I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors. At first I had considered him to be as singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods. I shall record a few of these here, in chronological order.
The first is Zeno’s paradox against movement. A moving object at A (declares Aristotle) cannot reach point B, because it must first cover half the distance between two points, and before that, half of the half, and before that, half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity; the form of this illustrious problem is, exactly, that of “The Castle”, and the moving object and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature.
Read the rest of “Kafka and His Precursors” by Jorge Luis Borges here.
Found this hardback first edition of Charles M. Schulz’s Happiness Is a Warm Puppy, a kids book printed on heavy stock colored paper with bold litho images and letters. The cover is a bit rough but the book itself seems untouched. It’s a first edition from 1962.
Also picked up this collection of short essays by Jorge Luis Borges:
And came home to find the new My Bloody Valentine Record I bought six weeks ago (and likely paid too much for, including overseas shipping, but hey, I’ll shop smarter next time they put out an LP):
. . . Borges is arguably the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all foundations in religious or ideological certainty — a mind turned thus wholly in on itself. His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.
And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots’ centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially — consciously — a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there’s finally no difference — that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges’s is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It’s also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it.
—From “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.
I Review Object Lessons, Where 20 Contemporary Authors Select and Introduce 20 Short Stories from The Paris Review
Object Lessons anthologizes 20 stories published in the Paris Review over the past fifty years. “It is not a greatest hits anthology,” advises the brief editor’s note, “Instead, we asked twenty masters of the genre to choose a story from the Paris Review archives—a personal favorite—and to describe the key to its success as a work of fiction.” Hence, we get Ann Beattie introducing Craig Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler,” Amy Hempel introducing Bernard Cooper’s “Old Birds,” and Sam Lipsyte introducing Mary Robinson’s “Likely Lake.”
Most of the introductions are short—most are fewer than three pages—and each author approaches his or her selection differently. Ben Marcus, prefacing “Several Garlic Tales,” tells us that, “Donald Barthelme was a magician of language, and it would be most respectful, perhaps even ethical, not to look too closely into the workings of his magic.” Marcus proposes a few approaches to find meaning in Barthelme’s surreal tale, but never over-explicates. In contrast, Lydia Davis’s surprisingly long intro to Jane Bowles’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal” is a sentence-to-paragraph close reading; Davis interrogates Bowles’s diction and syntax and concludes her little essay by situating Bowles’s (underappreciated) place in the canon. Davis’s insights are compelling, but one wonders if they wouldn’t be better appreciated after reading the story.
Davis also appears as author of one of the selected stories—Ali Smith picks Davis’s excellent number “Ten Stories from Flaubert.” Smith’s intro is wonderful, explaining the genesis of “Ten Stories,” which “came about when Davis (who is also a translator) was working on a a new translation of Madame Bovary and reading through Flaubert’s letters to his friend and lover Louise Colet.” I’m a huge fan of Lydia Davis, whose work defies easy definition. Smith wonders about her selection: “Are they translations? Are they by Flaubert? Are they by Davis?” The questions are better than answers.
Occasionally an author veers close to spoiling the story he introduces, as does Jeffrey Eugenides when he gracelessly steps all over Denis Johnson’s already-much-anthologized classic “Car Crash While Hitch Hiking.” Elsewhere, Jonathan Lethem mashes and minces misplaced metaphors in his confusing and forgettable introduction to Thomas Glynn’s story “Except for the Sickness I’m Quite Healthy Now. You Can Believe That.” Lethem’s sloppy, unrestrained attempt to dazzle is regrettable. He’s like the warm-up act that tries too hard to show up the headliner and winds up falling on his face.
For the most part though, the introductions simply allow readers new ways to see a story they’ve perhaps read before, as in Aleksandar Hemon’s preface to Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” or David Means’s preface to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance.” Means suggests that “A great story is like an itch that has to be scratched eternally . . . We’re left with more questions than answers, and more answers than questions; therefore, the paradoxical quality of a good story is that it seems to give us everything we need and yet not quite enough to fulfill a sense of having been shown a full life.” Surprisingly good is Dave Eggers’s intro to James Salter’s “Bangkok,” which reads almost like a loose riff of notes that a harried but talented adjunct might bring to his Creative Writing 101 workshop. Eggers showcases keen intuition about Salter’s narrative coupled with an eagerness that makes one want to read the story.
And what about those stories? If I’ve focused more on the introductions than the stories themselves, it’s perhaps because I’ve taken for granted that the selections are solid for an anthology. Sure, any reader might have his or her gripes, but the range of talent here is undeniable, and the spectrum of stories is satisfying. Object Lessons would make a fine addition to the syllabus of any beginning writing course, and any young person interested in honing her craft could do worse than attending the examples collected here. To be clear, Object Lessons is in no way some master course in How to Write a Short Story, but it does provide the most valuable writer’s tool—good reading.
“To a Cat,” a poem by Jorge Luis Borges—
Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.
By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,
we look for you in vain;
More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,
yours is the solitude, yours the secret.
Your haunch allows the lingering
caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,
the love of the distrustful hand.
You belong to another time. You are lord
of a place bounded like a dream.
Roberto Bolaño’s “other” masterwork The Savage Detectives has been previously reviewed on this website, but my view is that the previous writeup was unfair and premature. Perhaps those of us who love this book are not “serious” readers.
The plot was accurately diagrammed in the earlier post. The Savage Detectives is made up of three sections. The first section consists of the diary of seventeen year-old Visceral Realist poet Juan Garcia Madero, his record of his literary ambition and dawning appreciation of beauty and words. The second, lengthy section is a series of interviews, seemingly conducted by a single, unknown interviewer in an attempt to uncover the history of the Visceral Realist movement, a group of iconoclastic poets that lived in Mexico City in the early part of the 1970s. The third section revisits Garcia Madero’s diary as he and Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, the nominal leaders of the Visceral Realists, scour the unforgiving Sonora desert in search of their own lost heroes.
Bolaño revisits familiar themes in this novel by asking what drives people to create, and what happens to those people when the things they create are pushed, like themselves, to the margins of society. Garcia Madero’s drive to write forces him to confront his everyday existence as he attempts to shed his innocence. He loses friends, quits school, moves in with a waitress, falls in love, has his heart broken. He writes when he eats, he writes when he should be doing something else, he writes about writing. He assumes that he and his comrades are on the verge of fame and that others are aware that everything the Visceral Realists do is bold and profound. Why then, Bolaño asks, is Garcia Madero satisfied with reading his poems to others when he dreams of placing his work in well-regarded anthologies? What happens when we realize that immortality is ultimately an illusion? Where does the spirit go when the ghost leaves only a sheet behind?
The answers to the questions posed in the first book are addressed in the second, but there is no sense that the unknown interviewer is close to mythologizing the Visceral Realists in the same manner as the scholars who made a hero of Hans Reiter in the first book of 2666. At least at the time the interviews were conducted, the Visceral Realists’ body of work is unknown to most, but to those with knowledge of their oeuvre, the Visceral Realists are remembered as hacks or kids from the wrong side of the tracks who preferred the commission of petty misdemeanors to dedication to their craft. The reality, as usual, is located somewhere in the middle. The Visceral Realists are shown to be like any other group of talented, excitable and intelligent young people because they’re bound to be disappointed. Their failure of their movement can be blamed on their own choices as well as on barriers erected by those ensconced in the Mexican literary establishment whose notions of where ideas ought to come from are not easily refuted. Especially by those demanding entry to their small but exclusive club.
Mr. Biblioklept’s first review was essentially right when he stated that The Savage Detectives “is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on.” Yes, sadness pervades the book. The Visceral Realists put down their pens, or they move to America, or they run and hide from the things that they cannot control at home. The Visceral Realists succumb to disease, lose their minds, attempt to cope, and they die. An early friend of Arturo Belano’s recounts–
I imagined him lost in a white space, a virgin space that kept getting dirtier and more soiled despite his best efforts, and even the face I remembered grew distorted, as if while I was talking to his sister his features melded into what she was describing, ridiculous feats of strength, terrifying, pointless rites of passage into adulthood so distant from what I thought would become of him.
Although the young poets suffer defeat, they enjoy small but significant triumphs, the most important of which is the existence of the book being argued about in this space. For Bolaño, whose business is the veneration of creators and their creation, the perseverance of the questions raised by the mere existence of the Visceral Realists and their permanent embodiment in a physical object capable of transmission in perpetuity is the ultimate victory. If the author is right that “the search for a place to live and a place to work [is] the common fate of all humanity,” then the young poets transitioning to adulthood don’t fare so poorly. Most of them, despite their backgrounds, become citizens with some stake in the places they live. They find work, they have children, they find adventure. Some, like Arturo Belano, continue to write at an immense personal cost. A man without a country, he’s the shadow who forms the substance of the book and allows his alter ego to demonstrate his remarkable narrative powers.
But what makes The Savage Detectives a complete work is that, like the characters of Borges and Cortazar, who so many in this novel profess to admire, the poets realize, sometimes too late, that brief and startling connections between people are always possible and love may be found anywhere. La Maga and Oliviera meet on strange bridges in Paris, condemned men revisit their lives in the moment between gunshot and blackness, and poor, unlettered poets will continue to read, and despite derision and hardship, will continue to express their own vision of hope and possibility.