Friday, November 30, 2012

Best head buyer for the Invisible Library: Robert Bolano

When I was an undergraduate, Mark Strand spoke to one of my classes. The class was for undergraduate fiction and poetry writing majors, and it was intended to give us a sense of what the actual post-collegiate landscape looked like for a writer today. Did it achieve that? Well, I graduated, worked in a bookstore, and eventually and haphazardly moved into publishing . . . so maybe?

Anyway, the reason I remember Strand's visit is because he talked about little but the personalities of other poets he knew--and, more specifically, about their cooking. Seriously. He didn't do this in a name-dropping way; if you're Mark Strand talking to undergraduates, the gravity of your own name suffices. Rather, he simply talked, personably and casually, about what the poets he knew were like as people, and what it was like to sit down with them to dinner. It was strange, unexpected, and close to wonderful.

That class came to mind this week as I was reading the newly published unfinished novel by Roberto Bolano, Woes of the True Policeman. Like nearly all Bolano, it's an odd book, melding styles of narration and interests and emphases into a whole that never quite coheres but convinces despite (or perhaps even because of) the lack of coherence. The book brings back a character from 2666, fading literature professor Oscar Amalfitano, and the chapter that reminded me of Strand is titled "Notes from a Class in Contemporary Literature: The Role of the Poet." A taste:
Happiest: Garcia Lorca

Most tormented: Celan. Or Trakl, according to others, though there are some who claim that the honors go to the Latin American poets killed in the insurrections of the '60s and '70s. And there are those who say: Hart Crane.

. . . .

Best deathbed companion: Ernesto Cardenal

Best movie companion: Elizabeth Bishop, Berrigan, Ted Hughes, Jose Emilio Pacheco

Most fun: Borges and Nicanor Parra. Others: Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder.

Most clearsighted: Martin Adan.

Least desirable as a literature professor: Charles Olson.*

Most desirable as a literature professor, though only in short bursts: Ezra Pound.

Most desirable as a literature professor for all eternity: Borges.
Such fun, no? And a reminder that, for all the horror and violence in his books, Bolano had a playful sense of humor. If we'd read all his books before The Savage Detectives burst on the English-language scene, which most of us hadn't, we might not have been so surprised by the deliberately dumb jokes of its final pages. And Bolano also had the teenage boy's love of lists and pointless argument, seen here and in the lists and lists of poets and bullfighters in The Savage Detectives.

Those qualities also come through in his essays, which tend to be much closer to provocations than they are arguments. The one collection that's been published in English, Between Parentheses, is full of statements about writers and books being the best or the worst or the only, the kind of thing we say to friends when we're flushed with enthusiasm and caught up in the experience of first encountering a new writer. To take just a few, here he is, for example, on Latin America itself:
We have the worst politicians in the world, the worst capitalists in the world, the worst writers in the world.
Or on Jose Donoso:
To say that he's the best Chilean novelist of the century is to insult him.
And on and on. Bolano's essays are great fun, but they don't leave you feeling you've been given new insight into their subjects. Even the epigrammatic, elliptical work of Viktor Shklovsky, for example, takes you much deeper into the books he's writing about; you leave off Shklovsky feeling like your relationship with the authors he examines has been changed, fundamentally and forever.

Bolano does, however, do one crucial thing in his nonfiction and in the times when his fiction sidles into literary arguments and game-playing: he points you towards the library and gives you a solid push.


  1. Hm, looks like I will need to go read Donoso, of whom I had not heard before.

    Hey Levi, do you know the poetry of Joaquin Pasos (Nicaragua 1914-1947)? It is breathtakingly good and mostly not published in English translation. I am trying to help a friend who has translated his complete works look for a publisher...

  2. (Rubbing my fingers in anticipation -- my copy of El obsceno pájaro de la noche just arrived!)

  3. I've not read Donoso, either, though The Obscene Bird of Night gets a fair amount of English-language attention.

    And I've definitely not heard of Pasos (though I bet Bolano's mentioned him somewhere). My employer does do some publishing of poetry in translation, here and there . . .