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.