Catching Up on "What Bolano Read"
Fallen way behind on tracking the brilliant Melville House series on “What Bolano Read.” These ten posts are culled from Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, which Melville House recently published. And which you can purchase for 20% off during Melville’s Holiday Sale (more on the sale below).
In 1996, Roberto Bolaño published Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fictional encyclopedia of right-wing authors. In a review of the English translation by Chris Andrews, Francisco Goldman summarized the novel as depicting “literary Nazis,” portrayed as “self-deluded mediocrities, snobs, opportunists, narcissists, and criminals, none with the talent of a Céline.” Though the writers included in the book are imaginary (like the “airman, assassin and aesthete” Ramirez Hoffman) the world they inhabit is much like ours, and stocked with real-life writers like Allen Ginsberg, Octavio Paz, and José Lezama Lima. [. . .]
But where did Bolaño come up with the idea for a fake encyclopedia? In an interview with Eliseo Álvarez published in 2005 in the Spanish literary journal Turia, Bolaño explains the book’s lineage and its debts owed:
“Nazi Literature in the Americas, I’ll give it to you in descending order, owes a lot to The Temple of Iconoclasts by Rodolfo Wilcock, who is an Argentine writer but who wrote the book in Italian . . . At the same time, his book The Temple of Iconoclasts itself owes a debt to A Universal History of Infamy by Borges, which is not surprising at all because Wilcock was a friend and admirer of Borges. Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy, too, owes a debt to one of his teachers, Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican writer whom has a book called Real and Imagined Portraits. It’s just a jewel. Alfonso Reyes’ book also owes a debt to Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, which is where this all comes from.”
Roberto Bolaño was an avid reader of philosophy. And he was especially drawn to the aphorism — clipped, profound, and, at times, terse thoughts, and a literary form engaged by many of the world’s greatest writers, including Blake, Kafka, Schlegel, Tolstoy, and Wittgenstein, among many, many others. [. . .]
In an essay in Entre paréntesis, Bolaño explains his admiration of Lichtenberg by saying his aphorisms “behave with humor and curiosity, the two most important elements of intelligence.” Bolaño goes on to say that Lichtenberg’s work “prefigured Kafka and the better part of twentieth century literature.” Among them:
“There can hardly be stranger wares in the world than books: printed by people who do not understand them; sold by people who do not understand them; bound, reviewed and read by people who do not understand them; and now even written by people who do not understand them.”
Lichtenberg was primarily a scientist and perhaps most famous among his peers for work with electricity and certain types of fractals now dubbed “Lichtenberg figures.” His empirical nature was also a source for much of his satire.
There is, in general, a lot of humor in his aphorisms, and Bolaño even referred to his work as a “masterpiece of black comedy.” A few examples:
“A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.”
“If all mankind were suddenly to practice honesty, many thousands of people would be sure to starve.”
“A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can`t expect an apostle to look out.”
A collection of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms is available in an English translation by R.J. Hollingdale as The Waste Books. (And available from New York Review Books.)
Bolaño was also an avid reader of French Surrealists like André Breton and Jacques Vaché. Breton’s Nadja, one of Bolaño’s favorites, is absolutely stunning. Some even make the claim that the infrarealist manifesto, penned by Bolaño, was directly inspired by Breton’s own “Surrealist Manifesto”. The effect of Nadja on Bolaño’s writing is evident in the subtlety of the non-linear and dreamlike realities inhabited by many of Bolaño’s characters. Nadja’s surrealism is surely of the same cloth as _2666_’s “surrealism.” It is the not surrealism of fantasy but rather that of hyper-reality, where the reader loses the ability to distinguish dream from waking reality.
Bolaño also gives massive credit to Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In a 1999 interview with the Chilean magazine Capital, Bolaño claims Céline is the only author he can think of who was both a “great writer and a son of a bitch. Just an abject human being. It’s incredible that the coldest moments of his abjection are covered under an aura of nobility, which is only attributable to the power of words.”
In an essay in Entre paréntesis that appeared in English translation in World Literature Today in 2006, titled Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories, Roberto Bolaño outlines a twelve point plan on how to be a “successful short story writer.” Written in true Bolaño style, the list includes advice on everything from how to avoid melancholy to which authors one should dress like. Bolaño even includes points designed to give the reader time to consider the previous point, like number ten: “Give thought to point number nine. Think and reflect on it. You still have time. Think about number nine. To the extent possible, do so on bended knees.”
In point four Bolaño makes reference to the Guatemalan short story writer Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003) saying succinctly: “One must read Juan Rulfo and Augusto Monterroso.”
Monterroso is perhaps most famous for his short story “The Dinosaur,” which is said to be literature’s shortest story. It reads in full:
“When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.”
In an 1996 interview with Ilan Stavans for the Massachusetts Review, Monterroso recalled some early reviews of “The Dinosaur”: “I still have the very first reviews of the book: critics hated it. Since that point on I began hearing complaints to the effect that it isn’t a short-story. My answer is: true, it isn’t a short story, it’s actually a novel.”
Brevity was, to say the least, an important concept for Monterroso. His essay “Fecundity” is included in The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays. It reads in full:
“Today I feel well, like a Balzac; I am finishing this line.”
In a 2002 interview with Carmen Boullosa published in Bomb magazine Roberto Bolaño made the hefty claim “I’m interested in Western literature and I’m fairly familiar with all of it.” He went on to say: “I’m also interested in American literature of the 1880s, especially Twain and Melville, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Whitman. As a teenager, I went through a phase when I only read Poe.” [. . .]
Bolaño also read the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. In Bolaño’s final interview he says he would have rather been Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade: “I would like to have been a homicide detective, much more than being a writer. I am absolutely sure of that. A string of homicides. I’d have been someone who could come back to the scene of the crime alone, by night and not be afraid of ghosts.”
Bolaño also loved Philip K. Dick. He wrote a poem about him, published in The Romantic Dogs. And in 2002 he participated in a published discussion with the writer Rodrigo Fresán, where both writers discuss the science fiction author. Bolaño calls Dick “a prophet.”
Now about that Special Sale . . . For the next week, all orders through the Melville House website are 20% off. And to compete with Amazon.com, all Melville House best-sellers—Every Man Dies Alone, The Confessions of Noa Weber, Shoplifting at American Apparel—are only $7.99 for the next week . . . Just put the books in your shopping cart and the correct price will show up . . .