It must have appealed to Roberto Bolaño's sense of irony that novels, rather than poems, won him his place in the contemporary pantheon. For Bolaño's protagonists, (and, we can imagine, for Bolaño himself) poetry is the art that endures. Still, to read Amulet or By Night in Chile is to find oneself immersed in verse - not because the prose is self-consciously lyrical (not in translation, anyway), but because all of the major characters are poets. Were these characters merely unheralded virtuosos, like Kerouac's Subterraneans, the novels might take on an air of wish fulfillment. As it stands, however, Bolaño's fictionalized Lives of the Poets are an inversion, or complication, of Kerouac's: He seems more interested in the bad poets, the failed poets, than he is in the angelic ones.For this reason, and for several others, the recently published English edition of Nazi Literature in the Americas is an ideal introduction to the Bolaño oeuvre. The book comprises 30 short portraits of imaginary right-wing poets. The form of the fictional reference work (a subgenre close to my heart) allows for accessibility, while playing to several of Bolaño's great strengths.The book begins in Argentina "at the dawn of the twentieth century," with the Mendiluce clan. The matriarch, Edelmira Thompson de Mendiluce, has a long and busy life, writing books of poetry (Argentinean Hours) and autobiography (The Century as I Have Lived It) and a libretto for opera (Ana, the Peasant Redeemed), and, most significantly, founding magazines: Modern Argentina, American Letters, and The Fourth Reich in Argentina ("and, subsequently, the publishing house of the same name.") As these inflated titles indicate, Bolaño has a lot of fun inventing his poets, and the dry humor seems to play to Chris Andrews' strengths as a translator. One paragraph ends: "By the end of the audience Edelmira and Carozzone were committed Hitlerites." The next begins: "1930 was a year of voyages and adventures."After droll biographies of Edelmira's progeny - "throughout her life, [Luz Mendiluce Thompson] treasured the famous photo of her baby self in Hitler's arms" - the book will gradually work its way north, to the pop-inflected poets of the United States, and then south again, to end up in Bolaño's native Chile, at the lightless dawn of the Pinochet years. Here as elsewhere, Bolaño excels in the art of ekphrasis - describing the fruits of one medium with the techniques of another. Rarely do we see an actual excerpt from the poems in question; instead, we are treated to summaries such as this one (concerning the works of Luz Mendiluce Thompson):In 1953...she published the collection Tangos of Buenos Aires, which, as well as a revised version of "I Was Happy with Hitler," contained some of her finest poems: "Stalin," a chaotic fable set among bottles of vodka and incomprehensible shrieks; "Self Portrait," one of the cruelest poems written in Argentina during the fifties, which is no mean claim; "Luz Mendiluce and Love," in the same vein as her self-portrait, but with doses of irony and black humor, which make it somewhat less grueling; and "Apocalypse at Fifty," a promise to kill herself when she reached that age, which those who knew her regarded as optimistic.Even when Bolaño does quote from the poems in question - "[they] were free of political allusions," we are told, "except for the odd unfortunate metaphor (such as 'in my heart I am the last Nazi')" - he relies on the reader to flesh out the fictional world, in Borgesian fashion.The form of the vignette means, inevitably, that certain entries are stronger than others; some, like "Luiz Fontaine da Souza," are merely a single, extended joke. In general, though, Nazi Literature in the Americas gathers momentum as it goes on, which is perhaps a way of saying that it teaches the reader how to read it. The science-fictional leanings of several of the U.S. poets allow Bolaño to indulge in the same sort of hallucinatory symbolism that animates his finest short stories, and the final three entries, covering "The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys" and "The Infamous Ramirez Hoffman," swell to the amplitude of bravura short stories themselves. (Indeed, Bolaño would rework the latter piece into the novel Distant Star, which is probably the next book to tackle if you're looking to ease your way into the longer works.)It is as a whole, however, that Nazi Literature in the Americas makes its strongest statement. Beyond the humor, and the game-like pleasure of tracing the chain of influence and patronage among the various poets (abetted by an "Epilogue for Monsters"), the book offers a subtle analysis of the constituent parts of fascism: humorlessness, a longing for an imagined past, a persecution complex. They are often, Bolaño suggests, the same things that drive us to create art, and though the poems described in the book are often bad, they are not uniformly so. By the end of the book, we come to see poetry as a symbol of the broader moral universe (whereas in Kerouac's novels it tends to represent some form of redemption from it). Bolaño muse, like the muse that spoke to Ezra Pound and Ernst Jünger, is morally and politically indiscriminate. The lives that surround the poems are where the greatest triumphs, and greatest failures, occur.Bonus link: An excerpt from Nazi Literature in the Americas, courtesy of Bookforum
● ● ●
Leonard Cohen turned 70 a few months ago and, amid the celebration, was the subject of countless pieces of reflection. Most of them concentrated on the music career that has consumed the last half of his life, and on the poetry which runs as a current through everything. But this is not a music blog, and I've never felt particularly confident writing about poetry. (Though I implore each of you to get your hands on his various volumes of poetry and at least his first three LPs. No record collection is complete without Songs from a Room.)So this, then, is about Leonard Cohen, master of prose, and in particular, his first novel - The Favorite Game. By 1963 a 29-year old Leonard Cohen had already given the world two volumes of poetry and was living in London, reflecting on his youth in Montreal. And so we meet Lawrence Breavman, poet-adventurer. The Favorite Game weaves past with present, with an acute comic eye for Breavman's childhood -- his years of discovery of his place within and without his family, of friendships and girls. These scenes cut in and out of a later narrative which finds Breavman in his college days, still prowling for adventure, now adding words to his arsenal of weapons to conquer the hearts of women.Poetry is "a verdict," Breavman tells us, a judgment passed, and quite distinct from the creation of the words themselves. When he writes them, when he utters them, they are "propaganda," Breavman confides to us. They are spoken for their luring powers. In his childhood, Breavman experimented on unsuspecting girls with hypnosis with much the same intent. The boy becomes the man.Through it all, childhood and youth, there was Krantz -- Breavman's best friend, partner-in-crime. Devil in his ear. Their friendship was an ongoing dialogue played for comic effect, a running commentary on the world around them. It gave them an awareness, a self-awareness. A detachment.And then Krantz leaves. His next chapter will happen, unwritten, in England. "We've got to stop interpreting the world for one another." And so the dialogue is suspended, but not immediately. The early post-Krantz days find Breavman still the prowler, still soaking up experiences, and still invoking Krantz's name as if he were still there. Still devil in his ear.Enter Shell. We'd met her before. Snippets of dialogue and confidences popping up in the early narrative. But we'd never been properly introduced. Now the narrative catches up with their meeting. In New York now -- grad school. Breavman and Shell. Shell and Breavman. They become a closed world to themselves. The tone becomes more serious. More adult. Krantz is no longer in his ear. We don't know yet whether Shell will wind up as merely another conquest, another shadow, another scar. We do know that this seems different. She not only enters Breavman's life, she anchors it.When Krantz's name is mentioned late in the narrative, it's jarring. A name from the past, from a different Breavman. We realize how different his world has become. And then Krantz is back -- but he's changed. Or maybe Breavman's changed. Either way, the suspended dialogue is released, and it crashes.There's more. Old voices call Breavman back. They mix with the new voices. Pretty soon the new ones become the old ones, and Breavman's life continues, unwritten, beyond the pages of the book.Three years later, Leonard Cohen would give us Beautiful Losers, his only other novel. Its a stunning work, stylistically rich and daring. It deserves its own discussion, but not now.There's a common and rather irritating perception of Leonard Cohen as a harbinger of doom. The song "The Future" and a few other cautionary tales aside, I've never really bought into this. Maybe for some its the deep voice of the later records. But then they can't be really listening to the words. So maybe it's the depth of the words. He digs deeper into life than most writers, but he doesn't just reveal foreboding. He reveals absurdities with wit. He reveals longing with passion. And he reveals loss with sadness.This is not the stuff of dread and gloom. It's the stuff of life. And we're all the richer for his passion.
“I can tell you that, as of today, I don’t feel any different about Mr Whitehead, or his review, or my response.” Richard Ford doubles down on his reaction to a negative 2001 review by fellow novelist Colson Whitehead. (Said response, in case you missed it, was to tell Whitehead 'you’re a kid, you should grow up,' and spit in his face.) We hope Whitehead is laughing at home with his Pulitzer Prize, recently awarded for last year's literary juggernaut The Underground Railroad. And as our own Emily St. John Mandel reminds us, there are far more gracious ways to respond to criticism.
Jack Kerouac's On the Road is known as much for its content as for the story surrounding its creation: Kerouac wrote in a frenzied three weeks, typing furiously on a continuous scroll of paper, or so the story goes. The truth is though, while there is indeed a scroll - it has toured the country for years, stopping at various museums and libraries - On the Road's creation is more complicated than that, as a recent NPR segment discussed.In fact, On the Road wasn't written in a three week rush, it was half formed in Kerouac's notebooks before ending up on the scroll and went through many drafts afterward. Furthermore, the version on the scroll isn't what we've read, as the novel evolved in future drafts and was fairly heavily edited before Viking finally published the book in 1957. Not only that, the end of the scroll is missing - eaten by a dog supposedly - so it's not entirely clear what Kerouac's original intention was for the end of the novel.Still, the On the Road scroll is a powerful thing symbolically, and it may be closer to what Kerouac intended the novel to be than what was published originally. In recognition of that, for the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, Viking (now a part of Penguin) is publishing the scroll (in book form, of course) with an ending taken from other early drafts of On the Road.For those who prefer the On the Road that we grew up reading (watered down though it may be), a standard 50th Anniversary edition is on its way as well. You can shelve it alongside the 40th Anniversary edition you bought ten years ago.