which we are embarked as writers, and to which he urges us to return. This is why he emphasises that critics should “assume themselves to be the reader”, something which is clearly not the case in a lot of academic criticism. When writers write criticism there is, it seems to me, a greater consideration of the work as something to be read rather than, for example, as a statement of intent, a reflection of a particular cultural factor such as the exploitation of women by men, or an examination of social class in 19th century London. This is not to say that these considerations are not important, but as a part of the whole, as a part of the reading experience itself, which tends to get neglected in a focus on the particular.

Bolaño’s comments on Bloom and Steiner are particularly interesting, since these two critics have been the object of sustained attacks by the mafia of literary and critical theory, and yet, in my experience, are the kind of critics (along with Blanchot and Bataille, for example, from the French contingent) favoured by many writers of my acquaintance, at the expense of scholars more favoured by the academy. But maybe this is not the case, I’m not sure.

 

 

 

 

Blistering Blue Barnacles!

13 Nov

Buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup and bacon (the latter a rare commodity in the Blanco kitchen these days) all washed down with lashings of coffee made with real beans: what a way to start a Sunday. Not only that, but today’s is the ONE HUNDREDTH (100th) POST SINCE BLANCO BEGAN BLOGGING ON SUNDAY 10TH JULY THIS YEAR. HUZZAH!

Last night we went to see the Spielberg/Jackson production of Tintin (The Adventures of). Mrs Blanco and I were agreed that Captain Haddock (played by Andy Serkis with a magnificent quasi-Scots drawl) and Snowy (aka Milou) the dog stole the show. Tintin is always so damned earnest, but more alarmingly for me, bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Welsh novelist of my acquaintance, and he returned in a more complex hybrid form later, to haunt my dreams, a sort of Tintinesque literary prodigy ploughing the astral plains in search of Ultimate Literary Truth. God help us.

The Tintin stories, for all their being imperialist and racist (charges which no one in their right minds would dispute) created in young readers of my generation – long before the advent of gap years hanging loose on Thai beaches or trekking in the Andes – an ambition to see the world, to become an explorer of worlds. And this is what excited me from an early age. A Dutch student of mine once told me that her grandmother said that children who love the Tintin books will become travellers as adults, and those that don’t won’t. I have a suspicion that something of the kind might be true.

In the meantime I must refrain from embarrassing myself and my dear ones by coming out with exclamations like ‘Great Snakes!’ or ‘Blistering Blue Barnacles!’.

 

 

On a quite unrelated theme, I see the film of Owen Sheers’ novel Resistance will be out shortly, with an introductory talk by the author/scriptwriter at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on Saturday 26th November, which I will miss as I am off to Mexico that weekend. In fact I was invited to Mexico along with the same Mr Sheers, who is clearly otherwise engaged – but I share with Owen a childhood fantasy – we grew up a few miles (but two decades) away from each other in the Black Mountains – both playing games that involved charging around in the bracken and ferns evading Nazis, something which I discovered quite by accident while chatting to Owen when we were doing a series of readings together in New York (and where Resistance - the novel – was getting its U.S. launch). What a perennial occupation this Nazi obsession must have been for boys growing up in the decades following World War 2: is it still? I have no idea. But how profoundly the mythology of Nazism has infiltrated our psychological as well as our historical agenda.

And this leads me to the third topic of the day, or the fourth if we include breakfast: the front cover of the Vintage paperback edition of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.

The picture shows a solitary German soldier walking down a country road in what I imagine is some part of the Soviet Union. If, as the acknowledgement claims, the photo was taken in 1943, the soldier is probably in retreat. In the background and to his side, across a field, are other soldiers, themselves walking alone. There is snow on the ground, and it is either still snowing or else there is a mist. The soldier is walking purposefully, and carrying a rifle over his soldier, so is not in a state of combat. I am fascinated by the photograph, and am trying to work out why. Is it to do with the solitary status of the soldier, knowing as we do the vast numbers of troops involved in the invasion of Russia and in its defence, the huge tallies of the dead that Littell’s protagonist Dr Max Aue recites ad absurdum in the introduction to his story? From what source does the poignancy of this image derive, and why does it affect me so?

I think the focus on the individual soldier is meant to reinforce Max Aue’s refrain that yes, he is responsible, he did the things which he recites, but that he was an individual in a chain of command, an infinitesimal cog in a massive destructive machine, and his question is, simply, what would you have done?

Or, more succinctly, in Aue’s words, it is “a fact established by modern history that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins.”

The Kindly Ones, fastidiously researched (Littell spent many years on the project and read over two hundred books on the German occupation of the USSR alone) is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of recent times: I would place it, together with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 as one of the two most significant pieces of literary fiction in the 21st century, at least that I’m aware of. 2666 was written in Spanish, obviously, but Jonathan Littell’s book was first published in French as Les Bienveillantes in 2006 and won the Prix Goncourt. It is marvellously translated by Charlotte Mandell, and maybe I will write about it when I have finished (I am not quite half way through its 960 pages, but will stand by my current appraisal nonetheless), but in the meantime I am fascinated by the cover picture, poorly reproduced here, because I could not find a copy of the original, despite searching online through the Keystone/Getty archive, who apparently hold the original. If any readers know anything at all about this photograph, please let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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