Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Roberto Bolano, Desperation, the Novel, and Morrissey

Bolano, Desperation, the Novel, and Morrissey

In one way Roberto Bolano reminds me, in The Savage Detectives, of what I've read about, or seem to remember I've read about, a Germanic tradition of authors from Goethe to Mann. (I attempted Werner as a teenager and Wilhelm Meister in my early 20s, and was so stunningly bored by both that I gave up after a few pages. I'll be attempting Wilhelm Meister again soon, having a current interest in both the picaresque and the Bildungsroman. As for Mann, I read Death in Venice and “Tonio Kroger” as a teenager; I didn't understand a word of the former, although I liked the movie; the latter, however, hit home with my teenage self. Do you think Sontag, Trilling, or Wood has literary skeletons in their closet like this – important novels they tried to tackle at a young age and couldn't? Or are they all too serious and self-punitively assiduous? Then there were the ones that bored me so much I couldn't get past the first few paragraphs, including The Waves and 100 Years of Solitude.)

Bolano reminds me of this tradition whenever his characters go on rants (recounted in dialogue or expressed in monologue) about the nature of literature, the sort of unapologetic didactic intrusion of the author's aesthetic and intellectual ideas into a fictional narrative that I associate, rightly or wrongly, with Wilhelm Meister and The Magic Mountain. While we're speaking of boring novels, I could also mention here Marius the Epicurean – I actually got through the entire first volume of that as research for my second plan for an MA thesis, prompting the following discussion with my supervisor:

Me: Next time we meet I should probably have something to show you to prove that I've done some work...

Supervisor: Yes. “Describe the plot of Marius the Epicurean.”

Me: Plot?

Supervisor: LOLOLOL.

These are the jokes in academia, let's face it. (AND I STILL DON'T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO MARIUS. No spoilers, please.)

And, following on from Marius, there is also Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although Stephen Dedalus' abstract and abstruse aesthetic theory is so different in tone, let alone content, from the impassioned serio-comical rants of Bolano's poets and publishers that Joyce makes a distant point of comparison at best.

There is, first, the gay visceral realist Ernesto San Epifanio's long speech (interspersed with the shouted interjections of his listeners) essentially classifying all poets as “faggots” (of whom he approves) or “queers” (the bourgeois), with many sub-categories whose precise definition is obscure. Reproducing the tour de force section in full, Bobby Byrd rather brilliantly compares San Epifanio's rant to Mercutio's Queen Mab speech. 'Nuff said.

Then there's the rant about “desperate books,” in which Bolano describes the type of novel he is writing and anticipates objections to it through a proxy-recounting of the aspirations of Bolano stand-in Arturo Belano and his friend and co-founder of visceral realism, Ulises Lima. I was reminded, first off, of an interview with Morrissey in which he said that the quality he most prized in a singer was “desperation.” Morrissey's career actually makes a good illustration of exactly what Bolano is talking about in this section. Quim's rant essentially reduces to the observation that there are books for adolescents and “immature” adults and books for mature adults (i.e. the bourgeois), which makes yet another way to oppositionally categorize types of novels. Only the examples given of “novels for the mature” are not literary fiction but rather masterpieces such as In Search of Lost Time, The Magic Mountain, Les Miserables and War and Peace. In this monologue Bolano makes it clear that he is not only writing a novel about adolescents and bohemians but a novel for them (if there's a difference; if there can be a novel on this subject written for mature adults), or I suppose for anyone who, regardless of their age and outward circumstances, still finds that this notion of “desperation,” so acute in adolescence, speaks to them. Nothing about The Savage Detectives makes me particularly think it's a book for Morrissey, but the young Morrissey did identify with Werther, mentioned by Quim when he describes desperate readers as “the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther.” The kind of fucking idiot, in other words, who takes literature seriously enough to die for it in a type of Romantic reaction that we much more commonly associate nowadays with the relationship between adolescents and their music – for example (pre-eminently, perhaps still), The Smiths. Because only an idiot would care that much. Which – via suicide and adolescence – somehow brings us back to Romeo and Juliet (in the previous paragraph – keep up!). Because the sorts of passions described in The Savage Detectives (for both literature and lovers) have those same qualities of intensity and naivety that are found in Shakespeare's play, which many critics consider rather bad by the Bard's standards, but you can't argue with its durability, or in fact its pop culture status ever since West Side Story adapted it to the new youth culture of the 1960s. And this risking badness seems to me here, as in 2666, to be the aesthetic stance that Bolano so thrillingly occupies by embracing a naivety of both viewpoint and effect (for example, in the eschewing of “literary” prose that has received wide comment in our “literary fiction” era). It's the kind of fiction that makes you go (unless you're so desperate to appear sophisticated that you can't question, even to yourself, whether the trendy, “difficult” foreign-language author is The Real Thing after all), “By the standards of everything I've been taught good fiction is, this can't be.” Unless you're me, of course. Because that pretty much defines my ideal book.

But the problem for the desperate reader is, of course, that he has only two options: he either becomes so desperate that (also a problem for the writer who writes for him) he stops reading (meaning, presumably, he is homeless, insane, or both); or he is cured, becomes bourgeois, and reads calm, mature novels – although, with his breadth of learning and taste, he reads desperate novels too, but they bore him, as rightly they should. Desperation, in other words, cannot be a permanent life choice (even if, as long as one lives within it, one feels certain that it is the only perspective from which truth can be accessed, the only uncompromised position): it either leads to obliteration or ends. It is an unoccupiable position that nevertheless this book, and its author, and perhaps its readers (who aren't bored), attempt to occupy.

By the way, has anyone (or everyone) considered yet that Arturo Belano may be named after K's assistant Artur, given the distinct resemblance of the eternally-popping-up Belano and Lima to the assistants towards the end of the first section? Just a thought.