July has been a strange month. The other day I went to the beach and I saw a woman of about thirty, pretty, wearing a black bikini, who was reading standing up. At first I thought she was about to lie down on her towel, but when I looked again she was still standing, and after that I didn’t take my eyes off her. For two hours, more or less, she read standing up, walked over to the water, didn’t go in, let the waves lap her shins, went back to her spot, kept reading, occasionally put the book down while still standing, leaned over a few times and took a big bottle of Pepsi out of a bag and drank, then picked up the book again, and, finally, without ever bending a knee, put her things away and left. Earlier the same day, I saw three girls, all in thongs, gorgeous, one of them had a tattoo on one buttock, they were having a lively conversation, and every once in a while they got in the water and swam and then they would lie down again on their mats, basically a completely normal scene, until all of a sudden, a cell phone rang, I heard it and thought it was mine until I realized it had been a while since I had a cell phone, and then I knew the phone belonged to one of them. I heard them talking. All I can say is that they weren’t speaking Catalan or Spanish. But they sounded deadly serious. Then I watched two of them get up, like zombies, and walk toward some rocks. I got up too and pretended to brush the sand off my trunks. On the rocks, I watched them talk to a huge, hideously ugly man covered in hair, in fact one of the hairiest men I’ve ever seen in my life. They knelt before him and listened attentively without saying a word, and then they went back to where their friend was waiting for them and everything went on as before, as if nothing had happened. Who are these women? I asked myself once it was dark and I had showered and dressed. One drank Pepsi. The others bowed down to a bear. I know who they are. But I don’t really know.
Roberto Bolaño on lost books. From Between Parentheses:
To search for those copies or similar copies, the same font, the same layout, the same plot, the dark or bright syntax, somehow forces me to remember a time when I was young and poor and careless, though I know that the same copies, the exact same ones, will never be found, and to set myself to such a task would be like marching into Florida in search of El Dorado.
Even so, I often browse used bookstores, sorting through stacks of books left behind by others or sold in a dark moment, and in corners like these I try to find the books that I lost or forgot more than thirty years ago on another continent, with the hope and dedication and bitterness of those who search for their first lost books, books that if found I wouldn’t read anyway, because I’ve already read them over and over, but that I would look at and touch just as the miser strokes the coins under which he’s buried.
But books have nothing to do with greed, though they do have something to do with coins. Books are like ghosts.
From the entry “All Subjects with Fresán,” in Bolaño’s collection Between Parentheses, a list of stuff the late writer talked about with his good friend, which includes (as usual) plenty of references to writers, poets, directors—and some funny jokes as well. Read part of Fresán’s essay “The Savage Detective” — it was the piece that first got me to go pick up a Bolaño. Here’s the list—
1) The Latin American hell that, especially on weekends, is concentrated around some Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s.
2) The doings of Buenos Aires photographer Alfredo Garofano, childhood friend of Rodrigo and how a friend of mine and of anyone with the least bit of discernment.
3) Bad translations.
4) Serial killers and mass murders.
5) Prospective leisure as the antidote to prospective poetry.
6) The vast number of writers who should retire after writing their first book or their second or their third or their fourth or their fifth.
7) The superiority of the work of Basquiat to that of Haring, or vice versa.
8 ) The works of Borges and the works of Bioy.
9) The advisability of retiring to a ranch in Mexico near a volcano to finish writing The Turkey Buzzard Trilogy.
10) Wrinkles in the space time continuum.
11) The kind of majestic women you’ve never met who come up to you in a bar and whisper in your ear that they have AIDS (or that they don’t).
12) Gombrowicz and his conception of immaturity.
13) Philip K. Dick, whom we both unreservedly admire.
14) The likelihood of a war between Chile and Argentina and its possible and impossible consequences.
15) The life of Proust and the life of Stendhal.
16) The activities of some professors in the United States.
17) The sexual practices of titi monkeys and ants and great cetaceans.
18) Colleagues who must be avoided like limpet mines.
19) Ignacio Echevarria, whom both of us love and admire.
20) Some Mexican writers liked by me and not by him, and some Argentine writers like by me and not by him.
21) Barcelonan manners.
22) David Lynch and the prolixity of David Foster Wallace.
23) Chabon and Palahniuk, whom he likes and I don’t.
24) Wittgenstein and his plumbing and carpentry skills.
25) Some twilit dinners, which actually, to the surprise of the diner, become theater pieces in five acts.
26) Trashy TV game shows.
27) The end of the world.
28) Kubrick’s films, which Fresán loves so much that I’m beginning to hate them.
29) The incredible war between the planet of the novel-creatures and the planet of the story beings.
30) The possibility that when the novel awakes from its iron dreams, the story will be there.
Between Parentheses (new from New Directions and deftly translated by Natasha Wimmer) collects over 400 pages of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, speeches, introductions, and newspaper columns, composed between 1998 and 2003, the year Bolaño died. The bulk of the book, as well as its title, comes from a column that Bolaño wrote for the Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias. As one would expect, these pieces are relatively short, sometimes under 500 words, punctuated with a depth that belies their brevity. Bolaño writes about everything (or, everything worth writing about, I suppose), but, as those familiar will guess, literature is his main subject, whether he’s reviewing a Spanish-language translation of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, comparing Kafka and Philip K. Dick, explaining his affection for William Burroughs, or discussing the merits of translating literature. If these samples tantalize you, let me go further: Bolaño writes about detective novels, Walter Mosley, Jonathan Swift, Jorge Luis Borges, magic, devils, memoirs, Gunter Grass, murder, troubadours, the Hell’s Angels, poetry, and more, more, more.
Despite its discursive topics, a unified tone inheres throughout Between Parentheses, a distinctly Bolañonian tone, at once grand and romantic (and Romantic) and profound and cynical and biting and flippant. In her blurb on the back of the book, Marcela Valdes (The Nation) declares that in Between Parentheses “we hear Bolaño’s real voice, the one he often disguised through the ventriloquism of his fiction.” This is perhaps a too-bold statement—I’m not sure if Bolaño can be said to have a “real voice”—instead, we find an author who’s constantly inventing and then reinventing, inflating and deflating, expanding and contracting.
And yet I think we’ll have to take Between Parentheses as Bolaño’s “real voice”—it’s perhaps the closest thing we’ll get to memoir or autobiography from the man (at least for now: his literary estate seems to be in a constant state of excavation, so who knows). But Bolaño, ever the winking imp, is there to warn us against taking memoir at face value—
Of all books, memoirs are the most deceitful because the pretense in which they engage often goes undetected and their authors are usually only looking to justify themselves. Ostentation and memoirs tend to go together. Lies and memoirs get along swimmingly.
If Bolaño may occasionally employ invention in some of the passages here, it’s all to his credit, and all perhaps in the service of Higher Artistic Truth (whatever that means). He shares much of himself in Between Parentheses, especially in the book’s first section, “Three Insufferable Speeches,” (you may have already read “Literature and Exile”) and its second section, “Fragments of a Return to the Native Land,” detailing the writer’s return to Chile in 1998. These are indeed fragments, sketchy, pained moments where we glimpse Bolaño trying to process a difficult and emotional journey. The tone is at once comic, analytical, and depressive—familiar territory to Bolaño’s readers, I suppose. Besides its obvious appeal as a Bolaño memoir, “Fragments” is also fine travel literature, as is the later section “Scenes,” which comprises evocations of various locales, chief among them Bolaño’s adopted home Blanes. Several of the pieces in “Scenes” seem to extend into the realm of pure fiction; a few are narrated by speakers who are only partly-Bolaño (if such a construction can be said to exist). In any case, they are the book’s closest approximations of short fiction.
The book’s fifth section, “The Brave Librarian,” features one of the highlights (and longer pieces) of the volume, a preface for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn called “Our Guide to the Abyss,” where Bolaño parses Twain and Melville, delving into American literature. I’m sure that for many this piece alone will be worth the price of admission. If you still need convincing, the book’s final section offers a treatise on book theft, advice on the art of writing short stories, a transcript of Bolaño’s last interview before his death, and more, more, more. “More, more, more” might be a simple way to summarize this book.
Between the Parentheses does little, ultimately, to explicate Roberto Bolaño. If anything, it helps to further confound those of us who’ve been puzzling out his fiction for the past few years. And thank God for that. I’ve written before about “the Bolañoverse,” about Bolaño’s labyrinthine genre-crossing intertextuality. Between Parentheses, despite its claims to reality or truth, is nevertheless a part of Bolaño’s maze, a maze by turns dark or illuminating, tragic or comic, and stark and enriching. Most of all, this maze is a strange joy to get lost in. Highly recommended.
A sample of Roberto Bolaño’s short essay “Translation Is an Anvil” (from New Directions’ forthcoming Between Parentheses, a collection of Bolaño’s essays, newspaper columns, and other ephemera)——
How to recognize a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarizers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all of this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value to its original value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings; not a plowed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.
A slice of Roberto Bolaño’s review of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (from New Directions’ forthcoming Between Parentheses, a collection of Bolaño’s essays, newspaper columns, and other ephemera)——
Blood Meridian is also a novel about place, about the landscape of Texas and Chihuahua and Sonora; a kind of anti-pastoral novel in which the landscape looms in its leading role, imposingly—truly the new world, silent and paradigmatic and hideous, with room for everything except human beings. It could be said that the landscape of Blood Meridian is a landscape out of de Sade, a thirsty and indifferent landscape ruled by strange laws involving pain and anesthesia, laws by which time often manifests itself.
Here’s Roberto Bolaño on Philip K. Dick (from New Directions’ forthcoming collection of Bolaño’s newspaper columns, forewords, and other ephemera Between Parentheses)—
Dick was a schizophrenic. Dick was a paranoiac. Dick is one of the ten best American writers of the 20th century, which is saying a lot. Dick was a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage. Dick talks to us, in The Man in the High Castle, in what would become his trademark way, about how mutable reality can be and therefore how mutable history can be. Dick is Thoreau plus the death of the American dream. Dick writes, at times, like a prisoner, because ethically and aesthetically he really is a prisoner. Dick is the one who, in Ubik, comes closest to capturing the human consciousness or fragments of consciousness in the context of their setting; the correspondence between what he tells and the structure of what’s told is more brilliant than similar experiments conducted by Pynchon or DeLillo.
Here’s Roberto Bolaño on William Burroughs (from New Directions’ forthcoming collection of Bolaño’s essays, newspaper columns, and other ephemera Between Parentheses)—
For some of those of my generation, William Burroughs was the affectless man, the shard of ice that never melted, the eye that never closed. They say he possessed every vice there was, but I think he was a saint who attracted all the sinners in the world because he was gracious and unwise enough never to shut his door. Literature, his livelihood for the last thirty years, interested him, but not too much, and in that regard he was like other classic American figures who focused their efforts on observing life or on experience. When he talked about what he read one got the impression that he was remembering vague stretches of time in prison.