This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.
My last night in Mexico, after a quiet dinner with a friend, I dreamed a strange and involved kind of dream that, when I awoke, left an aftereffect of mystery and sadness. Bolaño was there; my friend also (who in fact knew Bolaño far better than I ever did) and we were in a city that felt like Barcelona, but might have been Guadalajara. It was cold. We were walking back from a party at dawn; myself, my friend and Bolaño. A car pulled up. The driver and the passengers all wore masks; wolfmask, pigmask, V for vendetta, something else. They offered us a ride to the next party, we said we’d rather walk. I don’t think we were going to a party. Near the cathedral a river was flowing and in the dirty brown, fast-flowing water was all the furniture of the city: desks, bookcases, refrigerators, lampshades, sofas, kitchen tables, dishwashers. I remember thinking it was important to remember all this, but when I woke could not think why it might be important, nor what happened next.
So when I get home I start reading through a book of interviews with Bolaño, interviews I have read before in Spanish and am now reading in English. There are a few silly mistakes in the translation of one of them. And then I notice a passage that I remember from before, I mean remember having noted it the first time I read in, in the original. Bolaño is answering a question about the relationship of writers to critical writing:
Literary criticism is a discipline that represents more for me than literature. Literature is prose, novel and short story, dramaturgy, poetry, and literary essays and literary criticism. Above all, I think it is necessary that there be literary criticism – without accident – in our countries, not ten lines about an author the critic will probably never read again. That is to say, it’s necessary to have criticism that mends the literary landscape along the way . . . I view criticism as a literary creation, not just as the bridge that unites the reader with the writer. Literary critics, if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, are also throwing everything overboard. The interesting thing about literary critics, and that is where I ask for creativity from literary criticism, creativity at all levels, is that he assumes himself to be the reader, an endemic reader capable of arguing a reading, of proposing diverse readings, like something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or a diatribe. For me, Harold Bloom is an example of a notable critic, although I am generally in disagreement with him, and even enraged by him, but I like to read him. Or Steiner. The French have a long tradition of very creative critics and essayists who are very good, who illuminate not just one work but a whole era of literature, sometimes committing grave mistakes, but us narrators and writers also commit errors.
If we ignore a couple of mistranslations (what can he have meant by “without accident”?; “narrators” is better translated here as storytellers or even novelists) this passage reflects a fairly radical approach whereby Bolaño sees critical writing as not simply an extension of (or a parasite upon) ‘creative writing’ but as an essential component of it. His writing is full of writers and of critics (one thinks especially of the four literary scholars in Part One of 2666) and there is throughout his work a sense of a writer observing himself at work. This accounts in part for his apparent indifference, at times, to the actions of his protagonists – the kind of utterances that populate his work, that go like: “he might have said so-and-so but equally he might have said such-and such”; “she took the book from the table, or was it the photograph, I forget, and held it tightly to her chest” (no, these aren’t precise examples, I don’t have time to search, I have to go to work, but you get my drift): it seems at times as if Bolaño is a writer observing himself ‘doing writing’. I am not sure if this is the same as meta-fiction, it probably is, and there is certainly an element of detached self-criticism. (I should find genuine examples if I am to do this properly, otherwise I will end up writing a blog that consists of a dream and a series of suppositions about Bolaño’s writing that uses examples I have made up). But what strikes me more than anything is Bolaño’s generosity of spirit towards criticism, of viewing it as being part and parcel of the same enterprise upon which we are embarked as writers, and to which he urges us to return. This is why he emphasises that critics should “assume themselves to be the reader”, something which is clearly not the case in a lot of academic criticism. When writers write criticism there is, it seems to me, a greater consideration of the work as something to be read rather than, for example, as a statement of intent, a reflection of a particular cultural factor such as the exploitation of women by men, or an examination of social class in 19th century London. This is not to say that these considerations are not important, but as a part of the whole, as a part of the reading experience itself, which tends to get neglected in a focus on the particular.
Bolaño’s comments on Bloom and Steiner are particularly interesting, since these two critics have been the object of sustained attacks by the mafia of literary and critical theory, and yet, in my experience, are the kind of critics (along with Blanchot and Bataille, for example, from the French contingent) favoured by many writers of my acquaintance, at the expense of scholars more favoured by the academy. But maybe this is not the case, I’m not sure.
What are the chances of bashing your head on the protuberant arm of the TV bracket twice in your hotel room in the space of ten minutes? The second time my head bled so profusely by the time I got to the bathroom I looked like an extra from a zombie/slash/horror movie. Never mind. I’ve moved the table where I type away from the wall now. As far as it can possibly go.
Today I was taken to lunch in El Santo Coyote restaurant, and in the shady garden (where, as usual, according to the sign, invasion is prohibited – please see my post from Montevideo on this recurrent theme) complete with waterfall, your man comes to the table with mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock and, after asking if you like your salsa hot or what, he begins to pummel it into shape before your eyes. With chilli, garlic, some variety of parsley, and then tomato. And hell, yes, it works.
The blurb on the menu of The Holy Coyote tells of the thirteen Sioux tribes and all that shamanistic stuff. I love it. All my Carlos Castaneda comes flooding back: I will meet my ally soon, or dance with coyotes into the dark chasms of forgetting. But probably not tonight. After the bump on my head I’m half way there anyway, forgot just about everything today, including my ticket for the Herta Müller dramatization/reading at the theatre. I’ve forgotten what else I forgot but will probably find out tomorrow if I manage to sleep.
As for the food from the north of Mexico – so not, strictly speaking, indigenous to Guadalajara – I take off my hat, the hat that would, if it existed, cover my poor skull. But since my literary activities don’t begin in earnest until tomorrow, and the sun is shining, it was good to look around and see what is what.
But without invading anything or anyone, if possible.
Over the next few days, the International Book Fair of Guadalajara will be taking place in Mexico.
Guadalajara is noteworthy for actually inviting numbers of that marginal group in the production of the book, the writer – rather than just the important figures, the publishers and literary agents, for whom these affairs are generally designed. Blanco’s previous visits to Book Fairs (London, twice, and Istanbul, once) apart from being immensely tedious, impressed on him the fact that writers merely represented the messy, grubby end of the publishing process, and if it were at all possible, the agents and publishers would prefer to dispose with them altogether.
Anyhow, the rather novel idea of inviting writers as a major feature of the thing has, contrary to expectations, meant that Guadalajara has gained the reputation of being far and away the most interesting of the world’s book fairs, so that is where Blanco is headed after receiving an invitation from the kind festival administrators back in September. It will involve giving a couple of readings, talking about The Vagabond’s Breakfast (if anyone is interested) and making a visit to a local High School where the students will be waltzed around Blanco’s eerily vacant warehouse of wisdom on literary matters.
Blanco was also told, by an informant who would prefer to remain anonymous, that on arrival at the Book Fair, participants are directed towards a discrete figure who will sell them peyote, the fiercely hallucinogenic recreational drug favoured by Carlos Castaneda’s guru Don Juan, and, with a markedly less spiritual dimension, the late lamented Hunter S. Thompson. This is in order to prevent the punters at the festival from getting hold of the wrong stuff, which I am assured can be very bad for the head. But before anyone starts to fret, or worries that Blanco’s posts from Mexico might become a little, shall we say, confused over the next few days, let me assure you that he is in Guadalajara strictly for professional duties. Indeed, he will leave the recreational side of things to agents and other ne’er-do-wells.
But before packing my toothbrush, just take a look at Mr Scott Pack’s review of Holly Howitt’s unjustly neglected short novel The Schoolboy – better still, buy it yourself. It is, quite simply one of the most impressive first novels (written when the author was 22) that I have read in a long and grizzled career.