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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)     

Leading ladies, rotten mothers

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Emma Bovary and Scarlett O'Hara are two of the most hateful mothers ever depicted.  Here's Emma, responding to her toddler daughter's demand of attention:

But there, between the window and the work-table, was little Berthe, tottering along in her knitted boots, trying to reach her mother, to grab hold of the ends of her apron strings.
-- Leave me alone! said Emma, pushing her away.
The little girl soon came back again, even closer, up against her mother's knees; and, leaning to steady herself, she gazed up at her with big blue eyes, as a thread of clear saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk of the apron.
-- Leave me alone! repeated the young woman sharply.
The look on her face frightened the child, who began to cry.
-- Can't you leave me alone! she said, elbowing her away.
Berthe fell over by the chest of drawers, against the brass fitting; she cut her cheek on it, blood trickled down.

(p. 107.)  Scarlett seems to have studied at the Emma Bovary mothering school.  Here's Scarlett, bemoaning her pregnancy with Ella:  "When she thought of the baby at all, it was with baffled rage at the untimeliness of it."  (p. 624.)

"Aren't you proud to be having a child?" [asked Rhett.]
"Oh, dear God, no!  I -- I hate babies!"
"You mean -- Frank's baby?"
"No -- anybody's baby."

(p. 638.)  As for Wade, Scarlett's oldest, his attempts at gaining his mother's attention are consistently met with "Don't bother me now.  I"m in a hurry" and "Run away, Wade.  I am busy."  (p. 823.)

In all societies, mothering is such a weighty measure of a woman's value and virtuousness that it's remarkable that these two enduring ladies of literature are such abominable mothers.  Bad mothers are unsympathetic.  Why would readers devote the time and energy to spending hundreds of pages with these two loathsome mothers? 

As readers obviously do spend the time and energy necessary to finish Gone with the Wind and Madame Bovary, repeatedly, they can apparently take bad mothering in stride when it's a character trait in their novels' heroines.  One reason may be that extraordinary adventures become possible for women who are not maternal.  In a sense, bad mothering is necessary for verisimilitude.  If Scarlett and Emma Bovary had accepted the roles that society had selected for them, then they'd have been normal mothers, and they wouldn't have gotten themselves into the messes that ruined their lives and make such great reading.

Scarlett's and Emma's bad mothering also contributes to the reader's sense of justice at the comeuppance both women receive at the end of the tales.  These ladies aren't merely victims of their authors' sadism; rather, they deserve their fates because, among other things, they've been appalling mothers.  Readers respond positively to this shape of righteousness in the narrative arc.

Finally, bad mothering shows a kinship between Scarlett and Emma and male protagonists of great novels.  By being lousy mothers, Scarlett and Emma signal their exceptionalism: they're not like other women; they're non-maternal.  They're like great men, who are driven by the imperative of realizing their potential in a non-domestic context, who'd rather live out their destinies directly than vicariously through their children. 

Privileging the self over others, including offspring, is a sharply double-edged trait.  It's both necessary for greatness, and the most ready mark of a narcissist -- or, in non-clinical terms, an asshole.  Truly great people rarely calibrate this trait with sufficient sensitivity: witness artist-monsters like Pablo Picasso and V.S. Naipaul.  As for the mere narcissists, the trait leaves their personalities an unmitigated disaster. 

In life, the misfortunes that rank above being the child of such a person are few.  On the page, there's enough distance to make it a captivating dymanic about which to read.    
"Ever since early adolescence, Flaubert had regarded bourgeois existence as an immense, indistinct, unmitigated state of mindlessness," pronounces Geoffrey Wall in the Introduction to the Penguin Classics 2003 edition of Madame Bovary.  (p. xxx.)

Emma exhibits symptoms of this mindlessness in her choice of reading: romance novels, treated in the book like a decidedly low-class, but highly addictive, drug.  Emma's first taste of romance novels comes from the old servant in her convent school, who lent "the big girls, clandestinely, one of the novels she always kept in the pocket of her apron" (p. 34) -- and so the good girl is corrupted by the help. 

Despite the interventions of her pious mother-in-law, on whose advice "it was decided to prevent Emma from reading novels" (p. 117), Emma's reading continues unabated, with disastrous effect on her correspondence: "in the letters that Emma sent to [Leon], there was a great deal about flowers, verses, the moon and the stars, naive devices of a depleted passion, attempting to rejuvenate itself from external sources."  (p. 263.)  "As a reader," Geoffrey Wall solemnly condemns her, Emma "only wants what she can incorporate easily into the stereotyped repertoire of her fantasies."  (p. xxv.)

Flaubert's ambition, then, was to attack the bourgeois mindset by undermining the complicity books had in perpetuating its existence: "Writing such as [Flaubert's] invites us, delectably, to reinvent our reading."  (p. xxxix.)

Flaubert's project seems, in later generations, to have been derailed by psychology, the advent of which postulated that bourgeois existence is not an "indistinct . . . state of mindlessness," but a variegated -- and extremely interesting -- assortment of neuroses.  Where Flaubert sought to inspire disgust in the bourgeois mindset, in order to provoke the will to change, psychology reinforced the bourgeois existence by infusing it with fascination.  Psychology drained the deadly boredom out of Flaubert's vision of bourgeois existence.

Flaubert himself foreshadows this development.  In a book conspicuously devoid of passages depicting self-reflection, or anything but the most perfunctory assertions of the mental states of the characters, the following passage caught my attention:

Love, [Emma] believed, had to come, suddenly, with a great clap of thunder and a lightning flash, a tempest from heaven that falls upon your life . . . . Little did she know know that up on the roof of the house, the rain will form a pool if the gutters are blocked, and there she would have stayed feeling safe inside, until one day she suddenly discovered the crack right down the wall.

(p. 93.)  The general trend of literature after Flaubert has been to examine closely those pools of rain, forming on the roof behind the blocked gutters, implacably cracking the edifice.  But because bourgeois mediocrity has such power that it can transform a potent agent of change, like psychology, into a neutered tool of commercialism, like self-improvement mania -- and because language is itself a poor match for such power ("like a cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing-bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars," (p. 177)) -- Flaubert's abiding mission has yet to see fruition.  Notwithstanding the ending Flaubert contrived for her, Madame Bovary lives on. 

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Madame Bovary category.

Love in the Time of Cholera is the previous category.

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