I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
The Skating Rink is beginner’s Roberto Bolaño: there are no six-page sentences here, byzantine plots or jeremiads against Octavio Paz. It doesn’t even have a Facebook reading group. In the quiet Mediterranean town of “Z,” Enric, a a public servant, steals government funds to build a skating rink for a beautiful figure skater named Nuria. His scheme sets in motion a series of events that culminate in a woman being bludgeoned to death at the ice rink. Over the course of the novel, three alternating narrators, Enric included, reflect on the bizarre summer, obliterating in the meantime distinctions between myth and fact, guilt and innocence.
A murder mystery only in spirit, the novel is a double-cross of a thriller. Bolaño is more interested in pushing the boundaries of genre fiction than solving the crime. The character who’ll eventually be killed isn’t even introduced until halfway through the novel. Blink and you’ll miss the murderer’s confession. Instead, the cryptic first chapters hint, tease, and stoke the reader’s imagination with grisly possibilities.
“I’m fat, five foot eight, and Catalan… [my friends] will tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime,” Enric explains. Remo Morán, a Chilean expat and lapsed writer who slept with Nuria, remembers how a thick fog perfect for “Jack the Ripper” invaded the small town that summer. Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet Remo recruited to work in a local campground, recalls walking among “George Romero’s living dead.”
There’s so much pulpy foreboding before the actual murder at the ice rink that you can practically hear the Bernard Herrmann score; The Shining is even name-checked.
Bolaño’s plots are like Olafur Eliasson installations. The building blocks of the story may be exposed, but the scope of the structure takes a while to reveal itself. He is the master of the slow potboiler. His modus operandi here is to withhold information until the seams of the story cannot hold, creating confusion, anxiety, and the arrival of that moment in every one of his novels when it becomes inevitable to skip ahead.
That his novels are all more or less detective stories is in part generational. It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, the authors that followed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, “that duo of ancient machos,” as Bolaño derisively called them, turned to genre fiction – sci-fi, police thrillers – as an affront to the serious literature of the writers of the Latin American literary boom, and because only lurid fiction was suitable for portraying the despotic dictatorships and culture of violence of the decade.
But this novel is set in Costa Brava, and was written in 1993, and he won’t tackle those themes until at least Nazi Literature in the Americas. The Skating Rink is instead a daguerreotype of the meta-detective novels that will follow; Remo and Gaspar, two South American writers trying to solve a mystery, are the proto-Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.
In one of his last interviews he explained his predilection for genre in another way. “There’s no better literary reward than to have a murderer or a missing person to chase,” he said. Connecting “the four or five threads of the story becomes irresistible because as a reader I also get lost.” [Ed Note: Translated by the author, from Edmund Paz Soldán’s Roberto Bolaño: Literatura y Apocalipsis.]
When reading The Skating Rink, the idea is: relent to the intrigue. It’s no coincidence that he kicks off the book with an invitation to live “in delirium,” “rudderless.” It’s that appeal to get lost in the text that makes him so compulsively readable. Like in all his novels, the digressions accumulate, the back-stories grow, the avalanche of information casts its spell, and the prose slowly does its voodoo.
The travelogue. Ah, the oft maligned travel novel, thrown onto the burn pile with other not-taken-seriously genres like mystery and thriller. Driven to the edges of respected literature, called unimaginative and easy, dropped first from a library’s collection and left to rot on library sale tables.Yet, it seems like everyone wants in the action. Where did this unfair assessment come from? Is it the easily dated subject matter – an ever-changing world that has a hard time looking constant from one year to the next, let alone for the years that pass while a travelogue sits on the shelf? Is it the fact that nearly every travel novel takes on the same subjects – a jaunty and funny brush with weird foreigners, a coming of age on a long-respected trail, etc. etc?Yes. And yes. A lot of travel literature is dated. And even more is boring and redone. I started reading travel lit by hitting the ones that did it best, big names like Bryson, Theroux and Mayle. I latched on and let the genre take me for a ride. Through reading Bill Bryson, I discovered that I wanted to become a self-made writer. Through reading Paul Theroux, I discovered that I wanted to ride across countries and meet people, if only to document their individual intricacies. Through reading Peter Mayle, I wanted to move to France. That’s all. Just move to France and live in his house.Through all of this, I honed my tastes. I figured out the difference between good and bad travel literature. I stopped reading about one person’s trip around England because, well, I’d already exhausted that location through both Bryson and Theroux. And eventually, I stopped reading it all together, feeling the genre tapped out, unable to get excited about anyone else’s trips.So it was with great pleasure that I returned to the genre this month by turning to one of my favorite dead Nobel Prize winning authors – John Steinbeck, and his Travels with Charley.If there was one thing the book renewed, it was the wanderlust feeling of adventure that a travel novel can bring out. I found that old feeling of vicarious living, meeting and getting to know people from around the country right along with the author, as if acting as a resident intern assigned to proof the pages as they are being written.And these pages, older as they might seem, are far from dated. Good travel literature touches upon more than just the sites and scenes – it frames the human condition at the point of travel. This point – the late 50s in the United States, shortly after the Interstates were designed but far before they stretched from coast to coast – is brilliantly illustrated in Steinbeck’s attempt to find the America he thought he had forgotten. After living in New York, sheltered from his people and as far away from native Salinas as possible, he sought out the real American voice.What he found wasn’t exactly what he expected. That voice had become more disjointed, unknowing of the nation as a whole and entirely critical of the country’s direction. The direction didn’t matter – right thinking people were critical of a perceived leftism and vice versa. Steinbeck found a nation that was becoming increasingly partisan and fast-paced, dropping the old roadside stand out of sight while holding alight the big city atmosphere of Interstate travel.Steinbeck stayed off of the Interstates, preferring the hominess of the Routes and State Highways. In this way, he saw firsthand what his nation was doing. And he did so with the ultimate in companions – a conversation starting poodle named Charley, his best friend and constant shadow.The best parts of Travels with Charley are when Steinbeck and Charley interact. Sure, this is a book about travel – about a nation that’s rapidly evolving from Steinbeck’s past, throwing the easy lazy way out the window for the new fast-living – but it’s above all else a book about a man and his dog. Charley is more than just a poodle – he’s a character that, like many of Steinbeck’s characters, is richly described using ordinary terms. You feel an affinity towards these characters without being threatened. There’s simply no work needed to read Steinbeck. It’s all matter-of-fact, beautiful and elegant, simple in a complex way.Well, I’m gushing and writing like a copywriter again, so I know my time must almost be up. I read Travels with Charley on a camping trip, and the slight parallel between Steinbeck’s situation and mine (we were both camping) created a sort of invisible bond. I felt as if I was traveling – even though I was sitting still, alongside the lake, pouring my heart out into the great outdoors, wishing and growing extremely jealous of everything Steinbeck was describing.I was jealous most of all by the idea that, in leaving your station in life, you can learn more about yourself. Not just about the country, or about your era’s society, or the collective voice of your generation, but about your personal space, about your personal era and your personal voice.Travel literature is the ultimate in literary escape. When you think about it – what else is literature supposed to be?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May.Corey’s BoMC is going on an indefinite hiatus since he’s busy with a baby on the way. Thanks for contributing to The Millions, Corey, and congrats!
As eras accrue and each literary movement gives way to the next, canon space (which remains fixed) becomes survival of the fittest. Ludwig Tieck, William Congreve, and Francisco de Quevedo were household names in their day, but are now anthology also-rans of their respective movements.
So who gets to be heard from among those morbid aesthetes known as The Decadents? Charles Baudelaire features most prominently as the movement’s inaugural figure. And Arthur Rimbaud, certainly, though he is more sui generis than representative. Oscar Wilde abides, but as a pithy epigrammatist. If Rachilde survives, it will likely be under an alternative rubric (her Monsieur Vénus is a proto-feminist, gender-fluid masterpiece). Dyed-in-the-wool Decadents like Joris-Karl Huysmans, Théophile Gautier, Octave Mirbeau, Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and Jean Lorrain are in all likelihood battling it out for one or zero paragraphs in literary history. (Huysmans being the favorite grandson of Edgar Allan Poe at present, and enjoying a boost from an extended cameo in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission.)
This battle is waged, for the most part, in academe, but occasionally an intrepid publisher will root around among the dead and resurrect a neglected figure. Spurl Editions is a case in point with their recent translation of Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon (originally published in French in 1897). Not quite forgotten (but en route), Jean Lorrain was an impeccable stylist and savage critic of other writers (he fought a half-hearted duel with Marcel Proust and was challenged/sued by other fin de siècle notables). His exquisite (if precious) prose rivals the man who almost shot him, but contemporary readers may surfeit of his elaborate characterizations and attention to ornament.
Sumptuously translated by Eva Richter, Monsieur de Bougrelon is delivered with characteristic flourishes and yet its bejeweled chest eventually opens to reveal the beating heart of a Decadent ethos. The title character’s affectations, faded glory, and tales of yore regale two Parisian tourists (our narrators) in Amsterdam, who’d thus far been bored stiff by Baedeker attractions. Bougrelon appears to them apparition-like, an absurd, pathetic dandy who seems at best deluded—though his delusions prove carefully crafted—at worst insane. Yet his antics and anecdotes are a welcome alternative to the overviewed “sights” of Amsterdam. (The book is based on just such a lackluster trip to Amsterdam taken by Lorrain and Octave Uzanne.)
Much of the novel is driven by Bougrelon’s tales (Lorrain’s m.o. being told tales) which revolve around his former friend (and lover?) Monsieur Edgard de Mortimer. This framing device creates an interesting set of pairs meant to mirror and play off of one other: Bougrelon/Mortimer, Narrator/Companion, Lorrain/Uzanne. Bougrelon extols Mortimer’s beauty (“vermilion lips,” etc.) and compares him to Antinous and Patroclus, rendering his account of the pair’s exploits with women a thinly veiled projection of their love for each other.
The most salient feature of Mortimer is his being dead, and thus a product of romanticized memory. He is a legend in Bougrelon’s mind, to whom the past is fundamentally superior to the present, as is artifice to reality:
[A]ren’t all portraits ghosts?
Therein lies the nostalgic, aesthetic soul of the fin de siècle. With his flamboyant costuming, elaborate décor and rhapsodic reminiscences, Lorrain is not applying lipstick to the pig of reality, but trying to elevate artifice and anachronism to a way of being in the world. Obsessed with Truth, his literary forerunners (epitomized by Zola’s Naturalism) endeavored to strip away the manners, prejudices, and pretense of life; Lorrain and his cohorts prefer to take refuge therein.
I am an idea in an era that has no more of them.
More style than substance (at face value), Monsieur de Bougrelon is steeped in the superficial—an oxymoronic epitaph for its author and the Decadents in general. To Lorrain/Bougrelon (though the title character is a caricature of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, his sentiment is Lorrain’s) the cadaverous human face needs to be made up or masked, and the banality of life confabulated into wild pageants of unreality.
To that end, Bougrelon/Lorrain drapes Baroque tapestries over a void, but the dreadful nothingness behind the curtain is continually intimated, poised to engulf the artifice. The author’s outward aim is merely an inversion of the grimace behind the mask, the ennui behind the acts. Many Decadents revel in a rejection of the real, but for Lorrain it is flight, not pilgrimage, that drives his figures to the outlands of a reality they can never quite escape.
Openly gay (effectively, though he never came out), Lorrain eschewed the hetero-mask of so many authors (e.g,. Proust, whom he’d outed in print) and this renders his preoccupation with artifice, presentation, and masks, in particular, paradoxical. His masks are not meant to conceal or replace what lies beneath, but rather to present themselves as masks. In a story from his Nightmares of an Ether-Drinker (Snuggly Books, Tr. 2016), figures are unmasked to reveal nothing, not even a face, beneath. It is artifice for artifice’s sake and yet the gorgeous, intricately ornate milieu is not a paradise on earth, but an indicator of its own non-existence and the hell which underlies it.
A similar ambivalence attends Lorrain’s occult tales, as he never quite bought in to the mysticism his fellow Decadents took so seriously. His spectral presences are representatives of reality, and not some mysterious beyond. The ghosts, grotesque monsters, and filthy animals are the human beings who walk the city streets. They are not transmogrified, merely revealed in their true aspect.
Readers who can appreciate the rich prose and unsettling psychoanalyses will nevertheless encounter the formidable obstacle of Monsieur de Bourgrelon’s unabashed racism. Though of its time, Lorrain’s racist zoomorphism is a barrier. Bourgrelon’s telling of a simian “Negro” servant murdering a white woman is appalling, and not to be forgiven by a relativist footnote (though it should be said that none of Lorrain’s characters escape his savage zoomorphism.) So the original question remains, why should Monsieur de Bougrelon survive the cull of literary history? What distinguishes it among Decadents, renders it relatable, and/or speaks to the human condition?
A case could be made for Monsieur de Bougrelon being both indicative of an ethos and simultaneously striking a tone that most Decadents bypass en route to the logical extremes of melodrama and sado-masochism. It grows tender where most tales of the time (including Lorrain’s own) remain ruthless, and while each Decadent offering is infected with melancholia, few allow the sadness of anachronism and human futility to wash over their protagonists as does Lorrain with Bougrelon.
As we advanced, slowly and contemplatively, along those display cases that were like sarcophagi, an infinite sadness, a tender compassion, penetrated us, wearying and soothing at once…we drifted from here to there, beyond the century, no longer in a museum but in a sickroom, almost afraid of waking the souls that were in the rags laid out before our eyes.
His “imaginary pleasures” and that companionable stroll through the “boudoir of the dead” are monuments to sorrow, not sadism. More Quixote than Huysmans’s des Esseintes, Monsieur de Bougrelon is a comic figure made tragic by self-awareness. When his mask is finally, definitively ripped off (“in a cabaret where sailors danced”), it reveals not a grotesque, disfigured face, but rather the “rueful countenance” of a bygone era.