I do hope you’ve all been having wonderful Christmas celebrations and that Santa brought you all the books on your amazon wish lists. We seem to have been particularly hectic this year and I have barely read a chapter or two of a book over the past week, let alone been inspired to write anything about literary matters, so I am feeling very rusty as I review the possibilities for a blog post. Back when we were in Norfolk I was very much enjoying Roberto Bolaño’s collection of short stories, Last Evenings On Earth. Bolaño is a Chilean writer who spent a significant portion of his life in exile in Catalonia, and his short stories have a very particular flavour to them. They feature dispossessed and marginal people who, through circumstance or lack of choice, wander through their lives without achieving delineated plot lines for themselves, half finished stories that have forgotten what might constitute a conclusion. Quite a lot of them are writers or artists of some kind, but they are rarely successful, lacking the talent, or the drive, or the good fortune to consolidate their aspirations into a career. If this makes the stories sound dreary, then think again. Bolaño manages to inject unexpected and compelling enigma into his characters and their situations, and the way this is bound up with the business of writing proved immensely intriguing to me.
Bolaño’s short stories beg the question of what it means to be a good writer or a bad one, for there is clearly more at stake in such a judgement than the quality of words placed on paper. The validating gaze of the universe is involved here, as well as the value of the writer’s soul. One story features Frenchman, Leprince, a poor writer but a courageous hearted individual who becomes caught up in the Resistance movement during the Second World War. Although collaborating might have meant a chance to publish his work in more reputable journals, Leprince chooses the route of virtue, helping out the first rate authors in their Resistance missions. In this unusual way he gains a kind of acceptance he has never known before although the miasma of his modest abilities clings to him: ‘There is something elusive, something indefinable about him that people find repellent. They know he is there to help, but deep down they simply cannot warm to him. Perhaps they sense that Leprince is tainted by the years he has spent in the underworld of sad magazines and the gutter press, from which no man or beast escapes, except the exceedingly strong, brilliant and bestial.’ After a series of adventures, Leprince ends up one night talking to a successful lady novelist with whom he unexpectedly discovers a bond; alone with her he opens his heart and confesses his longings and his disappointments in the literary sphere. In turn she advises with stringent honesty that the problem lies with his residual ‘repellent’ quality, and that if he wishes to succeed the answer is ‘to disappear, go under cover, try not to let his face show in his writing.’ Leprince is gratified to have been heard for once, but offended by the advice which he has no intention of taking. Instead he prefers to accept his lot as a bad writer, a position which he understands to be wholly necessary and useful to life’s good writers. ‘For some,’ Bolaño writes, ‘his presence, his fragility, his terrifying sovereignity serve as a spur or reminder.’
So what are we to make of the way that personality and writing are intertwined in this odd little tale? Leprince’s writing fails because Leprince himself is a flawed personality. Yet the story equally suggests it is being a bad writer, and thus condemned to the ignominy of third rate, contaminating environments, that has warped his soul. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Everyone looks down on Leprince in this story although his Resistance exploits indicate an integrity and a bravery that others (including other good writers) clearly lack. Yet some quality is missing from his make up that would elevate him, and his writing, into the first rank, and without it his humanity is put in question. Leprince will always be an underdog, a warning, a deterrent, and the modesty and humility that made him such a fine servant of the Resistance, and quite possibly a card carrying member of the human race, will prevent him from ever changing.
Good writers, then, if we deduce their characteristics from the shadowy contours of their opposites, have a certain tenacity and drive, that might mutate into burning ambition and arrogance but might equally put them in touch with the vital center of their existence. In another story, Bolaño recounts the changing fortunes of a woman, Anne Moore, and the friends and lovers who surround her. Most are drop outs, one way or another, but the act of creativity always holds out the potential for redemption, or provides a brief interlude in which life with its myriad engagements, seems attractive. As for example one friend, Mark, who ‘published a book of poems, which was something of a success in the Berkeley student community, and he gave readings and took part in some conferences. It seemed like the ideal moment for him to start a new relationship and share his life with someone, but after the initial buzz, he retreated to his apartment and she never heard anything more about him.’ Being ready to write is like being ready to fall in love, a state of open accessibility, a readiness for adventure and intrigue, an embrace of life in all its multicoloured variation. Giving up writing is a retreat and an abandonment, an act of self-protection that is at the same time an act of spiritual suicide.
Yet the fundamental problem with writing, Bolaño’s stories seem to suggest, is that no one ever believes that they are a good writer, no matter how the literary world treats them. One of my favourite stories so far features A and B, two men from similar backgrounds who find success in different ways. A is the first to become a successful writer and B somewhat jealously suspects that the accolade goes to his head and makes him pompous and self-righteous. So B then writes a book in which one chapter contains a parody of A. When it is published, A himself reviews the book, and is so enthusiastic in his account that the book becomes a minor bestseller. B’s guilt and his lack of comprehension send him into a tailspin. Did A recognize himself in the pages of B’s book or did he not? Is this a cunning strategy on A’s part, or an act of extraordinary blindness? What follows is an entertaining and complex psychodrama as B conjures up every possible fantasy to account for A’s behaviour, although he never has one that simply embraces the possibility that A actually liked it. The story concludes at the moment when the two men finally meet, and I applauded this ending as it showed how the Hydra-headed fantasies were the point, not the reality or the truth. If B is a writer, it’s because he is capable of spinning powerful fantasies with his mind, and his success as a writer is to some extent dependent on a strange but compelling capacity for the ‘what if?’. This capacity, however, makes day to day living very difficult; it makes taking satisfaction in oneself and one’s achievements almost impossible, and it undermines all possibility of certainty or security. Writing may be an act of faith in the universe, and of open responsiveness to it, but writers are then snagged on proliferating horns of their responses, the very quality that brings them so close to the fabric of life working to whisk them away on a sea of fantasies.
There’s a quality of heroic apathy to Bolaño’s characters that I recognize, and that probably comes from too many hours spent hoping the right words will come. There’s a superficial emptiness to them as well, that hints at a mighty capacity for absorbing what’s close by, as well as the possibility of infinite, dark depths that should never be brought to the light (except glancingly in limpid prose). It’s always fun to read about writers, for some reason, and about readers too, and the duplicitous simplicity of Bolaño’s own writing makes this a satisfyingly enticing and tempting series of stories. I don’t feel I’ve got to the bottom of his portrayal of the writing mind yet, but I’ve got half a book still to go. I’m not sure whether it’s making me feel better or worse, though, about my own inability to get words on the page….