Cutting out and clipping together The Savage Detectives

Since I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly how the second section of The Savage Detectives worked—and who was reporting it, as discussed, for example, here, I decided to actually analyze the darn thing and try to figure some stuff out about it.

First, one possibly interesting observation that struck me as surprising but doesn’t seem super meaningful: other than the recurring presence of January 1976–vintage Amadeo Salvatierra, the interviews pretty much go in chronological order; there is exactly one non-Amadeo interview that is out of order (Joaquín Font, March 1977, page 222 in my Picador edition).

Back to the “substance” of this post. Something surprised me over the past few days, reading over others’ entries and comments for the group read—remarks here and there about a multiplicity of interviers, writers, listeners, whatever, in “The Savage Detectives” section. The thought had simply not occurred to me when I read it. Knowing me and knowing Bolaño, there’s probably a nicely hidden reason why the same person cannot have conducted all the interviews, but I decided, for this post, to go under my initial assumption: that one person (or perhaps one very small group of people, say, a duo) went to all the places and talked to all the people him- or herself. I believe that if you make what Nero Wolfe might call a few reasonable assumptions about this interviewer an interesting picture begins to emerge, so let’s suspend our disbelief and do it for a bit of fun.

Here is the story of the interviews, broadly and in chronological order: a long, in-depth interview is conducted in January 1976 with Amadeo Salvatierra in Mexico City. Further shorter interviews were conducted with a variety of visceral realist–types in Mexico City from March 1976 through May 1977, interrupted

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The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Since I didn’t wrap up reading The Savage Detectives until last night, I’ve stayed away, so far, from most other participants’ posts. One of the few I did read, because I could tell right away that she had stopped before the point I had already reached, was Dolce Bellezza’s lament that the second part of the novel, “The Savage Detectives,” put her off. In the comments to his own post on The Savage Detectives, Rise suggests that in some sense this middle portion is the novels version of 2666‘s “The Part About the Crimes”:some people will not make it through.

There was never any question of whether I would make it through “The Part About the Crimes,” though it did start to wear me out, and there was little question whether I would continue my race (compared to War & Peace, at least) through to the end of The Savage Detectives, either, but in the present case things seemed to get much easier as they went along. This is because the narrative surreptitiously changes from one, as Bellezza put it, about “the wild antics of teens who know no boundaries and have no goals” to one about a subtly different group of people, ones who have grown up and realized in many cases that “youth is a scam.”

The first part of the novel, which is really solidly about those wild kids and the crazy things they get up to, ends at New Year’s of 1976, when most of the principal characters are in their teens or early twenties (there are a few of an older generation as well, but this is the age of the core group of second-generation “visceral realists”). Then “The Savage Detectives” begins its stream of interviews or anecdotes: dozens of people,

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“All their assaults and attacks on each other caused almost no harm; the harm, death, and mutilation were caused by the cannonballs and bullets that flew everywhere through that space in which these men were rushing about.”

I’m not sure it would be right to say that my coverage of War & Peace has really been “building” to anything, but let’s see what I can do with day four, bringing things out more to the “point” of the novel, which, as Greg Zimmerman noted back in December, “inasmuch as you can pinpoint a single point in a 568,880-word novel,” amounts to something like this:

The course of a battle is affected by an infinite number of freely operating forces (there being no greater freedom of operation than on a battlefield, where life and death are at stake), and this course can never be known in advance; nor does it ever correspond with the direction of any one particular force.*

Tolstoy accomplishes a few things with the war portions of the novel, including developing the story of Borodino as a turning point in the Napoleonic wars, and I think these are the most interesting and compelling sections of the novel in many ways (though they kind of break the idea of “novel” a little bit)**. His interest is big: in explaining the causes of the war, or, as he often describes it quite to my liking, the great movement of people across Europe from west to east followed by a great movement of people across Europe from east to west.

I also like that he’s a bit of a wrecker. The war sections are more anti-authoritarian than the peace ones (except where the peace sections touch on diplomacy), and Tolstoy is actively antagonistic toward received interpretations of historical events. “They were wrong in 1812, they were wrong a generation later, and they’re wrong now!” he insists, and successfully—he is grappling with some pretty standard issues of historiography, and he is right to reject the idea that we

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Sonya and Princess Marya give until it hurts—but which one will give some more?

Yesterday, in telling the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, I mentioned his sister Princess Marya. Marya is a bit unfortunate: she is dull and plain-looking, gets flustered easily, lives in worshipful fear of her father, and is bullied by her own companion, Mlle Bourienne. Marya is also extremely religious and devoted to the holy fools who regularly show up at her door (at the back door, that is, in secret from Prince Nikolai, who would make fun of them). She’s also an extremely nice and kind person—far too nice and too kind, if you ask me. I mentioned she was a spinster; Prince Anatole Kuragin does come knocking at her door, at the behest of his father (Princess Marya is a very wealthy heiress), but her face turns red and blotchy and there is simply no chance.

She has something of a counterpart in Sonya, a poor relation of the Rostovs (it’s unclear whether she shares their surname). As Princess Marya lives to serve her father, brother, sister-in-law, and later nephew, Sonya is constantly behind the scenes in the Rostov household making sure everything is moving along as it should. She helps Natasha, the old Count and Countess, little Petya—she’s a real “angel in the house” type. And she’s in love with the elder Rostov son, Nikolai, who shares her affections and promises, when he leaves for the hussars, to marry her one day.

Sonya is the perfect picture of constancy. Natasha, so often her companion, can’t understand how easily Sonya takes it all. And when one of Nikolai’s leaves ends in their falling still further in love, she only becomes more certain, more sure, more able to wait. Well, if Sonya refuses to suffer, surely Tolstoy will find a way to make her do so.

First, there is the

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“[I]t made no difference to him, and it made no difference because something else, more important, had been revealed to him.”

One of the better things about reading War and Peace is that it gave me the chance to exercise my plot-analysis muscles—that is, to try to dig down past the surface and see how Tolstoy’s gears were grinding away, trying to do whatever he was trying to do in the novel. He’s not, how shall I put it, terribly subtle about these things (though not unsubtle either), so it works well as a bit of an exercise piece, I think. Well, we can see about that at the end of this post!

Here I’d like to examine the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, one of the (many) principal figures in the novel, who figures heavily in both the “war” and “peace” sections. At the beginning of the novel, we meet Prince Andrei married to “the little princess,” a pretty woman he doesn’t seem to much care for and who soon dies in childbirth, leaving him a son, the little Prince Nikolai (as opposed to the old Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, Andrei’s father). At the time, Andrei is out fighting in the first Russian campaign against Napoleon, at Austerlitz. On his return home with a wound, Andrei assumes an estate of his own, leaves his son largely in the care of his spinster sister Princess Marya (and employees), and drifts about, improving his estate but without much of a raison d’être.

A few years later, Prince Andrei meets the young Countess Natasha Rostov at a ball, and it’s clear the two of them will soon be engaged. It also seems clear that their engagement is ill-fated. With the old Prince Nikolai disapproving (the Rostovs are broke, if respectable), Andrei agrees to tour Europe for a year before the wedding. Everything is going swimmingly—Natasha might not be exactly happy about their separation,

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A Tolstoyan “Christmas Carol”

War and Peace is, you may have heard, quite a long book—and one about which, clearly, many things could be written. It encompasses multitudes: the daily lives of families like the Count Rostovs; the soldierly lives of Nikolai, Denisov and their comrades; the aristocratic lives of the circle of Countess Hélène Bezukhov; nearly a decade of the Napoleonic wars; and much more besides. It is also, clearly, a Great Work: it is epic (it encompasses multitudes), it is Tolstoy’s chance to teach us not only about these families but about the Russian people, and not only about the Russian people but its history, and not only its history but all of history, the science and study of history. That is to say, in addition to being a novel, War and Peace is a treatise on historiography—and on military science, for that matter, and on diplomacy, and probably plenty else besides.*

In other words, as I say, there is a lot to write about War and Peace, and I will write only a small part of it this week. I plan, or at least want, to write about Sonya and Princess Marya; about the death of Anatole Kuragin and the subsequent death of Prince Andrei; and about some language and translation issues. Aside from today, which is about clearing aside more personal business, that should easily wrap a week and I won’t have gotten to the smallest bit of what even I could say about this book.

But first, for that personal business. Twitter followers and readers of this earlier post on the novel are aware that this book was not the most fun of reads for me. Several friends, including David, have suggested having a look at other translations, and I wouldn’t say that the Pevear and Volokhonsky

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War & Peace: a plea

So nicole is reading War & Peace—but y’all already knew that. You probably also knew that I’m struggling with it, but only in part because of its length. I’m struggling not to hate Tolstoy reflexively, to take the novel on its own terms, and to evaluate it in some sense fairly. And to that end, I thought I’d do a bit of a check-in post for some advice now that I’m just shy of page 700.*

Now, there is a lot I don’t like about Tolstoy (see here, for starters), but I don’t want to get into anything about his personal philosophy or hatefulness just yet, because with nearly half the book remaining I don’t feel like I can really say anything definitive about this yet. Who knows who will get his comeuppance in the next 500 pages? Not me, at least (though I suspect it won’t be who I think it should).

What I didn’t realize before is that I think I don’t like him stylistically. I have memories of reading Anna Karenina in high school and putting it squarely in the Victorian novel category, which I’ve always loved: lots of characters, lots of plot, lots to bite into. I wasn’t a very good reader back then, and who knows what I would find it I opened AK up again—because I expected to find something similar in War & Peace, but this thing seems almost premodern.

That’s one theory, at least, put forward by the consumption partner last night when I was explaining my issues with the book (which apparently were almost identical with the issues he remembers his brother complaining about when he read W&P way back in his freshman year of college). Tolstoy just cannot shut up. He has to tell you everything. And then he

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‘We were foolish,’ he said, ‘as I now see only too well.’

Elective Affinities opens with a discussion between Eduard and Charlotte about whether they will invite his friend, and then her ward, to stay with them. And a strange discussion it is.

More “Goethe weirdness”? Similar to the mason, I don’t know how much to take the way characters address each other in this novel as a joke. As Anthony noted on Twitter, the narrator is hilariously ironic. I second-guess myself on irony way too much. Because this is definitely a joke—a large one, I mean, one the size of the novel pretty much. More on that later, but first, a sample. Eduard has just completed his argument for why they should let the Captain come and stay:

‘Enough: I am grateful to you for listening so sympathetically. Now it is your turn to be just as frank and circumstantial. Say whatever you have to say. I promise not to interrupt.’

‘Very well then,’ Charlotte replied, ‘and I will begin by making a general observation. Men attend more to particular things and to the present, and rightly, since they are called upon to act and to influence events. Women, on the other hand, with an equal rightness attend more to the things that hang together in life, since a woman’s fate and the fate of her family depend on such things hanging together and it is up to her to see to it that they do. Accordingly, let us look for a moment at our present and our past lives, and you will have to admit that inviting the Captain here does not wholly fit in with our intentions, our arrangements, and our plans.’

Oh, what lovebirds they are! Charlotte proceeds to rationally and linearly lay out their history and the decision they had taken to now be together, alone.

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‘Who then more than the mason will be concerned to make what he does right for himself, by doing it right?’

There are a good deal more-serious things I plan to write about during Elective Affinities week, and this might have been a better Friday post, but since I’m tired I’ll use the foundation stone chapter now instead.

Ha, the “foundation stone chapter”—I bet I fooled you into thinking it was some episode of ultimate importance to the book, when it’s literally about the laying of a foundation stone. Maybe it’s both. I kind of hope not.

In any case, it’s an example, to my mind, of Goethe’s ultimate weirdness. The background: Charlotte has been from the beginning of the book working on “improving” the grounds of Eduard’s estate, and it becomes a major project of the three, then four residents to amend, enlarge, and execute various projects, including building a new house. They decide, at the Captain’s suggestion, to “celebrate Charlotte’s birthday by laying the foundation stone.”

It’s a big celebration, with “the whole parish” “dressed for a great occasion.” They troop from church to the site of the foundation:

The owner himself then and those closest to him, as well as the highest-ranking guests, were invited to descent into the depths where the foundation stone, supported under one side, was ready to be laid down. A mason, resplendently dressed, trowel in one hand and hammer in the other, gave a fine speech in rhyme which we must do less than justice to and reproduce here in prose.

‘Three things,’ he began, ‘are needful in a building: that it is in the right place, that it has good foundations, and that it is perfectly executed. The first is really the business of the man whose house it will be. For just as in town only the prince and the municipality can decide where any building should be allowed, so in

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Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), Goethe’s 1809 novel, is the story of Eduard and Charlotte, a middle-aged couple who have recently married, finding themselves, each widowed, unexpectedly able to fulfill their youthful dream of romance together. Not long after getting together, finding it simply irresistible to do so, they introduce new, volatile elements into their nuptial household: specifically, the Captain and Ottilie.

The Captain, Christian name Otto, is a friend of Eduard’s a bit down on his luck. Ottilie is Charlotte’s ward, a sweet young woman who might do well at her boarding school if only Charlotte’s daughter Luciane weren’t such a shining, sneering star. The Captain arrives first, and one evening as the three read aloud together he discusses with his married friends some principles of chemistry.

So the Captain began: ‘The first thing we notice about all the substances we encounter is Nature is that each is always drawn to itself….’ … ‘Let me run ahead,’ said Charlotte, ‘and see if I can guess what you are aiming at. Just as everything has an attraction to itself so too there must be a relationship with other things.’

‘And that will vary according to the different natures of the things concerned,’ said Eduard in haste. ‘Sometimes they will meet as friends and old acquaintances and come together quickly and be united without either altering the other at all, as wine for example mixes with water. But others will remain strangers side by side and will never unite even if mechanically ground and mixed. Thus oil and water shaken together will immediately separate again.’

Other elements have elective affinities for each other—the Captain gives the example of limestone being dissolved by sulphuric acid, because calcium has a greater affinity for sulphur than it does for oxygen. “‘A separation and a

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