Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Myth of the Writer for the 21st Century in Vila-Matas, Marias, and Bolano

The Writer as Hot Mess

In recent decades we've heard a lot about the death of literature, meaning variously: the death of print in the online era; the death of reading in the age of digital distractions; and the death of “literature” in a time when the mass audience has been lost to electronic media, the remaining book audience has been lost to “YA fiction,” and, anyway, modernism rendered the traditional novel aesthetically void. Under capitalism, this millennial anxiety about literature inevitably immediately issued in a new publishing genre: books about books, extolling the wonders of books, talking about the author's experiences with books, providing clueless or curious readers with lists of books they ought to read.

The new myth of the writer conjured by the works of three Spanish-language authors, Javier Marias, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Roberto Bolano, seems suited to these times. On the one hand, these are writers obsessed with writers, or the idea of the writer, in a modernist version of the turn-of-the-century self-cannibalization of literature. But while this obsession speaks to the regard in which they hold The Writer, their work simultaneously diminishes that figure. In The Savage Detectives (1998), Bolano nostalgically glorified a failed literary movement whose chosen figurehead was an obscure and elusive experimental poet, as if the movement, too, glorified failure (or “the literature of desperation,” as it's called at once point), or saw it as the only authentic kind of success; 2666 (2004) also uses the quest for an elusive author as one of its structural devices. In Bartleby & Co. (2001), Vila-Matas wrote a “novel” that is really a work of literary theory about the mostly non-fictional “Bartlebys” of literature, or Writers of the No, who gave up writing temporarily or permanently or could not get started in the first place. And in Written Lives (1992), Marias's brief biographies of mostly famous writers, written as if their “fairly disastrous” subjects “were fictional characters,” produce an effect that “is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters,” as Marias litotically warns in the Prologue.

Indeed, the impression one gathers from reading Bartleby & Co. and Written Lives back to back is that you would have to be a fool to be a writer. Marias, a self-conscious anti-hagiographer whose miniature biographies often reminded me of the fictional ones in Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996),
but with less generosity extended towards the subjects, strips even the glamour of tragedy and Romantic self-destruction from his writers, eccentrics who lead lives characterized by mainly quiet desperation, but also occasionally marked by violence. Those memorable episodes of violence – Turgenev's grandmother's grisly murder of a young servant in a fit of pique, Sterne's father's being run through with a sword in an argument over a goose, Verlaine's brutalizing of his wife and his and Rimbaud's mutual brutalization, the elderly Isak Dinesen's bullying of a young male worshipful and whimsical threatening of him with a pistol – are another link to NLITA, in which the banal, the bizarre, and the violent jostle.

Although Marias is remarkably short on sympathy (as opposed to pity) for his writers, he saves his vitriol for his betes noire, Joyce, Mann, and Mishima. In those chapters, Marias proves he can rival Camille Paglia as an artist of the ad hominem, and it's hard to know whether he has chosen sex as a ground on which to attack them or whether their sexual psychology is part of what inspired his disgust in the first place. We are, in any case, expected to share that disgust as he quotes representative passages from Joyce's pornographic letters to his wife, Mann's diary entries on his digestive complaints and attractions to young men, and Mishima's public musings about his sadomasochistic fantasies. One only hopes that Marias's sex life and sexual thoughts are clean and orthodox enough to escape such a treatment, or, if not, that they never fall into the hands of posterity.

The persona adopted by Vila-Matas in Bartleby & Co. is much gentler, yet his celebration of literary silence does not make the writer's life appear any more attractive. It is a life largely wasted, as the writer loses sight of the reasons to write, or never manages to keep them in sight long enough to get started, or – like Vila-Matas's paradigmatic Bartleby, Robert Walser – contrives a way to continue to write, but only with the lowest possible opinion of his work. When I recently came across a New Yorker post on Philip Roth's announcement of his retirement, I saw it through the lenses of Vila-Matas and Marias simultaneously: Roth's retirement was an act of Bartlebyism, albeit at the end of a prolific career, and he speaks of writing as an addiction that required such single-minded devotion from him that he found taking care of a friend's cat “consuming.” The post makes the life of a writer – and a critically and commercially successful one – sound austere, ascetic – even impoverished. I wondered, reading it, how a man who had lived so little in order to write so much could have written anything at all.

I have no doubt myself that the mythology of the writer is part of what lured me into my career... as a Bartleby. As a teenager I devoured biographies of writers whose behavioural excesses and tragic trajectories made them compelling subjects, and although my life has been conspicuous for its lack of excess (although the disasters have been plentiful), I am nonetheless as guilty as any of assuming, based on this mythology, that to be a writer was to not only be good at writing – but to also be interesting. Between, say, Oscar Wilde in the 1890s and the generation of Capote, Mailer, Vidal, and Williams, the writer was a proto-rock star; the American writer of the Franzen, Chabon, Eugenides generation is, in contrast, at best an indie rock star.

The Great Gender Divide

The myth of the writer-rock star lives on, however – only now it's gone international. Just go on Scott Esposito's online lit journal, The Quarterly Conversation, and what do you see? In a sidebar to the right, a row of links with photographs, devoted to Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Roberto Bolano. Notably, two of the four died young, and notably, the writer as rock star, like the rock star, is gendered male. Not that female writers are incapable of inspiring cults by dying young, but the Sylvia Plaths are left to feminists. Women read trash, men don't read, intellectual men read male modernists, and feminists read female modernists. And if you think I'm simply parroting stereotypes about the literary tastes of average North American men and women, take a look at the 2011 winners of the Goodreads Choice Awards for Fiction, and you tell me which gender is using the site more, what kind of fiction they're reading, and which gender is writing it. Jessa Crispin's popular Bookslut site appears to be a gender-neutral literary site – despite the gendered monicker – where women and men who are interested in serious writing by men or women can gather and contribute; the question, however, is why there should ever be gender segregation on literary sites.

Or in books about writers, because female writers are rather left to the side by Marias and Vila-Matas (and not a sexy sidebar). Out of his dozens of Bartlebys, in a book stuffed with literary references, Vila-Matas mentions less than a dozen female writers in total. Only three, or possibly four, of them are Bartlebys, and they are: a friend of the fictional protagonist who gives up on the idea of being a writer after her head is turned by literary theory; a woman who ghost-wrote feminist plays for her famous husband; a courtesan who ghost-wrote a few lines of verse for Goethe; a member of Strindberg's circle who wrote a memoir of her childhood and adolescence. And this despite the fact that off the top of my head I can think of two female modernists who fill the qualifications of a Bartleby better than many of the male authors Vila-Matas includes: Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles. One can only conclude that Vila-Matas either doesn't read that many female writers (he seems mainly to hear of their existence through rumour, perhaps while reading biographies of Goethe or Strindberg) or doesn't think too hard about them if he does. I'll definitely be interested in seeing how he represents his relationship with Marguerite Duras, his landlady (who is quoted a few times in Bartleby & Co.), when he was a young aspiring writer, in Never Any End to Paris.

The Great Gender Divide in contemporary letters needn't be attributed to anything more sinister than identification: Vila-Matas may stick mainly to male authors because they stick mainly to male protagonists, which are easier for both reader and writer to identify with; and when Vila-Matas, as a writer, muses about Writers and Writing, for the same reason it's male writers he thinks about. And this neglect of female writers – whether in books by male modernists or on literary sites devoted to modernism, like The Quarterly Conversation – reinforces the same tendencies in female writers.

And so the discussion of female modernists and their Bartlebyian tendencies is left to its own book, or books – like Kate Zambreno's Heroines(Semiotext(e)/Active Agents), which I have not read, because it's not in my public library system, but which does discuss Bowles and Barnes – and the Great Gender Divide perpetuates itself. Which makes Bolano's feminist gesture of making a female poet the object of his two male poets' quest in The Savage Detectives all the more remarkable, although it only seems logical to make the “silenced” female writer (or, for that matter, femininity, the no-thing, as negation) into a symbol of literary modernism in general.

Symbols aside, however, the truth – as Bartleby & Co. proves in abundance – is that male writers are every bit as likely to be Writers of the No as female writers are, as sad as it may be when the latter have more famous husbands who are also writers. The reverse still seldom happens, although Sylvia Plath's suicide and subsequent appeal to feminists and precocious teenage girls does mean that more non-poetry-readers have heard of her than of Ted Hughes (in any capacity except as her husband). Likewise, the feminist embrace of Frida Kahlo means that now, at least, more people with no great interest in art have heard of her than of her artist-husband. It helps, too, that Kahlo made her own image the subject of her art, which lends an illusion of intimacy that the mass audience seems to respond to – like Oprah putting herself on all her magazine covers.

Marias, who has stated in a Paris Review interview his distaste (he must have more of those than any celebrated writer since Nabokov) for writers who write from the perspective of the opposite sex, includes only three women, Isak Dinesen, Djuna Barnes, and Madame du Deffand, out of 20 authors, in the main portion of Written Lives; he then devotes a second section to even briefer portraits of six “Fugitive Women.” I can't say I understand what makes these women more fugitive than the others, or whether “fugitive” is meant to suggest that they are fleeing (like hunted outlaws), fleeting (three were short-lived), or elusive figures, but it's certainly a Bolanoesque concept of the female writer.

To this concept Marias, however, adds the further meaning that the interest of several of these women's literary work is also fugitive. Two, Vernon Lee and Violet Hunt, are treated as hangers-on in important male literary circles (in fact overlapping circles). Adah Isaacs Menken, a mid-19th century American actress whose fame was due to her appearance at the climax of a play by Byron, in which she played the male protagonist, in a flesh-coloured leotard, tied to a horse, is treated more affectionately by Marias than almost any other figure in the book, perhaps because of her unabashed and abundant absurdity, yet she seems to have been sneaked in because she happened to write a critically excoriated, posthumously published book of poems. It does give the impression that Marias is scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with women of letters to write about.

Somebody, please, send him some binders.

Pretty On the Inside

You may have noticed from the foregoing that I am impatient with any attempt to set female writers apart from male ones with even the best of intentions – by male or female writers. I can't think of anything more alien to me than the idea that the sexes are so alien to each other that they can't enter into each other's perspectives, or that the imagination of the writer – I should say, The Writer – is so feeble that it can't transcend something as fictional as gender. If all we're going to do for the rest of all time is read and write about our almighty, all-important experiences “as woman” and “as men,” we might as well all start taking literary silence literally.

However, the writer so incapable of imagining an experience different from his or her own as to produce inadequate characters of the opposite sex is fully deserving of ridicule. Interestingly, in Written Lives Marias is guilty of the same trespass against feminism that recently rocked the internet when Jonathan Franzen made it in his NewYorker piece on Edith Wharton. Not only does he remark on his assessment of Djuna Barnes's appearance in his second paragraph on her; her returns to the subject in the book's third section, in which he analyzes photographs of writers. Out of 23 writers, Barnes is the only female writer whose picture he includes, and it causes him to confidently proclaim, “Unlike Wilde, who tries to be and to seem handsome, she knows she is not pretty and does not believe she can seem so, that is why she makes no attempt to adopt the faraway look that flatters most faces, instead she looks straight ahead, skeptical and mocking, trusting only in her costume (especially that raised collar), and in the confidence of her pose.”

Is it a double standard that I think Marias's analysis of the Wilde photos – those wonderful early dandy photos (probably more responsible than any text in fooling me into thinking that to be a writer meant to be interesting) – in terms of Wilde's desire to appear handsome and his momentary achievement of that goal (as if by force of will, the way Bette Davis made herself appear pretty in Jezebel) – but that this analysis of “prettiness” as a central concern in Barnes's life is piffle? I don't know anything about Barnes's private life other than what Marias wrote in his sketch – as I know nothing about Wharton's private life besides what Franzen wrote in his article. Perhaps if I did, the male writers' assertions not just about the female writers' appearance but their feelings about it would make that life snap into focus for me – which is what happened when I read Marias's lines on the Wilde photos. The pursuit of beauty is certainly a major motivating factor in Courtney Love's life, for example: she's sung about it, talked about it in interviews, and given herself a very public makeover that unfortunately degenerated into a plastic surgery addiction.

Oscar Wilde, before he stopped trying to incorporate the object into himself and went in pursuit of it.

Bette Davis, defying you to think she's not beautiful.

Djuna Barnes gets it right.

Courtney Love before she started trying to incorporate the object in herself.

Franzen and Marias are, at the very least, guilty of showing a Romneyesque insensitivity to context; their failure to provide biographical evidence for their theses reads as though they have such difficulty imagining the female mind that they have grasped desperately at the one clue society has given them: “Women want to be pretty!” Which, moreover, causes them to underestimate the human capacity for complacency and self-delusion, as anyone can see nowadays by going on Facebook, my own account not excluded. 
Besides, Marias has chosen the wrong photo of Barnes for his claim that she was neither pretty nor believed she could seem so. There's another from the same session in which Barnes, attempting a softening smile that is in fact less flattering to her face than a frank expression, looks downright awful. In the photo from Marias's postcard collection of writers' portraits, on the other hand, to me Barnes looks like a perfectly presentable, somewhat eccentric woman who precisely thinks she can sometimes pass as pretty – and has done so here. Marias's emphasis on Barnes's modesty in the next sentences is also revealing: apparently one of the first things he looks at when he looks at a picture of a woman is how much skin she's revealing, which issues immediately in a judgement on her virtue. Of Barnes he declares approvingly, “She is a woman dominated far more by modesty than by esteem for her own image,” which translates into the vernacular thusly: “She keeps her clothes on instead of running around showing off her body to get attention from men.”

Some people aren't meant to smile.

Maybe it's a good thing that Marias doesn't try to enter into women's heads very often: instead of vividly imagining Barnes's inner life, he can only file her appearance into his limited, dualistic categories for women – sexually attractive (good) or not sexually attractive (bad), virgin/matron (good) or whore (bad). Not that women don't have the same categories for men (Rhett or Ashley, Team Edward or Team Jacob?), but one expects a little more of a writer of international reputation writing about another writer of international reputation.

Speaking of writers' appearances, Kate Zambreno's blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister, has finally gotten me to take an interest in Clarice Lispector – one of the very few female writers whose name I've encountered on The Quarterly Conversation. The summary of a recent biography by Walter Moses gets off to an hilarious start by quoting his description of Lispector as “That rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf,” but I'm intrigued by Moses' thesis that the Jewish Lispector, whose family fled to Brazil in 1922, when she was two years old, is “the true heir to Kafka.” I would actually be intrigued by any writer who's supposedly the true heir to Kafka, but if she also happens to look like Marlene Dietrich, you can't beat that package. And to judge from the pounds of makeup Lispector wore throughout her life, neither her narcissism nor her preoccupation with philosophy and mysticism interfered with each other in any manner. It's only the less physically and intellectually gifted of us who are superficial enough to be interested only in our appearance or in our inner life. 

The writer as movie star.

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