— Peter Handke, The Weight of the World, p. 16

Joaquín Font, El Reposo Mental Health Clinic, Camino Desierto de los Leones, on the outskirts of Mexico City DF, January 1977:

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And books for when you’re desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write. A serious mistake, as we’ll soon see. Let’s take, for example, an average reader, a cool-headed, mature, educated man leading a more or less healthy life. A man who buys books and literary magazines. So there you have him. This man can read things that are written for when you’re calm, but he can also read any other kind of book with a critical eye, dispassionately, without absurd or regrettable complicity. That’s how I see it. I hope I’m not offending anyone. Now let’s take the desperate reader, who is presumably the audience for the literature of desperation. What do we see? First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he’s a limited reader. Why limited? That’s easy: because he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain, (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my opinion), or, for that matter, Les Misérables or War and Peace. Am I making myself clear? Good. So I talked to them, told them, warned them, alerted them to the dangers they were facing. It was like talking to a wall. Furthermore, desperate readers are like the California gold mines. Sooner or later they’re exhausted! Why? It’s obvious! One can’t live one’s whole life in desperation. In the end the body rebels, the pain becomes unbearable, lucidity gushes out in great cold spurts. The desperate reader (and especially the desperate poetry reader, who is insufferable, believe me) ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably, he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured! And then, as part of the regenerative process, he returns slowly — as if wrapped in swaddling clothes, as if under a rain of dissolved sedatives — he returns, as I was saying, to a literature written for cool, serene readers, with their heads set firmly on their shoulders. This is what’s called (by me, if nobody else) the passage from adolescence to adulthood. And by that I don’t mean that once someone has become a cool-headed reader he know longer reads books written for desperate readers. Of course he reads them! Especially if their good or decent or recommended by a friend. But ultimately they bore him! Ultimately, that literature of resentment, full of sharp instruments and lynched messiahs, doesn’t pierce the heart the way a calm page, a carefully thought-out page, a technically perfect page does. I told them so. I warned them. I showed them the technically perfect page. I alerted them to the dangers. Don’t exhaust the vein! Humility! Seek oneself, lose oneself in strange lands! But with a guiding line, with breadcrumbs or white pebbles! And yet I was mad, driven mad by them, by my daughters, by Laura Damián, and so they didn’t listen.

The Savage Detectives, Bolaño (p. 184-85).

In vain I searched for a way to piece this particular monologue out, but I’m not smart enough to thread my way through the layered ironies here & not confident that excerpting would do anything but misrepresent it. I’m left in a welter of confusion — half wanting to nod my head in simple assent, half wondering how straight to take something that, for starters, calls the project of Bolaño’s misspelled alter ego a terrible mistake & is a paeon to the virtues of cool-headed detachment narrated from a mental asylum — and that becomes, as it goes along, more & more agitated itself, less & less cool-headed. Eating its own tail.

It reminded me, in a way — probably because I read it yesterday — of Andrew Seal’s years-old piece about regret & avid readership, and of the reactions to Salinger’s death, and the presumed audience for Catcher in the Rye. Can we assume, for instance, that Belaño is or isn’t trying to write a literature of desperation? (Garcia Madero, our narrator for the first howevermany pages of the novel, being a prime example of a desperate reader, although the novel is full of them, & full of people too who reach a point in their lives where they’re no longer really reading or writing poetry anymore.) Can we point to a kind of fantasy of the disinterested spectator, uncoupled from deprivation or investment, the sort of person only moved by a ‘technically perfect page?

SH: Why do you think people are interested in art?

DH: I think they want to touch the source of something, you know? It doesn’t make people better. It doesn’t make them happier. It doesn’t make them smarter, and you can’t teach people to do it or like it. So who knows?

Believer interview with Dave Hickey

It comes down to, I think, whether literature is redemptive — does it cure us? (“The desperate reader . . . ends up by turning away from books. Inevitably, he ends up becoming just plain desperate. Or he’s cured!”) And if it doesn’t make us better or happier, what does? — and does that destroy our capacity for literature? — or for an identification which Joaquín Font calls an ‘absurd or regrettable complicity,’ which is to say, a visceral, personalized response instead of a considered one.

A multivocal novel, I called SD a couple days ago, sure: voices, choruses of them, unharmonized. And we could say that the author himself is effaced, the fiction speaks on its own, except of course that Bolaño is well-known to have a stake in this, a definite extratextual point of view, a history that can be mapped onto the novel.

Jeeze, folks, I don’t know. I’ve waded into this now, it’s too late to stop, but I’m over my head. All I can do is place things on the table next to each other & see if you can make more sense of it than me. Fill my mouth with the words of others. As, for instance, Gabriel Josipovici on the Psalms, via the Space:

‘It is as if simply opening your mouth, giving utterance to your voice, releases something in you; as if finding words to express your total despair and the sense you feel of being shut up, unable to come forth, of having been rejected by the whole world, God included, makes the water return to the desert, makes life return to the one who was dead. The fact that the Psalm in Jonah is embedded in a narrative allows us to verify the truth of this, for no sooner has Jonah finished speaking than ‘the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.’ [10] Of course it is important that Jonah and the ‘I’ of the other psalms on this topic cry out to God; but in a sense they only do so because God is the one who will always be prepared to listen. Simply giving voice, I would suggest, finding words for your anguish, is what in the first instance, makes it possible to overcome that anguish.’

—  Gabriel Josipovici, “Singing a New Song.”


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.

Dreaming cities

23 February 2010

Espalanade de les Invalides, Paris, 1900. (Via the Brooklyn Museum’s Goodyear Archival Collection).

— ‘How can millions of people, their homes & streets, be unreal?’
— ‘Very easily. A big city must be like a dream.’

Jean Rhys, Wide Saragosso Sea

Paging through my commonplace book, finding fragments, loose spools of twine, nails, ticket stubs of prose. One of these is a paragraph from Jerome Charyn’s The Green Lantern: A Romance of Stalinist Russia, although what I really want to be excerpting here is something from Paradise Man, which I read before I started copying things out:

“He knew it would come like a fairy tale. No knocks on the door in the middle of the night, though he could hear the shpions hidden between the two thicknesses of walls. Were they discussing The Green Lantern, or only mocking a doomed colonel of the NKVD? He was too much of a hero to drag out of a restaurant or a café like the Oktobr. His superior at the seventh department called, asked him to report to the Lubyanka in his uniform.”

What I always loved about Charyn, or what I remember loving about his work, what beguiled me, is his evocation of a city as an interconnected spectacle, an organism, a stage whose players are long known to each other. Everyone has a history & a part, & it’s the stage that matters. The city isn’t a backdrop for atomized postmoderns to wander through, it’s a coherent whole, mutually constituted, incarnated through the simultaneous opening in the morning of a hundred thousand newspapers. (Or — if that’s too bourgeois to describe Charyn, who memorialized the scraping, two-bit city, the neighborhood guys — the kind of place made of barshop chatter, cop bars, second-string beat reporters.)

Narratives of community, urban narrative distinct from the sort of urban narrative writers make when they come to Brooklyn in their 20s because you can lose yourself & be anonymous. Everyone knows everyone, knew them before the story began; there are multitudes waiting in the wings (Charyn’s prose is characterized by nicknames that verge on mythic epithets, by a murmuring, anonymous plural chorus of gossip & the word on the street). I said I wanted to have Paradise Man on hand because of course Charyn did this best & longest with New York, but he manages the same trick with the theatre scene in Stalinist Moscow (Green Lantern).

Am I explaining well? I’m not sure. I got a feeling like this last November in Paris, walking around the cemetery of Père Lachaise — I don’t mean putting my lips on Oscar Wilde’s tomb to join the hundreds of fresh prints of lipstick (just like they say — covered top to bottom in kisses, really truly, mottled pink-purple-red, even though it’d rained the night before), or watching people crowd around Jim Morrison’s little grave & take endless pictures of the nothing that was there and the nothing that wasn’t. I mean when you wander the endless city blocks of this shadow city, this necropolis, the tombs lined up in various states of disrepair along named avenues & alleyways, some of the doors kicked in, & read the anonymous luminaries, the bishops & administrators & uncanonized authors & rich families, the people who a hundred years ago were important, however briefly, to the workings of that city when Haussman was demolishing medieval buildings  & widening boulevards to make it harder for workers to put up barricades made of paving-stones, easier to move troops (1), & the money was pouring in & those beautiful monuments were being erected. You get this sense of a vast multitude of people devoting themselves to an idea, to the City-as-dream, where your role is affirmed & acknowledged by institutions.

I’m thinking, then, of narratives of collective urbanity, as opposed to suburban narratives of isolated individuals or warring couples, or maybe even of postmodern isolationist urbanity, where newspapers are never opened simultaneously & people live in digital pods connected by invisible & farflung glowing threads. Charyn can’t be the only one, although when I first read him (I was maybe 18?) it tasted very different to me. The Wire, sure.

Maybe, too, the Mexico City of longhaired poets & cafés in Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which I stole (in English) from a friend of mine in Barcelona. She has made me promise to mail it back to her within the week, & I’m only 150 pages or so into it, so I’m not making an argument just yet. I want to say something — it’s on the tip of my tongue — about the death of newspapers & the death of the City being the same thing, that maybe the feeling like I get reading Charyn in New York or mausoleums in Paris doesn’t correspond to anything that still exists, but I can’t wade into this without shorting a mass of generalizations, all of them loaded.