On Bolaño, prose, and narration

Selena’s post on The Savage Detectives pointed me to this New Yorker Book Bench blog post, an alleged “user’s guide to Bolaño.” I’m not sure if I’d say so much I “disagreed” with the post as that it “depressed” me; is there a word for some mixture of the two? And it might seem hard for me to disagree per se because I’ve only read two of the books discussed, but I sort of do.

Putting aside the somewhat bizarre first paragraph, a necessary lede, at first I am almost taken in by this nice “For Completists Only” shelf idea. As a sometime-completist, I think these would be very sensible shelves to have. But then, Giles Harvey accuses Bolaño’s prose of being “often as flat as old seltzer water,” giving this as an example of such, from The Third Reich:

Her sweetness, her charm, her soft gaze, put everything else—my own daily struggles and the back-stabbing of those who envy me—into perspective, allowing me to face facts and rise above them

Am I dazzled? No. But wait. Let me go on before I justify this.

Harvey goes on to say that “prose-flatness is not atypical of Bolaño” and that he was “a great novelist who was not a great writer” with “little interest in the sentence” and “disdain [for] Jamesian refinement and polish.” Now, this Jamesian refinement and polish is, let’s not forget, a particular type of “good writing,” not some mathematical proof of it. He goes on to give an example, I suppose, of just this polish, but which Bolaño gives to a “moral toad” of a narrator, proof of said disdain.

But then as Harvey goes on to recommend five of Bolaño’s best works, you realize: gee, he keeps talking about narrators, and what the narrator is like. And what the books sound like—not just what they are about, but everything about what they sound like—completely depends on what their narrator is like. The Savage Detectives is great because the “ebullient” young narrrator “is at once comic and poignant,” and, well, that means he sounds good.

So back to that first quote above. I don’t know anything about The Third Reich (truly, other than what I read in this very blog post). But I immediately assumed that the narrator was not Bolaño, because it never is, I mean it always is, but it never is, and by never being him that’s part of how it’s always him. I’ve only read two of his books, but I’m pretty sure I know this. Anyway, point is: who the hell cares if it’s “flat”? It’s whatever it’s supposed to be.

And this idea that there is normally some link between fine, “prince[ly]” prose and moral propriety seems unfounded. It’s not Vladimir Nabokov who writes most of Lolita, after all, it’s Humbert Humbert, ephebophile extraordinaire.


Separately, I cannot help noting my extreme disagreement/depression/disappointment with Harvey’s final warning about 2666. “The book is a desert of negative space,” he writes, “across which the panting reader will search in vain for the traditional pleasures of the novel: form, character, coherence, meaning.” It is what it’s supposed to be. Complaining about “The Part About the Crimes”: “The result is neither horror nor sympathy. It is exhaustion.” It is what it’s supposed to be.

What reader doesn’t long to be impressed by the effective?

6 comments to On Bolaño, prose, and narration

  • Here’s the most salient fact to know about The Third Reich, Nicole, incidentally the only Bolaño book I didn’t really enjoy: it was never approved for publication by Bolaño, which Harvey knows, thus making it completely invalid for a critic to base an argument on it. Criticize it, yes, but don’t justify your point of view with it. What’s next: digging through the trash and looking for misspellings on postcards the author might have sent to friends? What a ridiculous way to prove a point! Won’t entertain the rest of that idiot’s complaints until I read the rest of the article, but I agree with the professor I once had who said that one of Bolaño’s secrets as a writer was in making his prose look easy and “un-writerly” (sorry, I can’t remember the exact term, which was spoken in Spanish anyway); it’s the voice and the subtlety of the writing that get to you should you look beneath the surface.

  • Yeah, a clear-cut case of misreading. I also expressed my opinion here (the comments section). That is a plain dumb user’s guide.

  • James Wood captures this nicely in his NYT review of Savage Detectives, saying that the “tone” is “amazingly unliterary.” The tone, not the writing, since the writing creates the tone.

    Although he is not a murderer, the narrator of By Night in Chile does have a fairly fancy prose style. It is odd that M. Harvey sees this but does not wonder how this affects his argument. The moral toad who “expresses himself like a prince” is the narrator of that novel, but also, to reverse the flow of your argument, Roberto Bolaño, since he actually wrote those words, and was therefore also clearly capable of expressing himself like a – where do you think that “prince” comparison comes from? What does “like a prince” mean? Prince Nabokov; Prince James.

    Now, that business about completists is correct, but Bolaño increasingly seems like a writer, like Kafka or Melville or Sebald, for whom completism is a reasonable goal. The minor and major works reinforce each other. The mysteries at the core of B.’s work are worth exploring – that’s what the writers I mentioned have in common.

  • Richard—Thanks for the info on The Third Reich. And yes, “un-writerly” or “non-writerly” or whatever you want to call it, I think that’s just what Bolaño is like. And I didn’t think we were supposed to knock that…

    Rise—Nice comment, and thanks for pointing me there.

    Tom—Great point about tone vs. writing. Good on James Wood!

    The prince thing is a bit fraught, eh? And yes, he should have realized this.

    I also totally agree about Bolaño completism-potential. I mean, I’ve only read two of his novels so far, but I have zero plans to stop and would be pretty surprised if I didn’t end up getting to them all sooner rather than later.

  • depressing is a good word for it. i found this as i was trying to convince my husband to read bolano (i was in the middle of reading 2666) and it made me doubt for a second my own judgement. i mean, it’s the new yorker telling you that a work is supposedly not very good and a writer isn’t very literary.

    2666 was one of the best books i read in that year. and the best bolano to date.

  • Hey, that New Yorker fellow uses the “negative space” idea, too. I had been carrying it around since I read Nazi Literature a couple of years ago, so I didn’t pinch it! That book does not have much in the way of “the traditional pleasures of the novel” either, no more than 2666, but for some reason it’s thumbs up to one but not the other. That post gets worse the more I look at it.

    How do you get that NY gig? I have a portfolio I want to submit.

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