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Facing the music in the audiobooth

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Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      


(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

Real combat

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David Grossman's To the End of the Land might be a great book, but it's a mess.  It has tics, like its characters.  (And this is a book in which a boy rhymes incessantly for months, and then graduates into OCD hand-washing/lip-puffing/face-contorting, etc.).
 
Grossman's protagonist, Ora, is a little too emotional, and a little too unintelligent, to hold the book together.  It flies apart with her tantrums, her sudden impulses to cook, to flee, to write, to argue.
 
Like Ora, the story occillates.  The book begins powerfully, with evocative scenes in an isolation ward in a hospital during the 1967 war.  Fast-forwarding to 2000, the book continues strongly, with a devastating sub-plot involving Ora's Arab driver, Sami.  But - too soon - Sami disappears.  Ilan, Ora's husband, and Adam, her oldest son, have disappeared before we meet Ora in 2000, and her younger son, Ofer, vanishes into a military campaign shortly before Sami takes off.  All this fleeing leaves Ora alone with Avram, a man of severe incapacities, on a hike along the Israel Trail, from northen Israel back down to Jerusalem.  The narrative for the next four hundred pages or so must rise and fall with Ora, and she isn't up to the burden.
 
Grossman tries to help her out.  At one point, feral dogs menace Ora and Avram, with the upshot that Ora attracts - and functionally adopts - a dog who follows their meanderings for the remainder of the book.  At another point, Ora and Avram meet an elderly pediatrician, hiking alone, wearing two wedding rings and asking intimate questions.  The doctor finds a notebook Ora dropped, and Ora later retrieves it from him while he naps.  In my favorite of these tangents, Ora and Avram are picked up by a jester of sorts, a holy fool named Akiva, whose job is as a "gladdener of the dejected."  
 
But none of these narrative life-savers thrown by the author gets Ora to swim.  She swirls along with the currents and the breezes, and by the end of the book the narrative seems to expire from exhaustion.  The desperately important sub-plot with Sami is left hanging; the fate of Ofer in the military campaign limps to an ambiguous closure; the rupture in Ora's relations with her husband, Ilan, and her son, Adam, raises its head, but barely receives a pat. 
 
Instead, we get Ora's final tantrum, which occurs after she's invaded Avram's privacy by checking his voicemails without his knowledge and intercepted a sensitive message from his girlfriend in which she seems obliquely to be confessing to an abortion.  Ora - though the aggressor and the violator in this scenario - is hurt and acting out, and in the context of everything else with which she and Avram have been dealing over the course of the book (horrorific torture, war crimes, divorce, abandoment, helplessness to protect one's children), Ora's behavior rings a sour and petty note on which to conclude the book.  But the ending feels like Grossman simply couldn't go on: Ora wore him down.  He had to close the book on her. 
 
And yet the book has the ambition, the empathy and the sheer compulsion - the sense that it ripped itself from its author's guts and loins - that makes it great: "great" in the sense that the great Roberto Bolaño defines great books in his great and monumental novel 2666:

What a sad paradox . . . . Now even bookish [readers] are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.  They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters.  Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
(p. 227.)
 
Bolaño has distilled the issue perfectly.  In To the End of the Land, Grossman struggles mightily against what terrifies us all, literally amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.  And he has produced an imperfect, torrential work that blazes into the unknown.  
 
For Grossman, for Bolaño, and most of all for ourselves, we mustn't fear to take it on.

(Image of David Grossman from The Guardian)

Borges and Bolaño

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In a prior post, I speculated about possible reasons for Roberto Bolaño's propensity to create writer characters whose oeuvres remain opaque to the audience.  By depriving these writer characters of an oeuvre, Bolaño isolates them from the possibility of literary dialogue with other authors and texts.  I conjectured that Bolaño might conceive of such a writer character as a symbol of mortality.

Now, however, I have a new theory.  I think Bolaño's oeuvre-less writers are a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges, after all, is the author who (as I highlighted in another prior post) eschewed composing actual novels in favor of imagining them and then commenting on them.  Borges' short stories, moreover, overflow with texts that we don't see (e.g., John of Pannonia's tract against the heresy of the Monotoni in "The Theologians"; Borges' own fantasy tale about the serpent Fafnir in "The Zahir"), and with texts that we don't see completely (e.g., Benjamin Otálora's tale in "The Dead Man"; Christopher Dewey's tale in "The Man on the Threshold").  Without too much mental gymnastics, one could truthfully describe Borges as a novelist who, instead of having an oeuvre, merely has a commentary on his own imaginary oeuvre.

By his own account, Bolaño loved Borges.  In The New York Review of Books, Francisco Goldman quotes Bolaño saying, "I could live under a table reading Borges." 

Knowing of Bolaño's reverence for Borges, and now having read some of Borges' work, I'm inclined to see the protagonist of Bolaño's novel, 2666, the enigmatic writer, Benno von Archimboldi (a/k/a Hans Reiter), as a Borges-like figure.  Like Borges, von Archimboldi is a man with a split identity (see Borges' short story, "Borges and I"); like Borges, von Archimboldi is withdrawn from the world; like Borges, von Archimboldi writes imaginary novels; like Borges, others (especially critics and criminals) see von Archimboldi as a figure of power and redemption; and like Borges, von Archimboldi hasn't won the Nobel Prize.

Goldman interestingly cites Bolaño's observation that, "[his] life . . . has been infinitely more savage than Borges's."  Benno von Archimboldi's life, however, has seen its share of savagery.  Perhaps, in Benno von Archimboldi, Bolaño was offering his mentor - who'd always been cagey about his identity as "Borges" - another identity, one less bookish and less focused on the 19th century, one more infused with the lessons that Bolaño had learned from his own life.  In Bolaño's hands, Borges could be everything he wasn't in life: a physical presence, a soldier, a killer, a lover - everything, in fact, but a writer with an oeuvre of novels. 

Even a novelist with an extensive oeuvre like Bolaño's, it seems, has some limits.   

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from Maud Newton; image of Jorge Luis Borges from Wikipedia

The Venetian gardener

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In Roberto Bolaño's novel, 2666, an acclaimed, reclusive novelist, Benno von Archimboldi works as a gardener in Venice. 

Bolaño acknowledges the unlikeliness of Archimboldi's day job - it sounds like a joke, like being a trash collector in Antarctica.  But, no, Bolaño maintains that Archimboldi really is a gardener in Venice, employed by the municipality to tend to its public parks, however few in number or small in square footage.

Having just traipsed around Venice for the first time, I have a fresh appreciation for the disbelief that ought to greet any claim to be a gardener in Venice: the city really doesn't have any plants. 

Indeed, I believe I have identified what has to have been Archimboldi's workplace.  Pictured above is the only public park space I saw: four or so trees, clustered with some shrubs, by the Ponte della Accademia.  An enterprising Venetian municipal official might consider installing a plaque, "Here worked the mysterious and brilliant novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, according to that other mysterious and brilliant novelist, Roberto Bolaño" - or setting up a walking tour of Venice's public plants, similar to Stockholm's tours of points of interest from the Millennium trilogy.

That said, having seen Venice (however briefly), I now feel that Archimboldi's job was not a joke: it was a metaphor. 

Venice is a has-been metropolis.  Its dwindling population survives on the skimpiest of economies: short of seasonal tourism, the city has no industry, no offices, no business, no livelihood.  Its buildings are constantly decaying; upkeep and restoration efforts cannot hope to outpace the destructiveness of the rising salt-water.  A monument to a Renaissance pinnacle, the city is currently close to a tomb, a symbol of the absurdity and hopelessness of resistance to mortality.

Nonetheless, Bolaño doesn't grieve Venice's fate.  Everything has its span of existence, and Bolaño doesn't respect attempts at exceeding these limits.  Throughout 2666, Bolaño mocks stabs at immortality, whether through his repeated references to burned books or his antipathy to fame:

Until that moment Archimboldi had never thought about fame.  Hitler was famous.  Göring was famous.  The people he loved or remembered fondly weren't famous, they just satisfied certain needs.  Döblin was his consolation.  Ansky was his strength.  Ingeborg was his joy.  The disappeared Hugo Halder was lightheartedness and fun.  His sister about whom he had no news, was his own innocence.  Of course, they were other things too.  Sometimes they were even everything all together, but not fame, which was rooted in delusion and lies, if not ambition.  Also, fame was reductive.  Everything that ended in fame and everything that issued from fame was inevitably diminished.  Fame's message was unadorned.  Fame and literature were irreconcilable enemies.
(p. 802.)  Like fame, immortality is "rooted in delusion and lies."  Immortality is almost always twinned with ambition.  And it is reductive; to be immortal is to be diminished, the color stripped from the Greek statues, the music lost from the Greek dramas, the social context irrevocably severed from the surviving fragment. 

For Bolaño, literature is not about authors who reverberate through the centuries.  Rather, tthe point of literature is to help us to accept mortality, to benefit from its gifts, and to husband our energies so that we can avoid wasteful resistance to the inevitable.  In 2666, Bolaño suggests that mortality doesn't diminish life, but resistance to it does. 

Thus, he sends Archimboldi into the world's most beautiful monument to such resistance, Venice, to nurture life and growth in the midst of this blindingly gorgeous hollowness.  The task Bolaño gives Archimboldi is one either futility or nobility. 

In any event, it is the task of any brilliant novelist today.

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)     
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