A Gladiator of Letters
Near the end of an interview with Roberto Bolaño for the Mexican edition of Playboy magazine in 2003, there comes an interesting question: "What kinds of feelings do posthumous works awaken in you?"
Many of the questions -- as shown in the transcript now available in The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House) -- had been flip and silly. This one was different. Bolaño had endured more than 10 years of a severe liver disease; he was waiting on a transplant. He had shifted from poetry to fiction and completed a series of novels, including The Savage Detectives (1998), but every page he produced was written with mortality hanging over him. So it does over everyone, but some of us more urgently than others. Around the time the interview appeared, Bolaño died at the age of 50.
"Posthumous," he responded to the interviewer: "It sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator, an unconquered gladiator. At least that's what poor Posthumous would like to believe. It gives him courage."
Bolaño's reputation in English, almost entirely posthumous, has involved one victory after another. His unfinished novel 2666 (a sprawling work that moves from a cloistered group of literary scholars to a hellish landscape of torture, rape, dismemberment, and death) received this year's National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. And The Last Interview, while slender, amounts to an ardent love-letter to literature that will reward more than one reading. With the Modern Language Association meeting later this month, it might give bleary convention-goers a little inspiration.
"I ask for creativity from literary criticism," says Bolaño, "creativity at all levels." The critic should be "capable of arguing a reading, of proposing diverse readings," thus creating "something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or a diatribe." He cites as an exemplary figure Harold Bloom: "I am generally in disagreement with him and even enraged by him, but I like to read him. Or [George] Steiner. The French have a very long tradition of very creative critics and essayists who are very good, who illuminate not just one work but a whole era of literature, sometimes committing grave mistakes, but us narrators and writers also commit errors."
The volume opens with an essay by Marcela Valdes, now a Nieman Fellow in Arts and Culture Journalism at Harvard University. Among my Bolañophile friends and colleagues, Valdes is by far the most ardent and informed. We recently exchanged e-mail about the author's work and posthumous career. A transcript of the exchange follows.
Q: In these interviews, it seems Bolaño's favorite way to praise a writer is to call his or her work "enormous." It doesn’t mean that any given book is bulky or the oeuvre necessarily large, but that the author’s work possesses some vastness of inner space. "Enormous" is a good word for Bolaño's own output, on all fronts. He seems like a writer who believes in masterpieces and is not afraid to try to create one. Where does this faith (and the will to act on it) come from?
A: I don’t know that Bolaño had much faith in the idea of masterpieces. What I find more striking is his fascination with courage in the face of failure. His novels, stories, and interviews are filled with portrayals of and allusions to crushed poets, slaughtered bank robbers, outcast detectives. All of which fit perfectly, of course, with his romantic, noir aesthetic. Certainly, one can easily read The Savage Detectives as a paean to young people who destroy themselves by devoting their lives to an ideal of Art.
And perhaps such a belief in brave failure is exactly what a writer needs to produce masterpieces. Because what else could reliably sustain an intelligent, older man undertaking ambitious works that he knows he might never live to complete? (Remember, Bolaño was diagnosed with a chronic liver ailment in 1992, long before he’d published any of his major works.) In such a case, it might be better to cherish, as Bolaño did, the idea of the gladiator who fights to the brutal end, rather than the hero who’s bedecked with praise and laurels. Especially, if you come from a part of the world where the people who do get laurels are often morally corrupt.
Yet this fight is worthy only if it tests a writer’s courage and aims at magnificent ends. This may be why “enormous” works garner so much of Bolaño’s praise. As you rightly point out, the term has nothing to do with the books’ actual length. What matters is the “vastness” of the project, and the daring needed to undertake it. Incidentally, in his nonfiction essays, Bolaño also praises the works he loves as “black holes” -- talk about vastness of inner space!
Q: There is some grumbling about American Bolaño-mania these days. One charge is that it masks a profound indifference to the rest of the world's literature; one non-anglophone writer will catch on every so often, but that's it. Another complaint is that "the Bolaño myth" (sex, drugs, death in his prime) has overshadowed appreciation of his work, as such. What do you think of those accusations?
A: I assume that you’re referring not just to cocktail party or conference chatter but also to Sarah Pollack’s article, “Latin America Translated (Again).” Pollack does a terrific job with the history of the translation of Latin American works in the U.S., and I agree with her assertion that Americans practice a kind of “cultural essentialism” when it comes to the region. My problem is with her apparent expectation that the landscape for Spanish-language in the United States could ever be as broad and diverse as it is in Spain or Latin America.
She cites for example, the fact that Oprah Winfrey’s book club has chosen only 3 Spanish-language books (out of 66). To her, this appears to be an rotten statistic, but I think that 4.5 percent is actually pretty good. Especially when you consider that Spanish is only one of many languages in which great works of literature are being written and when you remember that Oprah draws an audience that is interested, above all, in self improvement, not literature.
And the fact that American publishers have used Bolaño’s life story to sell his books? Is this really a mortal sin? The book industry is in such terrible shape these days that publishers are trying everything to sell books. Why is the deployment of an author’s life story so much worse than setting up a fan group on Facebook? The important thing is that Bolaño was not chosen for translation and promotion in the United States because of his life story but rather because of the quality of his work and the acclaim he had already received in Spain and Latin America.
Do you know how Bolaño’s fiction came to be translated in the United States? It wasn’t because someone wanted to capitalize on “the Bolaño myth.” It happened because the novelist Francisco Goldman told Barbara Epler of New Directions that Bolaño’s work was not to be missed, and not long afterwards she heard from another American editor that a galley of Chris Andrews's translation of By Night In Chile was lying around neglected at his publishing house.
So she tracked down a copy of it from Harvill Press in England, fell in love with it, and convinced them to sell her the rights to publish most of his works in the U.S. Epler is a champion reader and she’s done the same with dozens of important authors. Some of them have gone on to gain cult audiences in the U.S.; others haven’t.
So, as a journalist, my view is both more pragmatic and more cynical. I don’t think that Americans have a basic indifference to world literature. I think they have a basic indifference to literature, period. And that’s not so different from what I’ve witnessed among people in Chile, Mexico, or Spain. Serious readers -- the kind of people who prefer reading a book like 2666 to the kind of pabulum that’s generated to be consumed primarily on airplanes -- have always been few on the ground. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. To the extent that it does, it may change precisely because publishers and critics get better at luring general audiences to the hard stuff through narrative and persuasion, in hopes that they’ll get addicted to the special highs that only great literature can provide. What encourages me most is when someone who fell in love with Bolaño’s books asks me, What should I read next?
Q: This collection of interviews with Bolaño is slender, but dense with references to the authors he loved. (Or, on occasion, despised.) What do you find most striking about Bolaño's taste as a reader?
A: The thing that I like most about Bolaño as a reader is his passion. He rarely expressed lukewarm sentiments about any writer and, unlike so many contemporary authors, he seemed entirely unconcerned with whether his opinions would offend. That latter attitude, in particular, is refreshing, and aligns Bolaño more with professional critics than with most authors who dabble in literary commentary. I like, for example, when he tells Mónica Maristain that he’s not upset that the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit was angry with him after he published the scathing essay “El pasillo sin salida aparente.” “Diamela doesn’t hurt me,” he says, “Other things hurt me.” Perhaps that’s one of the advantages of being so cognizant of your own impending death: lesser concerns are stripped away. Though, we know that not everyone who’s seriously ill reacts like this… Eltit, by the way, is a terrific author worth checking out, and I think that Bolaño himself emerges as a problematic figure in that notorious essay.
As for Bolaño’s taste itself -- he’s not that radical. Most of the Latin American authors he champions are well known to the region’s serious readers: Borges, Rulfo, Ocampo, Cortázar, Bioy Caceres, Javier Marías, Daniel Sada, Carmen Bullosa, Sergio Pitol, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, etc. And most of the other authors he mentions as favorites are also renowned: Kafka, Breton, Jarry, Philip K. Dick, Pascal.
Still, there are a few notable patterns to his choices. First, with the exception of a few particular books, he prefers the precursors to the Boom to the Boom writers themselves. Second, he keeps up with contemporary literature and is generous with praise for young writers. Third, he is a champion of gay writers and of smart women writers who are often overlooked here in the U.S, like Pedro Lemebel and Belen Gopegui. Fourth, and most obvious, he loves comic and detective fiction. Fifth, and most important, he is hugely concerned with literary forms. As he tells Carmen Bullosa in one of the book’s interviews, he believes that plot finds a writer “by chance,” while form “is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” All the authors he praises are cunning in this literary way.
Q: You've written about Bolaño's critical prose. Do you know if we'll be getting Bolaño the essayist and reviewer in English anytime soon?
A: I believe that New Directions will be bringing out Between Parentheses (Entre paréntesis) Bolaño’s posthumous collection of nonfiction, sometime in 2011. I’ve heard it’s being translated by Natasha Wimmer, who did a terrific job with both The Savage Detectives and 2666, neither of them easy projects. For the serious reader of Bolaño’s work, Between Parentheses is a must. The style varies quite a bit since it’s a grab bag of speeches, essays, and columns – plus his most controversial story “Beach” (“La Playa”). Some of the essays are quite personal and nostalgic, like the one where he recalls the books he stole as a teenager in Mexico. Most of the columns are lightly conversational. The speeches tend to begin angry and combative, and then ease into something more thoughtfully provocative.
Bolaño was a strange combination of a fierce ironist, a technical virtuoso, and a hopeless romantic; the result is an engaging, complex perspective and voice that that I can’t easily find a parallel for among English-language critics. (Though it is, of course, the exact same combination as Bolaño’s favorite writer, Borges.) In the piece I wrote about the collection for The Nation, I said he was like a T.S. Eliot or a Virginia Woolf. What I was referring to is not so much his style or opinions but rather his omnivorous reading, his position as a tastemaker (or at least as an articulator of certain shared tastes), and his belief in the value of intelligent criticism as a sister to literature itself.
Of course, it matters what kind of criticism one does. Bolaño is too absolutist to be a great critic like Edmund Wilson -- a professional critic, I think, needs to be able to see shades of gray -- but his writing about books is lively, informed, and committed. And Between Parenthesis allows you to spend time with the analytical half of his mind.