“Titian Paints a Sick Man”
At the Uffizi, in Florence, is this odd painting by Titian. For a while, no one knew who the artist was. First the work was attributed to Leonardo and then to Sebastiano del Piombo. Though there’s still no absolute proof, today the critics are inclined to credit it to Titian. In the painting we see a man, still young, with long dark curly hair and a beard and mustache perhaps slightly tinged with red, who, as he poses, gazes off toward the right, probably toward a window that we can’t see, but still a window that somehow one imagines is closed, yet with curtains open or parted enough to allow a yellow light to filter into the room, a light that in time will become indistinguishable from the varnish on the painting.
The young man’s face is beautiful and deeply thoughtful. He’s looking toward the window, if he’s looking anywhere, though probably all he sees is what’s happening inside his head. But he’s not contemplating escape. Perhaps Titian told him to turn like that, to turn his face into the light, and the young man is simply obeying him. At the same time, one might say that all the time in the world stretches out before him. By this I don’t mean that the young man thinks he’s immortal. On the contrary. The young man knows that life renews itself and that the art of renewal is often death. Intelligence is visible in his face and his eyes, and his lips are turned down in an expression of sadness, or maybe it’s something else, maybe apathy, none of which excludes the possibility that at some point he might feel himself to be master of all the time in the world, because true as it is that man is a creature of time, theoretically (or artistically, if I can put it that way) time is also a creature of man.
In fact, in this painting, time — sketched in invisible strokes — is a kitten perched on the young man’s hands, his gloved hands, or rather his gloved right hand which rests on a book: and this right hand is the perfect measure of the sick man, more than his coat with a fur collar, more than his loose shirt, perhaps of silk, more than his pose for the painter and for posterity (or fragile memory), which the book promises or sells. I don’t know where his left hand is.
How would a medieval painter have painted this sick man? How would a non-figurative artist of the twentieth century have painted this sick man? Probably howling or wailing in fear. Judged under the eye of an incomprehensible God or trapped in the labyrinth of an incomprehensible society. But Titian gives him to us, the spectators of the future, clothed in the garb of compassion and understanding. That young man might be God or he might be me. The laughter of a few drunks might be my laughter or my poem. That sweet Virgin is my friend. That sad-faced Virgin is the long march of my people. The boy who runs with his eyes closed through a lonely garden is us.
The Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis died one year ago today.
Mutis wasn’t on my radar until a few years ago, when a friend of mine, Dave Cianci, urged me to read the author’s opus, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, a collection of seven novellas that speak to each other in a loose, rich, intertextual poetics of adventure, romance, and loss. My friend Cianci was so enthusiastic about the book that he reviewed it for this blog (the review convinced me to read it). I’ll crib from that review:
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is difficult to categorize. It’s an outlaw adventure story populated by men and women who live where and how they must; these are the people who work near shipyards and the banks of unexplored river tributaries, people who value candor and honesty but for whom strict adherence to the law is often inconvenient. The book is a philosophical rumination on friendship and creation, romance and deception, obstinance and poverty.
Later in his review, Cianci characterizes the titular Maqroll—the Gaviero, the “lookout” —as “who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.” In one of my own pieces on Maqroll, I described the world that Mutis offers, part fantasy, part nightmare, as
a life of picaresque adventures (and titular misadventures), of loss and gain, of love and despair, drinking, sailing, scheming and plotting—a life full of allusions and hints and digressions. Mutis’s technique is marvelous (literally; he made this reader marvel): he gives us an aging (anti-)hero, a hero whose life is overstuffed with stories and mishaps and feats and enterprises and hazards; he gives us one strand of that life at a time in each novella—but then he points to the other adventures, the other serials of Maqroll that we would love to tune into if only we could.
The problem of energy, in this enervated postmodern era, keeps arising in Mutis’s pursuit of a footloose, offhandedly erudite, inexplicably attractive shady character. A lowly seaman with some high-flying acquaintances on land, Maqroll is a drifter who tends to lose interest in his adventures before the dénouement is reached. Readers even slightly acquainted with Latin-American modernism will hear echoes of Borges’s cosmic portentousness, of Julio Cortázar’s fragmenting ingenuities, of Machado De Assis’s crisp pessimism, and of the something perversely hearty in Mutis’s fellow-Colombian and good friend Gabriel García Márquez—a sense of genial amplitude, as when a ceremonious host sits us down to a lunch provisioned to stretch into evening. Descriptions of food consumed and of drinks drunk, amid flourishes of cosmopolitan connoisseurship, are frequent in Mutis, even as the ascetic Maqroll goes hungry. North Americans may be reminded of Melville—more a matter, perhaps, of affinity than of influence.
Updike’s review is one of the only prominent and long English-language pieces about Álvaro Mutis that I’ve come across. There’s a good 2001 interview with Mutis in Bomb by Francisco Goldman (who wrote the NYRB edition’s introduction), and a few translated poems of Mutis’s can be found online, but on the whole, despite accolades throughout the Spanish-reading world, his reputation among English-readers seems relegated to “friend of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” (who called Mutis “one of the greatest writers of our time”).
Álvaro Mutis deserves a bigger English-reading audience. NYRB’s collection of his novellas in Edith Grossman’s translation bristles with energy. At once accessible and confounding, these tales that ask us to read them again, like Borges’s puzzles Bolaño’s labyrinths.
Is it tactless to name Bolaño here? Maybe—he’s perhaps too-easy an example: A Spanish-language author whose readership radically expanded after his death. Anyone who follows literary trends (ach!) will see how quickly a writer’s currency elevates after his or her death. (Ach! again). But I think that Mutis should attract fans of Bolaño, whose currency still spends (and will spend in the future, I think). Another comparison I would like to be able to make though would be John Williams’s sad novel Stoner, which, as any one who follows literary trends (ach!) could tell you became an unexpected best seller last year. Stoner—also published by the good people at NYRB—had to wait half a century to get its due. I don’t see why the English-reading world should wait that long to embrace Mutis.
I could no longer hold out on reading Roberto Bolaño’s collection The Return. I’ve been saving the book for two years now, but reading Chris Andrews’s new study Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe prompted me to dive in the other night. (I also maybe abandoned Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which nags at me like a duty, a chore, and not a joy).
I had, of course, read a few of the stories collected in The Return over the years (and shared them on this site); they were published by The New Yorker, including one of my favorites, “William Burns,” (translated, like all the stories in The Return, by Andrews.
“William Burns” is one of Bolaño’s rare stories set in the U.S. It’s about a “laid-back guy who never lost his cool,” a private investigator hired to protect two women who believe they are being stalked by a killer. The story is suffused with sinister malice that burns into fated violence, made all the more ominous by the Bolaño’s typically atypical moments of banality. (The story reads almost as Bolaño’s riff on Raymond Carver).
Anyway, a favorite passage; read the whole thing here:
If I were a dog, I thought resentfully, these women would show me a bit more consideration. Later, after I realized that none of us were feeling sleepy, they started talking about children, and their voices made my heart recoil. I have seen terrible, evil things, sights to make a hard man flinch, but, listening to the women that night, my heart recoiled so violently it almost disappeared. I tried to butt in, I tried to find out if they were recalling scenes from childhood or talking about real children in the present, but I couldn’t. My throat felt as if it were packed with bandages and cotton swabs.
The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word “writing” is the exact opposite of the word “waiting.” Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.
Ran out of time this week before I could write about anything I’ve been reading. So a quick riff, from top to bottom, in the pic above:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
I’ve been reading this at night with my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve read it maybe a thousand times now. Lewis is not the best prose stylist, but he fuses together bits of pagan and Christian myth better than the best.
On the iPad:
The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq
My least-favorite Houellebecq so far—has some wonderful rants at times, but Houellebecq keeps embedding these terrible pop culture references (following his hero Bret Easton Ellis’s lead?) that usually dull the edge he’s been sharpening. And the narrator’s spite at this point is almost unbearable—reading it makes me feel like Gandalfdore drinking that poisonous potion in Harry Potter and the League of Bad Mentors—just sucking down venom.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
Great stuff. A little over two-thirds finished. Wrote about is some here.
Lanark, Alasdair GrayI might regret that I never wrote a Big Fat Review of Lanark, Gray’s bizarre cult novel. The book is a weird chimera: It starts as a weird sci-fi/fantasy trip—closer to Kafka’s The Castle than genre-conventional fare though, to be clear. Then it shifts into this modernist Künstlerroman that seems to want to be a Scottish answer to Joyce’s Portrait. Then there’s a short story inserted in the middle, a return to the dystopian fantasy (heavy streaks of Logan’s Run and Zardoz and Soylent Green—very ’70s!), and, right before its (purposefully) dissatisfying conclusion, an essay by a version of the author, who defensively critiques his novel for characters and readers alike. Gray wants to have written the Great Scottish Epic. I’m not sure if he did, but Lanark has moments that are better than anything I’ve read all year—even if the end result doesn’t hang together so well.
The Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni
Sketches and figments that Antonioni never turned into films. Not sure if he intended to.
Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
There’s a tendency in American fiction to posit the American Dream as a masculine escapist fantasy. This version of the Dream is perhaps best expressed in the last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck declares: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Always more territory, always more space outside of the (maternal) civilizing body. Cather answers to that version of the Dream in her character Alexandra Bergson, who cultivates the land and claims her own agency through commerce and agriculture.
The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, translated by Dominic Siracusa
What a strange and wonderful book! I wrote about it here. Confounding.
The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño
Okay, so I wrote about the first section in detail here. More or less finished it. Bolaño’s best poems are basically prose (that’s not a knock).
Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews
Wrote about it a bit here; will write more when I finish. Makes me want to reread Bolaño (although I almost always want to reread Bolaño).
(In a Sense) Lost & Found, Roman Muradov
The plot of Muradov’s debut graphic novel floats like a dream-fog in surreal, rich art as the ludic dialogue refuses to direct the reader to a stable referent. Great stuff.
So of course I’ve been eating up Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, a new critical study by Bolaño’s translator Chris Andrews. I’ve read the introduction and the first three chapters so far, and the study, far from being dry and academic, compels me to dig deeper.
The book really starts with the second chapter, with Andrews simply trying to situate Bolaño-as-publishing-phenomenon in the first chapter. The introduction—which you can read at publisher Columbia UP’s site—offers a clear overview of what Andrews aims to do.
Andrews writes that:
…the interconnected series of narratives that begins with Nazi Literatures in the Americas (originally published in 1996) and ends with the stories that appeared posthumously in The Secret of Evil … can be regarded as forming a single, openly structured edifice whose two sustaining pillars are The Savage Detectives and 2666, and for which Woes of the True Policeman served as a preparatory model.
Andrews’s description recalls Javier Moreno’s geometry of Bolaño’s fictions:
This model has greatly influenced my own reading of Bolaño over the years, leading to my conceptualization of Bolaño’s later work existing in a self-creating, self-deconstructing Bolañoverse.
Andrews’s description of the Bolañoverse (he doesn’t use the term):
Bolaño expanded or “exploded” his own published texts, blowing them up by adding new characters and episodes as well as circumstantial details. He also allowed characters to circulate or migrate from text to text, sometimes altering their names and properties. Within his novels and stories, he inclded representations of imagined texts and artworks, that is, metarepresentations. Finally, some of his characters and narrators are over-interpreters: they seize on details, invest them with significance, and invent stories to connect and explain them.
More to come; for now, the publisher’s blurb:
Since the publication of The Savage Detectives in 2007, the work of Roberto Bolaño (1953–2003) has achieved an acclaim rarely enjoyed by literature in translation. Chris Andrews, a leading translator of Bolaño’s work into English, explores the singular achievements of the author’s oeuvre, engaging with its distinct style and key thematic concerns, incorporating his novels and stories into the larger history of Latin American and global literary fiction.
Andrews provides new readings and interpretations of Bolaño’s novels, including 2666, The Savage Detectives, and By Night in Chile, while at the same time examining the ideas and narrative strategies that unify his work. He begins with a consideration of the reception of Bolaño’s fiction in English translation, examining the reasons behind its popularity. Subsequent chapters explore aspects of Bolaño’s fictional universe and the political, ethical, and aesthetic values that shape it. Bolaño emerges as the inventor of a prodigiously effective “fiction-making system,” a subtle handler of suspense, a chronicler of aimlessness, a celebrator of courage, an anatomist of evil, and a proponent of youthful openness. Written in a clear and engaging style, Roberto Bolano’s Fiction offers an invaluable understanding of one of the most important authors of the last thirty years.
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.
The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño’s poetry collection—his complete poems, a bilingual edition, lovely, beautiful, over 800 pages—has been shifted all over my messy house this past month, wedged into ad hoc shelves, even conspicuously, for a time, fatly weighing down another Bolaño text, The Insufferable Gaucho (which I’ve been reading in tandem with/against The Unknown University), swollen and warped with saltwater from the gray Atlantic ocean.
I pecked at The Unknown University discursively, avoiding end notes, taking the rest of the Bolañoverse as my guide or frame or map or background for these poems. I read randomly, trying one poem at a time in no special order, taking crude stabs at the Spanish text on the left hand pages, clumsily matching them against Laura Healy’s fine translation, a poetics that matches the tone and rhythm and cadence and vibe of Bolaño’s other translators, Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews.
Then last night, a tale from The Insufferable Gaucho compelled me to read from The Unknown University straightwise, linear, 1-2-3, non-discursively, to take a stab at an orderly trajectory, reading it like a novel in fragments, perhaps.
The book is divided into three parts, each comprised of their own chapters or individual books. Last night I read, or reread, the first half of the first part: The Snow-Novel; Guirat de Bornelh; Streets of Barcelona; In the Reading Room of Hell.
The examples and citations in this riff come from those books, but I’d suggest that the images, motifs, and themes of these early poems—switchblades, hell, abysses, poets, girls, detectives, assassins, hunchbacks, genitals, sex, madness, blood—resonate throughout the entire volume (and throughout Bolaño’s oeuvre).
Perhaps the most central theme is Bolaño himself; The Unknown University often reads like a diffuse autobiography, with Bolaño’s concern for his own place in literature at the fore.
We see that anxiety in the first poem shared by the editors, a piece from 1990 included in the book’s intro:
Even a decade earlier, Bolaño prophesied that he would be carried to hell, a primal setting of the Bolañoverse. Bolaño’s romantic ancestor Jorge Luis Borges famously imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Bolaño inverts that image:
In another poem, Bolaño seems to obliquely address Borges again (“Dear, this isn’t Paradise”), while also name-checking the heroes of that “club / for science-fiction fans” (including some perhaps-unlikely figures):
“A long, slow University.” Yes.
But how could Bolaño leave his hero Edgar Allan Poe from the curriculum? Oh, never mind. Here he is:
The vase—Pandora’s box, Keats’s urn?—is a central image in these early poems. Dark, beautiful, and transformative, Bolaño seems to posit the vase—an object rendered somewhat mundane in its traditional place as an aesthetic object—as a portal to the abyss:
Elsewhere our poet warns/invites us: “The nightmare begins over there, right there. / Further up, down, everything’s part of the / nightmare. Don’t stick your hand in that urn. Don’t / stick your hand in that hellish vase.” Reading the poem forces us to stick our hand in the vase.
If Bolaño seems occasionally melodramatic in his poems, a thrall to Baudelaire, he’s also keenly aware of it, even this early in his career. A twinning of irony and earnestness characterizes Bolaño’s writing, a savage self-reflexive humor that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself on first reading. When he begins a poem about a lost love, “Go to hell, Roberto, and remember you’ll never stick it in again,” the sentiment is simultaneously tragic and comic, the kind of personal confession that connects to the reader’s own experiences. “To be honest I don’t remember much now,” our narrator confides near the end, before the devastating conclusion, “She loved me forever / She crushed me.”
For Bolaño though, what’s perhaps most crushing is the loss of literature:
And yet Bolaño sticks his arm into the vase, walks out over the chasm, dares for his poems to perhaps earn the right to be one of those “loose sentences, traces . . . fragments” that may survive.
In the very early poem “Work,” Bolaño romanticizes his own literary posterity:
Poetry that might champion my shadow in days to come
when I’ll be just a name not the man who wandered
with empty pockets, worked in slaughterhouses
on the old and on the new continent.
I seek credibility not durability for the ballads
I composed in honor of very real girls.
And mercy for my years before 26.
Seems like a reasonable request.
I don’t know if these poems are good or bad or excellent or what. I do know that I loved reading them and that they are of a piece with everything else I’ve read by Bolaño. The best moments recall his best writing, that strange mix of plain, even understated language, set against romantic violence and terrible madness. The poems here don’t distill the best of Bolaño into burning kernels of visceral realism; rather, they feel like the liquid filament of the Bolañoverse. Fantastic.
More to come.
The Unknown University is available now from New Directions.
Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”
Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.
Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town,
Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.
Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa).
And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.
What I mean to say:
Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Read More
Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho, which I’ve sort of saved for a few years—put off isn’t the right phrase, but sort of, knowing it as companion to Last Evenings on Earth, y’know, saved it for later—Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho is very difficult to photograph. Very shiny.