Monday, June 30, 2008

"of all stars the most beautiful"

From Sappho fragment 24a, translated by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter (2002)
] you will remember
] for we in our youth
    did these things

yes many and beautiful things
Reading those lines, I couldn't help but think of Roberto Bolano and the herculean work of preservation and regeneration he accomplished in The Savage Detectives, reviving and remaking a long-lost culture of poetry and bohemianism and lust and vagabondage. The world he shows us is suffused with the ardors and energies of youth, yet--because within the novel we are hearing about the events later--tinged with the inevitability of loss.

Contra Sappho, I in my youth did not really do these things--I was always too staid and uncertain to even truly want to live a life of extravagance or emotional abandon--but I thrill to Bolano's reminder that yes, others did, with all their hearts, these many and beautiful things.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Don't look now, but I think it may actually be summer . . .

With summer having finally established, it seems, temporary supremacy in the upper Midwest, it is probably safe now to watch my friend Carrie Olivia Adams's striking short film of her poem "Winter Came."

But be warned: should the temperature plummet while I'm away from my blog this weekend, I might blame you!

{Or should I blame Carrie?}

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Moon is not only beautiful . . .

{Photo by maura, used under a Creative Commons license.}

In The Box from Japan Harry Stephen Keeler refers to the moon a couple of times as "that cheerful satellite," which reminds me that I've not yet recommended you take a look at the New York Moon, a beautifully designed online magazine that is published with the advent of every other full moon and covers a different topic--in some way connected to New York--in each issue.

The May/June "Neighborhood" issue offers--along with music, sketches, and drawings--an ingenious trash map of the city and an interactive map of the elusive Sixth Borough, with notes reminiscent of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (and its wondrous forebear, the Travels of Marco Polo).

As posting is likely to be light over the next few days, what better time to put on some Les Paul and Mary Ford and while away some hours gazing at the Moon?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"A triumph of profanity"

Near the midway point of Harry Stephen Keeler's The Box from Japan (1932), the hero, Carr Halsey, gets a piece of advice from an old friend, reporter Artemus Baxter, at the conclusion of a phone call:
"Thanks. Good-by." Halsey hung up. And added: "Damn!"

"Never swear," cautioned the veteran newspaperman. "It betrays an unstable nervous equilibrium."
Those are unexpected words from a newspaperman, whose profession ranks behind only those of the sailor and the gun moll in its facility with an epithet--and unlikely to be well received by Halsey, who had earlier in the novel seen the worth of expertly wielded profanity. In a chapter titled "Mr. Heavenward Displays Some Unusual Talents," Halsey watches as his uncle's "thin, tall, ecclesiastical-looking clerk," Heavenward, who sports "a kittenish black windsor tie under his receding chin" and "pious eyes that gazed mildly out of a deacon face" is deputized to harangue the telephone company about a monumental--even life-threatening--mistake they've made. Doubting Heavenward's fitness for the task, Halsey argues that he himself should handle the task, to which his uncle's other employee, the faithful Babson, after apologetically clearing his throat, responds,
"Er, Mr. Halsey, let--let Mr. Heavenward handle it. He'll--he'll do it quite well."
Babson clearly knows whereof he speaks:
Mr. Heavenward got the telephone. He was very urbane as he asked in a mild voice for the general manager. He eveidently did not get the man he wanted, for he suddenly grew cholerically red. "Damn it to hell!" he roared. "I said the general manager! Do you want me to come over there in person?"

Halsey stared at this remarkable servant of the American Projectiscope Company.

The latter evidently had his party. "Say, what in the--" His next words were a triumph of profanity--"--do you mean by deliberately chopping off incoming service on OLD LOOP 99291 and SATURN 0022?"
Later in the conversation Heavenward cries,
"And if I have to call in person, I'm going to land you one on the snoot that'll make you think you're walking backward! I'll make it so--" Again he poured forth a perfect torrent of Billingsgate into the phone--"--damn hot for you that you'll fly down to the equator to cool yourself off."
A triumph of profanity! A perfect torrent of Billingsgate! Needless to say, Heavenward's inventive invective has the desired effect--while the lover of swear words in me thrills at the very idea of the man's achievement. A life goal, that: to reel off an undisputed triumph of profanity!

Fairness to the estimable Artemus Baxter dictates that I also note, however, the one case in the novel where profanity unquestionably betokens an unstable nervous equilibrium: that of Halsey's landlady's parrot, Captain Kidd, who, as Halsey explains to a new tenant,
"Rides around on her shoulder, and swears like a trooper. Like three troopers, in fact. Most blasphemous bird, when he wants to be, that I ever saw in my life."
Which is a problem, for, as Halsey notes,
"Mrs. Morely, however, is a very religious woman; she reads a chapter in her big Bible every evening. And so she has to carry two wax-soaked cotton ear plugs continuously suspended around her neck by a cord, and pop them in pronto when the Captain lets loose. But she resents highly any comment about his language. In fact, she maintains that he is insane, or has been so for years, and is not morally accountable, therefore, for anythign he says or does."
I would not likely do well if suddenly cast in the role of vengeful parrot god, for I am inclined to be willing to grant a moral exception to any and all blaspheming parrots on the grounds of sheer joyful novelty.

When we do finally hear from Captain Kidd himself, he is singing the praises of the new lodger:
"Girl? A hell of a damn fine girl," squawked Captain Kidd imperturbably. "A hell of a--" But like lightning Mrs. Morely had popped into her thin ears two almost unnoticeable cotton-formed plugs suspended about her neck by a black string.
In this case, though it's likely the profanity that drove Mrs. Morely to stop her ears, it's just within the realm of possibility that her action was instead precipitated by Kidd's praise of the lodger, as Mrs. Morely had earlier in the day been at a wedding that confirmed her low opinion of the young ladies of the era. Dripping venom, she describes them to Halsey:
"Jezebels of today with their bold bare knees walking the streets brazenly. . . . A woman that shows her unclad knees might as well be plumb naked and--and be done with it. That's what I say."
Alas, some of the young ladies had even carried silver hip flasks, from which they drank openly--eliciting both Mrs. Morely's horror and opprobrium. Which brings me to the greatest triumph of profanity I know, one that I featured in Sunday's post--though you'd certainly be forgiven for not noticing it. Take a closer look at the label on the hip flask in this photo by rocketlass:

Several years ago, we lent that flask to a friend; it was returned bearing that label, copied from an article from a July 1933 issue of the Onion, "FDR's Fireside Chat Last Night Just a String of Cuss Words." The article itself, which contains some of the most goofily entertaining swearing this curse-o-phile--one who has (admittedly while cringing) used the term "grandmotherfucker" on his blog--has ever seen, appears to be only available online near the bottom of this post from July 8, 2000 at It's worth clicking through and reading the whole thing.

Clearly FDR was suffering from an unstable nervous equilibrium. But good god, it was 1933 and unemployment was running at 25%--for fuck's sake, can you blame the man?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Montreal, and the 501st night

{Photo by rocketlass.}

As I'm off to lovely Montreal this weekend for a conference, I have a question for the Canadian readers of this blog--from the comments and from the information Google analytics provides, I know you're there. Are there any novels set in or around Montreal that I really ought to read? Ed Park inadvertently offered up on on his blog today, Gordon Sheppard's Ha!--but it's nearly 900 pages, carries a subtitle of A Self-Murder Mystery, and seems a bit daunting for a four-day trip, much of which will be occupied by my efforts to fake my way through the leadership of a panel. So does anyone else have a suggestion?

Even as I ask for suggestions, I suppose I should probably confess: I'm probably not going to get around to acting on any of them in time for this trip. I've still got about half the boxes in Harry Stephen Keeler's The Box from Japan left to open, and I've also been weirdly anxious to read some Joseph Conrad the past couple of weeks, so Lord Jim will probably also accompany me. But I promise to gladly bank any good ideas for a future Montreal trip, which, given how much I enjoy that city, I promise will eventually happen..

A final note: this is my 501st post, enough to get me halfway to survival in the Sultan Shahryar's court. As even the best of my posts lack nearly all of Scheherazade's charms, however, I have trouble imagining that I would have lasted even through 501 nights.

No, somewhere along the way the sultan, frustrated at my lack of invention--the fact, for example, that I must needs consult a new book before every post--would surely have sent my head bouncing down the stairs, smiling goodbye to my toppling shoulders.

Still, a blogger can try, right? Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Camping supplies

{Photo by rocketlass.}

For more detail, we turn to Ogden Nash:
A Drink With Something In It

There is something about a Martini,
A tingle remarkably pleasant;
A yellow, a mellow Martini;
I wish I had one at present.
There is something about a Martini,
Ere the dining and dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth,
It is not the vermouth--
I think that perhaps it's the gin.
I believe that I owe it to gin to dress better in its presence than I did during the camping party at the ranch this weekend, but alas, my mid-1950s-Italo-Cuban summer casual look is still decidedly a work in progress.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A distant duet

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Shhhhhhh! Be very, very quiet!

At this ridiculous hour we're slipping out of the house to go away on an overnight camping trip to a friend's family's ranch in the lovely hills of rural Missouri.

In looking ahead to what we'll probably to get up to there, I like to think of some lines of Sappho I read Friday, in Anne Carson's translation:
In this place you Kypris taking up
In gold cups delicately
nectar mingled with festivities:

Whatever my desire, the reality is likely to be closer to how Hank Williams paints it:
Comb your hair and paint and powder
You act proud, and I'll act prouder
You sing loud, and I'll sing louder
Tonight we're setting the woods on fire.
Or if all goes well, we'll hew a reasonable path somewhere between the two, creating an unexpectedly harmonious duet between the singer from Lesbos and the singer from Alabama.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Regresando a Bolano

Some follow-up thoughts on Roberto Bolano and The Savage Detectives, about which I wrote at length last week.

1 In that post last week, I wrote:
[O]ne of the most interesting aspects of The Savage Detectivesis that, much as long stretches of it are about living a bohemian poet's life in Mexico, the country itself is in an odd way not that central to the novel. . . .[U]ltimately Mexico is simply another stop on the anti-bourgeois world circuit of crummy apartments and beater cars and bad neighborhoods that serve as the unwilling refuge of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and their ilk, from Paris to Israel to Liberia to San Diego. Mexico City is perhaps more compelling, more unforgettable than those other places because the poets' circle of compatriots and enemies is ultimately concentrated there, woven into the very fabric of the streets and cafes. But the book--like its subjects--is too big for Mexico alone; it is determined to encompass the world.
Via e-mail a few days later, Scott Esposito, editor of the Quarterly Conversation, argued that the role of Mexico in The Savage Detectives is a bit more important and complicated than I'd made it seem:
I think what you say about the Mexico in the book is true--it being one of the many bohemian destinations on Ulises' and Arturo's paths, and the political aspects not taking very overt form--but I also think the place holds special meaning for Bolano. To me, this comes out most in the final part when they're off in the desert looking for Cesaria. This Sonoran landscape, the utter bleakness mixed with these sunbleached villages, seems to have fascinated Bolano greatly and I think is tied up in this search for purity and fathers that is so central to his books. Of course, part of this reading is based on 2666, in which this Mexican landscape plays a far more central role. For what it's worth, I lived in Mexico for about 14 months, and Bolano's descriptions of that country seem completely accurate to me, not only in the way things are described, but in the parts of Mexican society Bolano chooses to highlight as meaningful and/or idiosyncratic. They're always exactly the things I would be telling my friends about whenever I discussed Mexico.
I love that both Scott and Bolano, a transplanted Chilean, hit upon the same aspects of Mexican life as being noteworthy. And he's definitely right about Bolano's fascination with Mexico; I didn't write about this before, but for all of Bolano's attention to people and their peregrinations, he also offers, here and there throughout the novel, effective and even lyrical descriptions of the cities and landscape of Mexico, accounts that are can only be the product of careful, even loving attention.

Now I'm even more excited about 2666. Must be patient. Plenty of other things to read.

2 If, after all my raving, you're still not sure that The Savage Detectives is for you, try this test: go to your local bookstore (or, if you're too lazy to put some pants on, to Amazon, where you can use the "Search inside the book function"), turn to page 222, and read the testimony of Joaquin Font from El Reposo Mental Health Clinic in Mexico City. It begins:
Sometimes I think about Laura Damian. Not often. Four or five times a day. Eight or sixteen times if I can't sleep, which makes sense since there's room for a lot of memories in a twenty-four hour day.
And it gets sadder from there.

Font's account runs about two pages, and, plucked out of Bolano's six-hundred-plus-page novel, it can stand on its own as a compact and powerful short story, impressionistic and moving. (I know because I couldn't help reading it aloud to rocketlass.) Set in context, it becomes wrenching and almost unbearably sad. If, on reading it in the bookstore, you aren't impressed, this book is not for you.

3 In my earlier post, I pointed out that though it's entirely possible that Bolano invented some of the many books mentioned in The Savage Detectives, the sheer number of unfamiliar titles was going to prevent me from adding any to the ever-growing catalog of the Imaginary Library. I'm confident enough about the spuriousness of one book, however, to go ahead and add it: The New Age and the Iberian Ladder, by Hernando Garcia Leon. A three-hundred-fifty-page account of a religious dream vision, it appears in a section at the end (one of the book's few ineffective sequences) where Bolano lets a handful of writers--successful and unsuccessful, artists and hacks, collaborators and resistors--tell of their careers.

If the author's relatively brief summary of his vision is anything to go by, The New Age and the Iberian Ladder must be at least as awful and unreadable as its title, a book that is likely to sit forlorn on the imaginary shelves of the imaginary library and grow imaginary cobwebs for a very real eternity.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Into the great silence!

Now that I'm nearly 150 pages into Harry Stephen Keeler's The Box from Japan (1932), I've got some more of his unusual and/or inexplicable turns of phrase to share. Throughout the densely packed pages, such unforgettable lines enliven Keeler's long, unexpected disquisitions on such topics as corporate stock schemes, obscure political tussles, and a pre-Philo Farnsworth, disk-based television system.

I'll begin with a couple of folksy expressions of the head-scratching variety. This first one is built around a great image and is easily understood, but it doesn't hold up to much thought:
"I am going back down town sometime after lunch but I expect to be busier, the rest of the day, than a legless cat rounding up her eleven kittens."
Wouldn't a legless cat simply fail to round up her kittens, then quickly be left with nothing to do?

The next is an exclamation, uttered at the sight of an old friend; its meaning utterly escapes me:
"Well--for hitch-hiking on the Pacific airmail!"
Then there's this sentence, in which Keeler's overuse of the comma stopped even me--a comma-lover of the first rank--dead in my tracks:
He recalled at this juncture an amateur sporting enthusiast he had once interviewed, a golf expert, in Rogers Park, who then, at least, in that considerably far long ago, had had a Japanese houseman, and he resolved to make an early call in Rogers Park on the subject of the new golfing rules, and incidentally to find out just what Marzoru-Ikeuma was.
The constant breaks in the rhythm produced by the commas give the sentence the choppy, breathless feel of a declaration uttered by a sprinter who's just breasted the tape. Oh, and they also make it nearly impossible to understand on first reading.

To close, though, I'll give you a sentence that seems to perfectly express the tone and charm of Keeler, a sentence that, like the above comma-hobbled one, pulled me up short--but this time out of sheer joy:
"Well, so much for that," he commented. "Now to go home--climb into the great silence--and evolve a thought worth the evolving."
I'm not willing to go so far as to say that if you appreciate that sentence, you should definitely try Keeler . . . but you might consider at least filing the idea away in the back of your mind.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Opening the Box

{Photo by rocketlass of a box by rocketlass.}

A couple of years after first my first, admittedly desultory attempt to read Harry Stephen Keeler, I've dived right into one of his biggest and strangest books, The Box from Japan (1932), a volume that even committed Keelerite Ed Park describes as "WEIRD." He's right, but through at least the first fifty pages, The Box from Japan's weirdness is charming, consisting mostly of exuberance, exclamation points, and unusual descriptions that resemble nothing so much as particularly enthusiastic advertising copy.

Like many (or all?) of Keeler's novels, The Box from Japan is set in his native Chicago, "that London of the West"--though in 1942, an eventful ten years into the future. The most striking thing so far about Keeler's past-future Chicago is not its robotic policemen or skyscraper landing strips for airplanes . . . no, sadly, it's this:
His little two-block jump, it is true, cost him a red 25-cent coupon out of his perforated book of taxi-meter "pay" tickets, but saved him perhaps some ten minutes of elbowing his way along a thoroughfare which now, in Chicago, connecting as it did the busiest stations of the venerable old State Street subway and the new Clark Street subway, was hopelessly crowded at this hour of the morning.
Oh, if only Chicago really had a Clark Street subway--hell, if only we had any serious expansion of the coverage of our subway system, or if only we weren't relying on technology nearly as old as Keeler's book. Our terrible transit system is not helping kill my current crush on New York.

But it seems wrong to leave you with a lament. Instead, I'll share the most striking non-Chicago-related line in the first fifty pages of The Box from Japan. To set it up I have to transcribe a description that precedes it. The scene is the office of the American Projectiscope Company, Inc.:
Near the door, however--and Carr Halsey smiled in spite of himself--was a movable polished wooden railing as venerable as those others like it which adorned all offices when he had been but small boy, and he knew at least that he was in the right place, for this was but one of the many relics which his uncle lovingly transported from office to office as the American Projectiscope Company every few years changed its quarters.
Keeler then describes the sentry of the inner office door:
And guarding the one opening in the antique wooden railing, moreover, sat Babson, more venerable appendage of the American Projectiscope Company than any single piece of office furniture it might own! Elderly, with rapidly thinning gray hair, he was, beyond all doubt, even more like that wooden railing than the railing itself!
"Even more like that wooden railing than the railing itself"? I know what Keeler means, but what he's actually written makes no sense! And is impossible to forget once you've read it!

I think I'm going to start using that method of comparison in my daily life. For example: in his use of exclamation points, Ed Park frequently is even more like Harry Stephen Keeler than Harry Stephen Keeler himself!

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Good Soldier

From The Good Soldier (1915), by Ford Madox Ford
It is very singular that Leonora should not have aged at all. I suppose that there are some types of beauty and even of youth made for the embellishments that come with enduring sorrow. That is too elaborately put. I meant that Leonora, if everything had prospered, might have become too hard and, maybe, overbearing. As it was, she was tuned down to appearing efficient--and yet sympathetic. That is the rarest of all blends. And yet I swear that Leonora, in her restrained way, gave the impression of being intensely sympathetic. When she listened to you she appeared also to be listening to some sound that was going on in the distance. But still, she listened to you and took in what you said, which, since the record of humanity is a record of sorrows, was, as a rule, something sad.
In the midst of a narrative in which nearly every sentence needs to be vetted for its degree of disingenuousness, self-deception, or flat-out falsehood--a narrative that (as you can see from the effortless backtracking of "That is too elaborately put.") continually pulls up from under itself the tracks that it has mere moments before carefully laid--that passage strikes me as unexpectedly straightforward, true, and memorable. It reflects, of course, a perspective; a different sensibility might find human life to be not a litany of sorrows but a succession of surprising joys. But it is a believable, clear, and mostly honest perspective, a rare moment of seeming candor in a tale rife with misprision and deception.

Julian Barnes wrote well about the novel a week or so ago in The Guardian, prompting me to reread it after fifteen years away; I found its power, if anything, increased. I'll have more to say about it later this week if I get organized--and, I hope, about its relationship (and the relationship of its rhetorical stance) to Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, but for now, I'll leave you with Barnes's take on the novel's unforgettable first sentence, every word of which--Barnes's words, that is--is, unlike the fraught narrative in question, perfectly true:
"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." What could be more simple and declaratory, a statement of such high plangency and enormous claim that the reader assumes it must be not just an impression, or even a powerful opinion, but a "fact"? Yet it is one of the most misleading first sentences in all fiction. This isn't - it cannot be - apparent at first reading, though if you were to go back and reread that line after finishing the first chapter, you would instantly see the falsity, instantly feel the floorboard creak beneath your foot on that "heard".
The creak of the floorboard, indeed--a better image of that line is hard to imagine.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Two tiny bits of Bolano for your weekend

Not much time tonight, but since--if my conversations the past few days are anything to go by--it's Roberto Bolano weekend, I want to share a couple of memorable lines. First, I loved this metaphor from Amulet (1999, translated into English in 2006 by Chris Andrews)
Hold on, let me try to remember. Let me stretch time out like a plastic surgeon stretching the skin of a patient under anaesthesia.
I often think of narratives that stretch time as somehow tricking it or distracting it--pulling one over on it, in a sense. Maybe they were anaesthetizing it all along?

I've just started Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996, translated into English in 2008 by Chris Andrews), which is striking because Bolano's prose is cast in a completely different register from the cascading first-person narration of The Savage Detectives, By Night in Chile, and Amulet; instead, this collection of biographies of imaginary fascist writers is composed in imitation of the detachment of an encyclopedia. I've only read a couple of entries so far, but one passage jumped out at me, its wry deadpan evoking the casual cruelties of Waugh or Nabokov:
As the second child of Edelmira Thompson, Juan realized at an early age that he could do whatever he liked with his life. He tried his hand at sports (he was a passable tennis player and an appalling race-car driver).
The precision and balance of that line--the bouncing consonance and assonance of "passable tennis player" and "appalling race-car driver"--are so strong that I want to go find the Spanish, learn how much of that perfection belongs to Bolano and how much to Chris Andrews. If I'm able to track it down, I'll be sure to share it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

OMG isn't The Savage Detectives like the best thing ever ever ever?

The headline for this too-long post is the full text of an e-mail I sent earlier this week to the wife of an old friend, upon learning that, like me, she'd been reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, and, like me, had been flat-out raving to her spouse about it. At that point, with only about thirty pages of 648 left to go, critical thinking was nearly impossible, a shriek of sheer astonishment all I could muster.

A couple of days later I'm still a bit gobsmacked. If you'd described the bare bones of Bolano's novel to me--young Bohemian Mexican and South American poets wander Mexico City and the world smoking, drinking, fucking, disputing about poetry, and cadging money to support those activities--I would never have imagined it to be my kind of book. I read On the Road at twenty-one and hated it, seeing in it little but the sort of feckless abandon that would have gotten me fired from any of the three jobs that were helping me stay in college. If you'd added a description of Bolano's rushing and tumbling prose style, the digressions within digressions, and the seeming formlessness of the first hundred or so pages, I would have quietly set the book down and walked slowly out of the bookstore. In fact, the hints of those characteristics that came through in the numerous laudatory reviews the book received on publication in English were--along with a reluctance to join the burgeoning Bolano bandwagon--enough to keep me away from the book for a full year.

Yet here I am, absolutely enthralled by what Bolano's achieved. I could try to explain it--how, in an act of preservation worthy of Proust, he resurrects a lost world of poets and failed rebels, presenting a milieu, an ethos, and a demimonde that weren't even ever well-enough known to be considered long-forgotten; how the chorus of voices he develops through the oral histories of the novel's middle section offers story after story about the ways people try to live with their art and their ideals in a world that cares little for either; how without being overtly political, he conveys the dread and danger of South America's 1970s collapse into totalitarianism and destruction; how he invests the book's two central (yet largely absent) characters, the elusive poetic champions Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, with a complexity and a mystery that renders their persistence in the memories of those who knew them completely convincing; how he wields his prose, especially at the end of each interpolated minor story, with the precision of a cruel neurosurgeon, eliciting gasps of horror, amazement, and simple, unadulterated empathy; how by simply not mentioning a character for four hundred pages he forces us to accumulate terrifying reserves of dread; of how he truly convinces us that poetry can matter--but others have described all that at length. If you want more of that sort of detail, Scott Esposito wrote well about The Savage Detectives in the Quarterly Conversation, Daniel Zalewski wrote about it for the New Yorker; and Benjamin Kunkel covered the book for the London Review of Books. And there's more where those came from.

Instead, as I continue to bob in the eddies of Bolano's masterpiece, I'm inclined to just share some disconnected thoughts.

1 I've long held to a theory--the sort that's quite fun to propound, so long as one is ready to simply fold under sustained critical assault at, say, a successful cocktail party--that when an American writer sends his or her characters to Mexico, a reader might as well close the book: nothing more of value is going to happen. Mexico as a symbol is just too tempting, serving as a crutch to help writers set up dramatic thematic oppositions, to force their too-civilized characters to confront their more elemental selves. In the heat and poverty of Mexico, where life is cheap and tequila cheaper . . . you get the idea. {Note: this does not apply to writers who begin their stories in Mexico. Thus The Adventures of Augie March, after its bravura opening half, gets chucked; The Power and the Glory does not. The only novel I can think of off the top of my head that escapes this trap is James M. Cain's Serenade--and it only squeaks by because its larger concerns are elsewhere.}

Obviously that rule wouldn't apply to Mexican (or, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think, South American) writers. But one of the most interesting aspects of The Savage Detectives is that, much as long stretches of it are about living a bohemian poet's life in Mexico, the country itself is in an odd way not that central to the novel: there's none of the sense of deep-rooted corruption and failed revolutionary ideals that one gets in Carlos Fuentes, for example, and while there are hints of the ghostliness of Juan Rulfo, ultimately Mexico is simply another stop on the anti-bourgeois world circuit of crummy apartments and beater cars and bad neighborhoods that serve as the unwilling refuge of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and their ilk, from Paris to Israel to Liberia to San Diego. Mexico City is perhaps more compelling, more unforgettable than those other places because the poets' circle of compatriots and enemies is ultimately concentrated there, woven into the very fabric of the streets and cafes. But the book--like its subjects--is too big for Mexico alone; it is determined to encompass the world.

2 The Savage Detectives is crammed with names of poets and their books, ranging from the well-known (the oft-derided Octavio Paz) to the lesser-known (Did Kenneth Fearing really write poetry? Apparently he did, and it was translated into Spanish.) to those who, to an English-speaking reader, might as well be made up. If I were slightly more energetic, I'd go to the trouble of making notes of all the names in order to determine whether any belong in the Imaginary Library; as is, I'll let them be, unknown and uncertain, a testament to Bolano's fascination with the failed and forgotten, the detritus--deserved or not--of literary ambition. {But the Imaginary Library is a collaborative project, so if anyone has the patience and time . . . }

3 Near the end of the novel, Bolano deliberately puts his book-long litany of lost poets into perspective by throwing out a similar list of forgotten bullfighters. Each art has its heroes and stars, but the obscure toilers are essential, too; one way to read The Savage Detectives is as one big tip of the cap, or a nearly futile valentine, to all of them. I'm awed by Albert Pujols, but there'll forever be a place in my heart for Miguel Mejia, too.

4 The constant wanderings of Bolano's characters give me the urge to get a giant map of Mexico City and map out their various paths and note important nodes. In his Atlas of the European Novel, Franco Moretti did that for a batch of books, most notably Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, to great effect; I wonder what we'd learn from seeing a map of Bolano's Mexico City?

5 Or of the world--encompassing the characters' travels to Sonora, San Diego, Los Angeles, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, the Costa Brava, Tel Aviv, and unknown locations between. What would such a map show us about Bolano's vision?

6 The Savage Detectives also makes me want to write poetry. Which, if past performance guarantees future results, would be a bad idea.

7 And it makes me want to read Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, some lines from which form the epigraph to Bolano's novel. Despite being grotesquely fascinated by Lowry's life, I've stayed away from his masterpiece because of the hardcore hatred of a couple of trusted friends--but Bolano may have sold me. We'll see.

8 It also makes me want to believe Bolano when he writes:
[C]onversations in bed do oscillate between the cryptic and the transparent.
Ah, what a relief to come into the the light, even when it's a shadowy half-light, what a relief to come where it's clear.
[N]o, I'm not anybody's mother, but I do know them all, all the young poets of Mexico City, those who were born here and those who came from the provinces, and those who were swept here on the current from other places in Latin America, and I love them all.
If you add infinity to infinity, you get infinity. If you mix the sublime and the creepy, what you end up with is creepy, right?

9 Possibly more than all of these things, The Savage Detectives makes me want to give away copies, a project I've already embarked on, having just this evening given away my first copy to my friend Erin. If she enjoys it a third as much as I did . . .

Sorry, Helen DeWitt, but this book might (at least temporarily) replace The Last Samurai as my default gift to friends who are serious readers.

10 Finally . . . could there be a better book with which to kick off summer? Especially here in Chicago, where we skipped spring and went straight into, if I may steal a line from Scott at, "atomic rainforest"? Summer reading--regardless of what the book review supplements would have you think--should be all-encompassing, unforgettable, world-changing, creating a sort of internal sweat commensurate with the external.

One usually ought to avoid harking back to high school, but when thinking of summer reading, one could do worse than to remember the vast changes in worldview that were possible over a summer when one was sixteen, the drama and force that could be packed into those three months. September rolls around, and you're a different--and, one hopes, a better--person.

Summer reading: aim high; read Bolano.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Sometimes you really do have to just put the book down.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Having taken Dr. Johnson to task a couple of weeks ago for his carelessness with books (which, as Jenny Davidson pointed out in a comment to the post, could more properly be called destructiveness, as he was known for breaking spines and even tearing out whole sections), I had to smile when I came across an incident of far more distracted and bizarre behavior in Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (1998, English translation by Natasha Wimmer published in 2007). Ulises Lima, one of the mysterious pair of visceral realist poets around whom the whole novel rotates, is, like many of the characters in the novel, almost pathologically focused on literature . . . but even that didn't prepare me for the testimony of his friend Simone Darrieux:
He was a strange person. He wrote in the margins of books. I'm glad I never lent him any of mine. Why? Because I don't like people to write in my books. You won't believe this, but he used to shower with a book. I swear. He read in the shower. How do I know? Easy. Almost all his books were wet. At first I thought it was the rain. Ulises was a big walker. He hardly ever took the metro. He walked back and forth across Paris and when it rained he got soaked because he never stopped to wait for it to clear up. So his books, at least the ones he read most often, were always a little warped, sort of stiff, and I thought it was from the rain. but one day I noticed that he went into the bathroom with a dry book and when he came out the book was wet. That day my curiosity got the better of me. I went up to him and pulled the book away from him. Not only was the cover wet, some of the pages were too, and so were the notes in the margins, some maybe even written under the spray, the water making the ink run, and then I said, for God's sake, I can't believe it, you read in the shower! have you gone crazy? and he said he couldn't help it but at least he only read poetry (and I didn't understand why he said he only read poetry, not at the time, but now I do: he meant that he only read two or three pages, not a whole book), and then I started to laugh, I threw myself on the sofa, writhing in laughter, and he started to laugh too, both of us laughed for I don't know how long.
When set against the image of someone taking notes in the shower, Samuel Johnson's destructiveness seems almost mild--and Gabriel Gudding's writing of his 426-page Rhode Island Notebook (2007) while driving seems almost sane.

Note to rocketlass: these examples serve to point out that I could always be worse!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

"The past makes noble fuel."

{Photo by rocketlass of my brother trying to light the world's lousiest grill. He failed.}

Vladimir Nabokov
is an author whom one should quote reluctantly and carefully in support of a point one is trying to make. The greatest trick of reading him, after all, is parsing the various levels of playfulness, trickery, and irony. Like Jane Austen's characters--whose words one so often sees adorning bookstore tchochkes--he often isn't saying quite what he's saying; to quote him with confidence is a fool's game.

Here, wind--have some caution, as I plunge in nonetheless! Given the recent furor over Nabokov's final, unfinished work, The Original of Laura (which, it appears, will see the golden light of day after all), I naturally perked up when I came across several incidents of the loss or destruction of writing in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). As you probably know, this blog takes a staunch anti-burning position, however unjustifiable: I'm greedy, and I want all the detritus and ephemera of my favorite authors at my fingertips. Letters, diaries, drafts, notebooks, shopping lists, crosswords, pornographic sketches--authors who don't want me to see all that stuff should have regular, rousing trash-barrel fire rituals during their lives, a la Henry James.

But what did Nabokov himself think? You all have your grains of salt handy, right? Then here goes.

This first passage of burning is worth sharing for its beautiful prose alone. Sebastian Knight's brother, under orders from the late author, takes up a batch of his brother's letters to put them to the match:
For a wild instant I struggled with the temptation to examine closer both bundles. I am sorry to say the better man won. But as I was burning them in the grate one sheet of the blue became loose, curving backwards under the torturing flame, and before the crumpling blackness had crept over it, a few words appeared in full radiance, then swooned and all was over.
What effective, patient imagery, subduing and delineating every tiny moment! The way the words briefly appear "in full radiance" reminds me of burning letters to Santa in my grandparents' stove when I was a kid, imagining my wishes reconstituting themselves in wavering figures of smoke against the wintry sky above the house.

The next passage tells not of active destruction, but of the inevitable losses imposed by casualness and time. A college friend of Sebastian tells his brother about Sebastian's "vaguely un-English" juvenile poems. Rummaging among his papers, the friend is unable to come up with any samples:
"Perhaps, in some trunk at my sister's place," he said vaguely," but I'm not even sure . . . Little things like that are the darlings of oblivion, and moreover I know Sebastian would have applauded their loss."
And Nabokov gives me yet another phrase to try to add to my lexicon: "the darlings of oblivion." {Alternatively, I could simply start a band with that name. Our first album could be called The Prismatic Bezel.}

Later in the novel, the subject of the burned love letters arises again, as Sebastian's brother attempts to find their unknown subject. At one point, he believes himself to be very close to finding the answer, talking with the friend of a woman whom he suspects might have been his brother's paramour:
"Why must you write a book about him, and how is it you don't know the woman's name?"

"Sebastian Knight was very secretive," I explained. "And that lady's letters which he kept . . . Well, you see--he wished them destroyed after his death."

"That's right," she said cheerfully," I quite understand. By all means, burn love-letters. The past makes noble fuel."
I'll close with the clearest statement in Sebastian Knight of an authorial position on burning. (Though, again, we must remember that this is not only not necessarily Nabokov's position--it's not necessarily even Sebastian Knight's position, related to us as it is by his brother. Layers, layers, layers!) Soon after Sebastian's death, his brother takes on the job of going through his effects:
He had left everything to me and I had a letter from him instructing me to burn certain of his papers. It was so obscurely worderd that at first I thought it might refer to rough drafts or discarded manuscripts, but I soon found out that except for a few pages, he himself had destroyed them long ago, for he belonged to that rare type of writer who knows that nothing ought to remain except the perfect achivement: the printed book; that its actual existence is inconsistent with that of its spectre, the uncouth manuscript flaunting its imperfections like a revengeful ghost carrying its own head under its arm; and that for this reason the litter of the workshop, no matter its sentimental or commercial value, must never subsist.
As someone who writes and edits almost entirely on a computer, I've begun to wonder whether Nabokov might have adapted to that technology, had he lived longer. Write, rewrite, overwrite . . . and nothing is left for the literary scavengers except the final document as sent to one's publisher. Oh, but what is lost along the way!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Dreaming of the Imaginary Library

1 My initial list of books that only exist within novels featured one, Sebastian Knight's The Prismatic Bezel, for which we even have a review in hand. In Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Sebastian Knight's brother explains that the book only received one review, a five-and-a-half-line notice in a Sunday paper:
The Prismatic Bezel is apparently a first novel and as such ought not to be judged as severely as (So-and-So's book mentioned previously). Its fun seemed to me obscure and its obscurities funny, but possibly there exists a kind of fiction the niceties of which will always elude me. However, for the benefit of readers who like that sort of stuff I may add that Mr. Knight is as good at splitting hairs as he is at splitting infinitives.

2 In a comment to the original post about imaginary books, MomVee from Watering Place said that she has always wanted to read The Horn of Joy, by Matthew Maddox, which is featured in Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

Off the top of my head, the one that I'd most like to read is Borage and Hellebore, the critical biographical study of Robert Burton written just after World War II by Nick Jenkins, narrator of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Or possibly the mysterious The Book of Three, from which Dallben draws his often troubling knowledge of forthcoming events in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain--though I have a bad feeling that it would turn out to be some stultifying mix of Nostradamusy vagueness and Tolkienien genealogical portentuousness.

And what about you folks?

3 The night after I wrote the post about the imaginary library, I dreamed that I was rereading Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark, in the pages of which I encountered a book I'd failed to note in my post: Ghost Whim, by Robin Anne Powter.

According to Nabokov's narrator in my dream version of Laughter in the Dark, Ghost Whim is a cultural history of dreaming . . . but before I could learn what would happen if I read a nonexistent cultural history of dreaming inside an actual novel inside a dream, I woke up. But now I really want to read that book!

4 This final item has nothing to do with an imagined book, but I can't resist adding it--my excuse is that it ties in to the discussion of Nabokov because it might have been triggered by a conversation Ed Park and I had last night about the ape that is discussed at the end of Lolita. It's another dream, this one from a brief doze on the bus on the way home today:
I was at the zoo, watching a gorilla very close-up through the bars of his cage. He gave me a quizzical look, tugged at his earlobe, then pointed at my earlobes while mouthing the word, "Earring?" I stared for a second, then remembered that I was wearing a big, gold pirate-style hoop in each ear.
Going all the way back to vaudeville days . . . that had to be the gorilla my dreams, right?

And that's all for tonight, because I have no choice but to go spend the rest of the evening reading Roberto Bolano. I'm 200 pages into The Savage Detectives and it's proving ridiculously difficult to put down.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Cataloging the Imaginary Library

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) is a novel purporting to be a biography of a recently dead writer, penned by his half-brother. As such, it's full of the titles of books that don't exist outside the world of the novel. Like other prolific fake-titlers, such as Anthony Powell (J. G. Quiggin's Unburnt Boats, St. John Clarke's Fields of Amaranth, etc.), Nabokov seems to have greatly enjoyed the task of naming these phantom books, which at their best reside comfortably at the mysterious juncture of plausibility, originality, and amusement.

When, the day after reading Sebastian Knight, I encountered yet more fake titles in Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (1938), then even more--though tipped more towards verisimilitude--last night in Graham Greene's The End of the Affair (1951), I began to think . . . what better, more Borgesian use could there be for the infinite capacity of the Internet than to assemble a catalog of the world's Fictional Library?

Thus was born a new feature! If I end up sticking with this over the months and building a ridiculously long list, I'll probably at some point figure out a different place to put them and a different way to organize them. For now, however, those of you who enjoy the art of fake titling as much as I do can simply enjoy this first batch:
From Graham Greene's The End of the Affair
For Ever Fido (1912), author unknown
The Ambitious Host, by Maurice Bendrix
The Crowned Image, by Maurice Bendrix
The Grave on the Water-Front, by Maurice Bendrix

From Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark
Memoirs of a Forgetful Man, by Udo Conrad
History of Art: Volumes One through Ten, by Nonnenmacher

From Vladimir Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
The Laws of Literary Imagination, author unknown
The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight, by Mr. Goodman
Fall of Man, by Godfrey Goodman
Recollections of a Lifetime, by Samuel Goodrich
The Doubtful Asphodel, by Sebastian Knight
The Funny Mountain, by Sebastian Knight
Lost Property, by Sebastian Knight
The Prismatic Bezel, by Sebastian Knight
Success, by Sebastian Knight
Finally, I can't resist sharing some of the titles of go-getting business books featured in Ed Park's great new novel Personal Days (2008):
Every Worker's War Chest, by Fred Glass
Office Politics 101, by Randall Slurry
Climbing the Seven-Rung Ladder: The Business of Business, by Chad Ravioli and Khader Adipose
The Business Warrior's 30-Day Mental Fitness Plan (Revised Edition), by Cody Waxing
Yes, I Drank the Kool-Aid--and I Went Back for Seconds, by M. Halsey Patterson
Mine for the Taking: or, Some (INCREDIBLY!) Irreverent Notes on the Business of Wealth, by Parker Edwards
Letters to a Young Tycoon, by Percy Ampersand, edited by Percy Ampersand IV
Because part of the fun of that section of Ed's book is coming across these and other titles, I won't share nearly all of them--but maybe Ed will offer more at his reading at Chicago's lovely Book Cellar in Lincoln Square tomorrow night. Come out and see for yourself! Thursday, June 5th at 7 o'clock, 4736 N. Lincoln Avenue!

Monday, June 02, 2008

The not-so-good Doctor

Writing about Orlando Furioso the other day reminded me of a piece of advice I've been meaning to share since I picked up at the Samuel Johnson birthplace museum in Lichfield, Staffordshire, back in April: should you ever find yourself back in eighteenth-century London, you should not give into the temptation to lend Dr. Johnson any books. The museum's holdings include a handbound copy of John Hoole's translation of Orlando Furioso, which Hoole himself lent to Johnson . . . and on which Johnson promptly spilled tea.

I bet he read borrowed books in the bathtub, too.