June 2010 Archives

The holy role of the unread novelist

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Roberto_Bolaño&Nun.jpg"Utterly futile" is not a bad description of all (my) attempts to blog about Roberto Bolaño's 2666.  A blog post is simply too flimsy a format for any proper address of Bolaño's monumental achievement.  Bolaño's 2666 requires depth and thoughtfulness from the attendant critical commentary, and a blog post (virtually by design) scrupulously avoids either.  The snarky quip is indigenous to the blog post; the piquant insight is almost always lost and alone in a blog post, having arrived in such foreign territory only after a wrong turn routed it from The New York Review of Books or like journal.

By which preamble I mean to introduce a follow-on thought to my last post about Bolaño's 2666.  In that post, I pondered - ineptly - Bolaño's choice to present a writer-character, Benno von Archimboldi, without providing any examples of Archimboldi's work.  I speculated that the writer-without-an-oeuvre might be a symbol of mortality, a subversion of the writer's (Romantic) aspiration of immorality through his or her works.

Because a blog post is not a format conducive to exhaustive consideration of alternatives, I did not mention in my prior post another hypothesis that, on reflection, strikes me as more probable than my initial conjecture.  Instead, I am now devoting this blog post to my alternate theory: that Bolaño left the reader without examples of Archimboldi's writing because Archimboldi's importance lies in his existence, not in his novels.

As Baroness Von Zumpe, Archimboldi's publisher, admits:

she had never bothered to read any of [Archimboldi's novels], because she hardly ever read "difficult" or "dark" novels like the ones he wrote. . . . When Archimboldi wanted to know why she kept publishing him if she didn't read him, which was really a rhetorical question since he the answer, the baroness replied (a) because she knew he was good, (b) because Bubis [her deceased husband] told her to, (c) because few publishers actually read the books they published.
(p. 863.)  

In the world of 2666, the priority is to bring the good book into existence.  What happens thereafter - whether the book becomes a bestseller or tops out at only 500 copies sold - is irrelevant.  The novelist writing and publishing is good for the world, even if the novelist is unread.  

This perspective strikes me as quasi-religious, echoing traditions of contemplative nuns who withdraw from the world and pray for particular causes.  As Mother Carmela of Child Jesus, a Thai convent, says, "Through prayer we are responsible for society and the world."  Believers may never see or interact with these nuns, but may nonetheless find solace in the knowledge of the cloistered nuns' prayers.

In the same way, Bolaño suggests that by writing and publishing, Archimboldi (and novelists generally) is (are) responsible for society and the world.  The importance of Archimboldi is that he exists, writing and publishing and thereby taking responsibility for the good of humankind.  

Like contemplative nuns, Archimboldi has withdrawn from the world - he's a "vanished" writer - and his writing (again like the prayers of the nuns) is invisible to us.  Yet Bolaño wants us, the readers, to find solace in the fact of Archimboldi's efforts, just as Catholics find succor in the fact of the contemplative nuns' prayers.  The writing itself, like the text of the nuns' prayers, is besides the point.

That's my stab at the wayward thoughtful insight.  Now for the snarky
quip: nuns take a vow of poverty; unless Bolaño advocates that novelists do the same (and Bolaño is an author who switched from poetry to novels in order to make money), the novelist can't afford to go unread.

(Images from The Daily Mail and National Museums Liverpool)

Death comes to literary dialogue

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Roberto_Bolaño2.jpgPart of what makes literature "literature" - instead of, say, verbiage of the variety one finds in fine print, junk mail and street signs - is that it's in dialogue with other literary works.  Mario Vargas Llosa's, The Bad Girl, wouldn't exist without Gustave Flaubert's, Madame Bovary, nor Jose Saramoga's, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, without the New Testament, but "past performance is no guarantee of future earnings" is impervious to any of the foregoing (to its - and our - detriment).

Because of this dialogue, fictional books featuring fictional author-characters often provide examples of the fictional authors' work.  A.S. Byatt wrote an entire oeuvre of Romantic poetry for the fictional poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash in her novel, PosessionThe World According to Garp, to take another example, contains substantial excerpts from T.S. Garp's fiction.  Without these excerpts, LaMotte, Ash and Garp might exist as characters, but readers would be without any idea of how they, as writers, participate in literary dialogue (although readers see how their creators, Byatt and John Irving respectively, engage in such dialogue).  In creative writing MFA-speak, without these glimpses of LaMotte's, Ash's and Garp's creative output, Byatt and Irving would merely be telling us about their writing, rather than showing us.

Perhaps surprisingly - or, rather, unsurprisingly, since Jonathan Lethem, in his New York Times review of 2666 notes that Roberto "Bolaño seems to make sport of violating nearly all of the foremost writing-school rules" - in 2666, Roberto Bolaño gives us a writer-protagonist sans examples of his writing.  

Benno von Archimboldi, the nom de plume of Hans Reiter, is a post-WWII German novelist who, by the late 1990's and early 2000's, is routinely nominated for the Nobel Prize.  

British and European critics are obsessed with Achimboldi - they fight academic battles over him in journals and at conferences.  At one point in 2666, Jean-Luc Pelletier, a French von Achimboldi scholar, remarks

that it was surprising, or that it would never cease to surprise him, the way Archimboldi depicted pain and shame.
"Delicately," said Espinoza [a colleague].
"That's right," said Pelletier.  "Delicately."
(p. 143.)  At another moment, Jacob Bubis, Archimboldi's publisher and a legendary editor, awakens his wife in the middle of the night to declare that they must publish Archimboldi's new novel.

"Is it good?" asked [Mrs. Bubis], half asleep and not bothering to sit up.
"It's better than good," said Bubis, pacing the room.
. . . .
At the first light of day [Bubis] woke his wife again and made her promise that when he was no longer head of the publishing house, his euphemism for his own death, she wouldn't abandon Archimboldi.
"Abandon him in what sense?" asked [Mrs. Bubis], still half asleep.
"We have to protect him," he added.
(p. 815.)

Such is the information with which the reader of 2666 must make do, on which basis - on which faith - the reader must accept Archimboldi, the character and the writer.  My question is: why?  Why create a writer of such towering importance - to literary history (in 2666's fictional world) and to the story of 2666 - and simultaneously deprive the reader of any inkling of this writer's literary works?  

Indeed, Bolaño goes farther than denying Archimboldi any opportunity to show readers his fiction and the dialogue it sparks with other literary works; Bolaño all but tells us that such dialogue is beyond Archimboldi.  Largely unschooled and unread, Archimboldi grows up with a single critical text: Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region, from which he learns about seaweed.  The only other book that Archimboldi reads during his formative years is Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival.  How can a writer with such a sparse and scattershot familiarity with the canon produce literature?

With Archimboldi, Bolaño seems to want to create a sui generis author - a novelist who comes out of no literary tradition, who owes no literary debts, who eschews literature as he conquers it.  

This conceit is obviously the stuff of myth, but perhaps it relates to the way Bolaño saw himself: a high-school drop-out, Bolaño (according to Francisco Goldman in his review in The New York Review of Books) "blame[d] gaps in his subsequent self-education on the layout of the shelving in bookstores that prevented him from shoplifting certain books."  The authorial persona Bolaño cultivated (in the words of Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The London Review of Books) is one of  "a writer . . . who writes as if literature were all that mattered, and at the same time writes in a distinctly unliterary way."  

That said, I don't believe that Archimboldi (intentionally or subliminally) is a cast in Bolaño's mold.  For one thing, Bolaño, unlike Archimboldi, does not abstain from dialogue with literature; on the contrary, his work is rife with references to literary and other artistic works.  Bolaño is not without literary forebears: he openly acknowledges the influence of - and withstands comparison to - Julio Cortázar (especially the novel Hopscotch) and Jorge Luis Borges.  Bolaño's autodidactic education might have been scattershot, but it's anything but sparse; Bolaño's literary dialogue may be idiosyncratic, but it's at the core of his work - he couldn't write "as if literature were all that mattered" otherwise.

For another thing, Bolaño apparently makes a habit of writing about writers whose work remains opaque to the reader.  Kunkel describes  Bolaño's story "Enrique Martín," the eponymous character of which is a giftless poet about whose poetry the narrator "speaks . . . only with pity and contempt."  Similarly, in Bolaño's novel, The Savage Detectives, two poets go searching for a third poet, Cesárea Tinajero, whose body of work has virtually vanished.  Archimboldi is simply one of many Bolaño writer-characters whose literary works remain (literally) unwritten.  (Whereas Bolaño himself is the prolific progenitor of one book of poems, three story collections and ten published novels, along with at least two novels found among his papers at the time of his death.)

Bolaño's choice to leave Archimboldi mute to literary dialogue is plainly more than an amplification of Bolaño's own (possible) personal myths . . . which is not to say that the choice is rational.  Patterns that emerge across a writer's oeuvre are often not rational, but visceral, emotional, illogical or subliminal.  My guess is that - consciously or unconsciously - the writer-without-an-oeuvre (of which Archimboldi is Bolaño's supreme example) served Bolaño as a symbol of mortality.  To any fool who comforts him or herself with the thought that the human body will fail but the written word endures, Bolaño's oeuvre-less authors stand as a sharp reminder that, however much literature may be all that matters, the impermanence of life is a fact that overwhelms all other priorities and silences all dialogues.

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from The Telegraph)     

Give back the poems

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Paul_Noth_Shakespeare_cartoon.pngEach fresh assertion that so-and-so-other-than-Shakespeare wrote the plays (and sonnets) provokes mild eye rolling from me.  I can't think of a bigger waste of time than pondering that question, much less writing a magazine article or - heavens! - a book on the subject.  James Shapiro and Michael Posner obviously disagree with me, the latter actually arguing that a Jewish woman, Amelia Bassano Lanier, wrote Shakespeare's works (I hardly know whether to kvell or cry at that theory).

If one is so maddeningly insistent on uncovering literary fraud, however, Walt Whitman strikes me as a vastly superior target to Shakespeare.  As Christopher Benfey writes in his recent piece in The New York Review of Books, "Well into his thirties, Whitman was a non-poet in every way, with no mark of special talent or temperament."

Benfey makes this comment in the course of reviewing two books, Three American Poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville, by William C. Spengemann, and On Whitman, by C.K. Williams, both of which argue strenuously that Leaves of Grass sprang as unexpectedly and unbelievably from Whitman's head as Athena did from Zeus's.

Here's Spengemann:

[N]o amount of information regarding such matters [as upbringing, early experiences, habits, sexual inclination, and the like] will account for the unforegrounded appearance of Leaves in 1855, the form those poems take, or the appeal they have held for poets and readers of other times, other places.
(second alteration in original).  Williams is even more baroque:

It's as though [Whitman's] actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though - a little science fiction, why not? - aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry aparatus.  It is really that crazy.
My first thought on reading these perspectives was, Occam's razor: the simplest explanation is usually correct: and the simplest explanation is not that Walt Whitman's brain was replaced by aliens, but that somebody else wrote the poems.

My suspicions grew as Benfey quoted from Williams's observations about the waning of Whitman's talent.  Shortly after Whitman published his unprecedented Leaves of Grass, he "lost the connection to his music," Williams claims, a condition that lead Whitman to ever-more-desperate attempts at "sounding like himself" in his later poetry.  

Sounding like himself?  Isn't this a case for finding out who really wrote Leaves of Grass?  More probable by far is the likelihood that Whitman had a falling out with the true author of Leaves and no longer had access to poems he could pass off as his own . . . right?  Whitman himself apparently endorsed the theory that Shakespeare didn't write the works attributed to him - an attempt by Whitman to distract attention from his own literary plagiarism, no?  And what about the fact that Whitman claims to have fathered six children without ever getting married?  Shouldn't Whitman scholars be devoting more effort to researching whether one of Whitman's loved-and-left baby mamas was actually the author of Leaves of Grass?  One doesn't have to troll very far through nineteenth century verse to find a weirdo woman poet with a mysterious relationship to an unidentified "master," a poetess who had withdrawn from the world for unexplained reasons (the trauma of out-of-wedlock birth perhaps): I speak, of course, of Emily Dickinson.

When the book arguing that Leaves of Grass is actually the work of Emily Dickinson, and that the cause of her seclusion was her seduction and abandonment by feckless Walter Whitman, I promise I won't roll my eyes.  I expect a cut of the royalties.

(Cartoon punchline is "In fact, the work's been so good that we question whether it's Will's own"; from The New Yorker, June 14 and 21, 2010 issue)

In Zanzibar, skip the signs and grab a book

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Tipu_Tip's_House.jpg
During a recent swing through Zanzibar's Stone Town (a UNESCO Heritage Site), I happened upon this sign outside one of the houses:

Residence of the famous Arab trader Hamed B. Muhammad Al-Marjebi (Tipu Tip) who built up a large trading empire in the Eastern Congo in the 19th Century.  With Belgian Colonization of the Congo he returned to Zanzibar where he acquired many clove plantations and built his house.  He died in Zanzibar in 1905 and is buried nearby.
Considering that the sign seems to have been placed on the house by UNESCO, I found it notable for its evasiveness and contribution to revisionist history and general ignorance. 

Tipu Tip was indeed famous.  His men led Henry Morton Stanley to Dr. Livingstone.  According to Charles Miller in The Lunatic Express, Stanley described Tipu Tip in glowing terms:

He was a tall, black-bearded man of negroid complexion, in the prime of life, straight, and quick in his movements, a picture of energy and strength.  He had a fine, intelligent face . . . the air of a well-bred Arab and [was] courtier-like in his manner . . . . I came to the conclusion that he was a remarkable man, the most remarkable man that I had met among the Arabs, Wa-Swahili and half-castes in Africa.
(p. 49.)  But Tipu Tip was not merely famous for his good looks, wit and manners, nor were his clove plantations the source of his notoriety.  Rather, in Miller's words, Tipu Tip

was the Rockefeller-Croesus of the slave industry; the wealth he amassed in the quarter century during which he milked a region half the size of Europe of its people will never be measured.  (The volume he handled, though, is suggested by the size of his caravans; some consisted of two thousand porters and one thousand armed guards.)
. . . .
[Tipu Tip] was always prepared, of course, to field any questions designed to shame his profession.  A favorite rejoinder to missionary critics was that Abraham and Jacob had been slave owners.  Once, when a European reproached him for rescuing an African village from a cannibal raid and then enslaving his beneficiaries, he shrugged his shoulders and replied: "Which would you rather be, a slave or a meal?"
(p. 49-50.)

While I appreciate that no one has ever accused UNESCO staff of cracking a book, I nonetheless charge the agency with the responsibility to do enough research to call a slave trader a slave trader.  What's the point of a "World Heritage Site" if the stink of that heritage's shit is perfumed over with cloves by the time visitors arrive?

Modernity's metaphor: the displaced person

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UNHCR_papers.pngMy parallel careers - novelist and communications specialist for humanitarian and aid organizations - have only one significant point of overlap: displaced people.  Whether they are outside their home countries (refugees), or within their countries but unable to live in their homes (internally displaced people - IDPs), whether their dislocation is literal or metaphoric, displaced people claim my deepest reservoirs of empathy.

I think the reason for this is that displacement is the touchstone of the current historical moment.  Modern trends - urbanization, gender equality, psychologizing (to name three almost at random) - usually displace people.  The tendency in contemporary life is to create greater distance from tradition - by moving people from rural to urban settings, by introducing women into non-traditional roles, by inducing people to question their motives and understand themselves critically.  (Even fundamentalism, which in its many varieties is typically a reaction to modernity, displaces people with its severity and extremity, despite its claims to reestablish "traditions.")  Modern trends also increase the pace of change, requiring people to endure frequent displacement, followed by even-more frequent displacement.

My own life is a case study of the potential for displacement wrought by modern living.  Professionally, I've had four professions in sixteen years.  Geographically, during the same period, I've lived in five states in the U.S. and four countries.  I've gone from being a misfit at home to a "foreigner" abroad.  My identity is coalescing into that of a wanderer, a person whose country is her body and who can be said to belong fully only to the planet.

Although opportunities for humanitarian and aid work with displaced people are sadly common, my experience trying to sell my fiction to mainstream publishing houses suggests little interest in displaced people (who, in my fiction, are often expatriates).  Given my view that displacement is a central concern in modernity's most sweeping, global trends, the lack of interest among commercial publishers disappoints as much as it seems to highlight a disconnect between the world of publishing and, well, the world. 

So I was delighted to find a contradictory suggestion in Pankaj Mishra's recent The New Yorker review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's second memoir, Nomad.  Mishra wrote:

The fate of the truly modern nomad is . . . a ceaseless inner conflict between ways of life and value systems; this very quality has made the nomad an emblematic figure of the contemporary age.
I couldn't agree more.  If only Mishra were in charge of publishing decisions instead of whoever it is who's promoting vampires (and now angels) as the emblematic figures of contemporary literature!

(Image of refugee holding UNHCR papers from New Proposals website)

Too real for pleasure, too impressive to deny

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Roberto_Bolaño.jpgRoberto Bolaño's 2666 is impressive beyond praise that can be offered in modern English.  Like Milan Kundera, Bolaño's achievement is utterly unique and un-replicable.

At 893 pages in the English edition (apparently over 1,000 in the original Spanish), Bolaño's feat in 2666 is perhaps beyond summarization.  But despite its heft and ambition, I think Bolaño's accomplishment is straightforward: he's modern literature's consummate realist.

Calling Bolaño a "realist" may strike those familiar with his work as odd.  Bolaño, after all, began his writing life as a poet and, as Franscisco Goldman asserts in his New York Review of Books piece, Bolaño seems to have considered himself fundamentally a poet despite his turn to fiction writing.  Indeed, reading 2666 (even in translation) evoked the active visceral engagement that usually only occurs with poetry: the book riled up my guts for irrational and inarticulable reasons, the way a poem might make me want to cry without knowing why.

Because of Bolaño's power to tap into the subliminal and the unconscious, he might readily be termed a stylist, in the model of Anne Enright, whose The Gathering operates similarly, or W.G. Sebold, whose The Emigrants has been reputed to have like power (though I found it merely boring when I read it six years ago).  And, unquestionably, Bolaño's writing classes him among the leading stylists of literature.

But Bolaño distinguishes himself from the poet-stylist set in a significant way.  Most poets and stylists transport the reader from reality: when their writing works, it grips the reader's viscera and pulls him or her into a realm that departs from the quotidian.  The point of such writing is not to depict life realistically, but to evoke (and provoke) feelings, sensations and engagement.

Whereas Bolaño uses poetic-stylist techniques to depict reality.  Indeed, the reality that emerges from 2666 is more "real" than any other attempt at literary realism I have encountered.  As Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The London Review of Books, says of a Bolaño short story called "Enrique Martín":

You don't feel that Enrique Martín is a robust character inhabiting a well-made story; you feel - whether or not any real-life original ever existed - something perhaps more powerful and certainly, in fiction, more unusual: namely, that he is simply a person, and that instead of having a story he had a life.
Reading 2666, I didn't feel that I was inhabiting the world of a story: I felt that I caught in the sweep of 20th century history.  Common themes and characters abounded, yes, but plot was only what I imposed on the events, and indeterminacy was the only honest conclusion.   

Composed of five sub-novellas, 2666 can be read in any order.  I read it in the order in which the novellas were assembled in the English-language edition, but I'm going to read the book again in a different order.  The conviction intrinsic in 2666's construction is the same truth that informs the modern construction of consciousness: however one looks at the facts, doubt must temper clarity because story-lines are imposed, not organic.

To use literature as Bolaño does is a departure from the norm.  His approach cannot be described as "escapist."  My guess is that most people's realities are more escapist than Bolaño's literature.  Nor does Bolaño's technique generate pleasure reading.  The sub-novella, "The Part About the Crimes," in 2666 is almost unbearable to read - just as life is sometimes unbearable to endure.  By depicting reality so . . . realistically, Bolaño has in some sense made the ultimate argument against realism: it's too intense.

And yet, enjoyable or no, Bolaño's triumph is impossible not to admire or praise (however inadequate the English language is for the task).  In taking reality and wrestling it between the covers of a book, where it stays and performs at the command of the conjurer and the whim of the reader, Bolaño has assumed the mantle of a god.  A Greek god, perhaps - flawed and ambiguous and happy to muck around with humans - but the progenitor of one a hell of a branch of literature.

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from The New York Times book review)
Arjun_Kohli&Stephen_Rain_Ngala.jpg
Even though novel-writing is the kind of post-Gutenberg, pre-Internet activity that is ever-more-frequently marked for extinction in newspaper book reviews (themselves marked for extinction), I think the Internet and novels have positive synergies to exploit.  Putting my opinion into action, I recently assembled a crew to make a video promo for my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband (as I did for my second novel, The Swing of Beijing). 

Through a combination of begging and bribing with meals, I persuaded my friend and former workmate at UNEP, Arjun Kohli (pictured above), to shoot and edit the video, and my friend, Tim Banda, of The Nation, to interview me on camera.  Along with musician Stephen Rain Okoth Ngala (pictured above), a couple of early readers of the book, and some other hungry friends, we all decamped to Olepolos to shoot the video and, well, have a party.

Nyama.jpgOlepolos is a nyama choma (roast meat) restaurant in the Ngong Hills, outside Nairobi.  "Olepolos" is a Masai word; I've been told (by a mzungu) that it means "place of the wind," but (if I were you, dear blog reader) I'd independently confirm that before requoting.  The important point is that Olepolos is one of Kenya's top locations for roast goat meat; it's also set in a hillside and affords gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape from its terraces.

For our party of nine, the restaurant had slaughtered and cooked a whole goat (leg pictured at right), which they served to us with katchumbari (a salsa-like salad), ugali (like thick grits), mukimo (a combination of maize, potatoes and nettle), and fries.  Goat meat, for those of you who haven't tried it, is delicious; it's lighter than beef or lamb, but more flavorful than pork or chicken.  It's also very fatty: mmmm.  Nine though we were, we couldn't finish the feast, which spanned three sittings over five hours.

Tim_Banda.jpgAfter sating ourselves on the first helping, we sat down to the interview.  Tim Banda (pictured left) was a naughty interviewer: his idea of a question about the book's romance plot line was to ask me whether I, like my character, found love in Kenya.  We'll see whether that question makes it into the final edit.

In addition to the interview, Arjun shot footage of the landscape and of Ngala, playing music on a traditional Lou instrument, called the nyatiti, which has strings made from fishing lines.  We also got some clips of readers talking about their response to the book.  (And I discovered that a great way to solicit positive reader feedback is to sit in front of them while they discuss their opinions of the book.  I wonder if that insight has any application with book critics.)

Stay tuned for the results - the video should be coming online in the next two or three weeks.   

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