Distinctions

9 March 2010

Radiografía de pájaro, Graciela Iturbide (Oaxaca, 1999). Via Rare Autumn.

Finishing a novel, I wrote recently in the comments at zunguzungu, is a kind of amnesia. While you’re reading a novel as broad & multivocal as The Savage Detectives, you live inside of it for a while, a limitless & unexplored territory that seems to persist in an eternal present, you inhabit its digressions and its vagrancies even when you’re not reading it. Integral maybe to the experience of reading a novel, or novels of this type, is the inability to finish it in one sitting, so that you keep on reading it, keep on being in the middle of it, even while you put it down, when you sleep, when you wake up in the morning. Your sense of the novel’s scope is tied to the subjective feeling of working through it over a period of time.

And the things you notice while you’re in the middle of a novel like this are different, off-centered, tied to that feeling of living inside of it. When you write about it, not having finished, it’s from the inside out.

I’ve always read too fast — rushed through books, gulped them down half-chewed. I finished Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, for example, in two marathon sessions at the bar at Trident Booksellers last August a week before I left the States. When I finished I ordered fried chicken & waffles — one last Stateside meal, to celebrate . . . — & the server gave me a bottle of Sam Adams on the house. I’ve been noticing this feeling — this writing about novels from the inside out — more recently, since I started reading in Spanish, having to pick my way through carefully. Learning, because it’s so much harder, how to pay attention.

En fin: I borrowed The Savage Detectives in Barcelona, & bought Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in a bookstore next to the Museu d’Art Contemporani to preoccupy me in English, and over the last week & a half I’ve been living inside these two multivocal novels one after the other. Now I’m finished, & there it is — amnesia, looking back from the outside, suddenly out among the welter of critical response, feeling redundant, feeling the imperative to sum up. Harder still — both of them end in a kind of silence, in insufficiencies of language, ideograms, a literal kind of being left speechless.

All I wanted to do instead — and it’s taken me all of four paragraphs to get around & back to it — is try a kind of archeology, go back through my notes & write from the inside of the novel again, although as you can see it’s doomed from the start.

“One night he called me and recited a poem by Richard Belfer. One night I called him, from Los Angeles, and told him I was sleeping with the theater director Francisco Segura, aka La Vieja Segura, who was at least twenty years older than me. How exciting, said Ernesto. La Vieja must be an intelligent man. He’s talented, not intelligent, I said. What’s the difference? he said. I sat there thinking how to answer and he waited for me to speak and for a few seconds neither of us said anything.”

The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño (p. 262).

This stab in passing at a distinction between intelligence & talent — touched on & put to the side, we’re already moving past it — is exactly the thing I mean, something I jotted down in the moment. It’s, perhaps, a useful one, and certainly a wonderful way of damning with faint praise. Although maybe it’s just another formulation of the artist/critic or unconscious/conscious divide, the difference between being able to create something arresting & being able to explain it.

Also, maybe (we’re already pulling back), there’s  something about the voice Bolaño is using, a kind of flat, condensed retrospect. Everything is being told to us from a remove — from removes, here Calle Colima in Mexico City, April 1979 — emotional extremes placed next to each other & recollected at a distance, multiple absences at the center that we circle around, as if the novel, like Catch-22, were a kind of spiral. Very little poetry actually reprinted between the pages, although scads of poets, (giant recited lists of them, like Homer’s catalogue of ships — I can no longer read Octavio Paz’s name after a book blurb without smiling),  & people reading poems to each other, & people writing poems we never see. (The place of the poems we do see, as a kind of revelation? Too much heavy lifting for this piece. Maybe next time.)

The Graciela Iturbide photograph, above, I found after trying to remember it (inaccurately, in some ways, inevitably) in this piece from about a month ago. More bits & pieces from the novel to come, although I have to mail the book itself to Barcelona tomorrow, so soon all I’ll have will be the traces left over in my notebook.

Multitudes

14 February 2010

Lord of the Birds, Graciela Iturbide (1984), via.

I’ve always loved the little-used collective nouns that English accumulates — your shrewdness of apes, your exaltation of larks; clattering of jackdaws & mumuration of starlings. Just to list them is to become intoxicated by the accumulation. (We forget, of course, that even the commonest ones, flights & flocks & schools & herds & gaggles & troops, look odd from the outside, in translation, obscure groupings.) The most esoteric & the loveliest attach themselves to birds, & so when I think of nouns of multitude I remember Graciela Iturbide, whose photographs I saw at an exhibition at the Getty in ’08 — looking for them now, I can’t find the two I liked best, one of a cloud of birds suddenly frightened from a tree, hundreds of them surrounding it like a halo, & the other of a veternarian’s arm holding a pelican (I think?), backlit into shadow in front of an x-ray of its bones, the two inverted mirrors of each other, the bones white on black, the bird black on white.

Over Christmas I read John Crowley’s Ægypt & wrote down in my commonplace book a little moment on p. 254: ‘“exalted” as Axel said, by wine.’ What if, as with nouns of multitude — parliament of owls, siege of bitterns — there were verbs of intoxication? Exalted by wine, melancholied by gin, belched by lager, peated by scotch, embittered by ale. Extemporized by brandy . . .

Surely you can think of some better ones.

Carnivale in Bilbao, as I’ve said, brass bands in the streets, light rain, txiquiteros singing through glasses of crianza, the whole city in costume from the children to adults, groups, multitudes, in theme, disguised collectively. I’ve seen gingerbread men, firefighters, fields of strawberries, snowmen, professionals of every occupation, an entire army of playing cards armed with spears attacking a float manned by the Queen of Hearts in drag. And still, it should be said — this is nothing compared to Venice, to Cadiz. Halloween is the palest shadow.