Archive for November, 2011

“Tres” by Roberto Bolaño

Saturday, November 26th, 2011



TRES is a compilation of three long poems, one written in 1981 and two in 1993, before Bolaño turned his energy to the composition of his major novels. It is a companion to another collection of poetry, Los perros románticos (“The Romantic Dogs”), which contains 43 poems dating from 1980 to 1998. Both volumes first appeared (in Spanish) in 2000.

“The movement of a free mind at play” is how the American writer Cynthia Ozick once described the quality of a well-written essay. I think it’s a suitable description for what readers find most appealing about Bolaño’s writing, no matter its ostensible literary form or its disruption of those forms.  All of his output — from the sprawling novels like “2666” and “The Savage Detectives” to the short stories to “Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003” — is of a piece.  His execution of the subject matter in tripartite TRES — the playing out of a love affair; the feverish road trip of a band of musicians traversing Chile, Peru, and Ecuador; and the extended set of dreams in which Bolaño defers to his fellow authors (among them, Philip K. Dick, Mark Twain, Archibald MacLeish, and Carson McCullers) — follows Ozick’s credo.

The fact that TRES is labelled poetry is an irrelevance. Bolaño transgresses boundaries. If you are otherwise a fan of Bolaño’s novels and stories but generally don’t like “poetry,” my advice is to ignore the poetry tag.

One disappointment I had with the book was the relative paucity of Bolaño’s signature epigrammatic statements on art and life. Although the works were at times compelling, I think that for anyone new to this author, there are more auspicious places to start. My candidates: “By Night in Chile” or “The Savage Detectives.”

To state that TRES weighs in at 176 pages is deceptive. The book is actually a quick read because of abundant white space on the pages of the two prose poems. If you are reading only the translated pages of this dual-language book, expect to spend 20 minutes or less with each of the three parts.  The original Spanish text appears on the left pages and the English translation (by Laura Healy) on the right. Kudos to the publisher, New Directions, for using not a common glued binding but a binding sewn with thread. This allows the book to stay open and flat for bilingual readers who wish to follow the flow of the words in both languages.

One disappointment is the absence of any helpful editorial content to explain the bare texts — if not annotations or notes, then at least an Introduction would have been a welcome feature. Until someone pens a critical biography of Bolaño to guide the serious reader, bits and pieces of background and context are accessible on the internet. As an Introduction to TRES, I recommend a lengthy, breezy but enlightening 2009 blog post (“The Best of Bolaño is Yet to Come,” signed “Rise”) written in anticipation of  the appearance of an English translation of the book. The blogger includes some insider comments from the translator Laura Healy.

After reading TRES, I found the following online reviews helped me better understand what I had read. All three are strong in analytical insights:

1.  A review by Dawn Marie Knopf in The Faster Times (“Sharp Instruments and Lynched Messiahs”) here

2.  A review by Andrew R. Chow in The Harvard Crimson (“Poetry Collection Introduces the Real Roberto Bolaño”) here

3.  A review by Miguel Jimenez (“Another Bolaño Book, Another Work of Genius”) here.


A version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.


“Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams

Friday, November 25th, 2011



Spring and All was first published in France in 1923 in an edition of 300 copies. Years later Wallace reflected on the book’s nonchalant, playful debut:”‘Nobody ever saw it — it had no circulation at all — but I had a bit of fun with it … Chapter headings are printed upside down on purpose, the chapters are numbered all out of order, sometimes with Roman numerals, sometimes with Arabic, anything that came in handy” (I Wanted to Write a Poem, pp. 36-37).

If you covet a one of those first edition copies, in fine condition, be prepared to shell out a thousand dollars or more.

The book’s contents have reappeared in subsequent Williams compendiums, but for those of you with a book collector’s sensibility, and for poetry readers who seek transport back to an earlier cultural era via the objects of that era (test: were you wide-eyed drinking in the set designs in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”?), this facsimile edition is the next best thing to holding the original.

In the decades since its original publication there’s been no shortage of sophisticated critical analysis of the meaning and significance of SPRING AND ALL. My amateur thoughts include a belief that the book’s once unorthodox mixture of prose and poetry sections has less power to bother readers of today. In the prose sections I grew to appreciate the gaps, the churn, the elisions, the introduction and abandonment of thoughts: we are witnessing a mind doing its work. When Williams delivers fully formed thoughts his breathing is apparent: I heard not the nervous, arhythmic and shallow breaths of today but the inhalations and exhalations of an earlier America, deep and full and sufficient to the ideas whose communication they carry.

I happen to like his use of commas.

There are stretches that have a dated feel (remember, the freshest cataclysm infecting Williams’ world view was The Great War) and some of his affections are now obscure (how many know who Dora Marsden was; or Alfred Kreymborg, whose writing Williams declares “still has value and will tomorrow have more”?). But hail the author’s ready audacity, as when he draws a broad conclusion about modern art trends by looking at a reproduction of a single painting by Juan Gris — and that reproduction not in color but in black and white! Especially in its epigrammatic statements on art and life, there is an affinity between Spring and All and Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.

You reach page 74, Chapter XXII. You pause. It’s as if you’ve been meandering down a museum’s long corridor of displays of things interesting and things not so interesting and then you’re directed into an intimate side-room and brought face to face with a solitary object that hits you, your eye, your mind, with unexpected force: a sixteen-word poem about a red wheel barrow whose haiku economy proceeds to gestate in your presence.

To speak of the book itself, as physical object: it is sure to please. More meaty than the proverbial slim volume of poetry (it’s over 100 pages), this facsimile is finely constructed with clearly printed text on cream paper, wrapped in powder blue-gray covers that have a mysterious, sensuous, suede-like feel.

Williams writes: “The better work men do is always done under stress and at great personal cost.”

Let this better work be your pleasure.


A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.

Thanksgiving desserts

Friday, November 25th, 2011

At a local shop there is a cake and pastry case next to the cashier. This week the tableau (“a striking or artistic grouping”) looked especially luscious — as if it were expecting the imminent appearance of a palette-carrying Wayne Thiebaud.



“The Colors of Infamy” by Albert Cossery

Sunday, November 20th, 2011



Work produced in the final stretch of an artist’s career often displays the creator’s sense of freedom at the close. Simplicity, accessibility, brevity, lightness, and an avoidance of the over-determined often characterize these autumnal works. In the field of painting, think of the airy ribbons of primary colors on pure white fields in Willem DeKooning’s late period works, or the floating colored paper cut-outs of Matisse’s final years. Among writers, consider the lighthearted last novel of William Faulkner, “The Reivers” (reiver is an old-fashioned term for a raider, plunderer, or thief), and the joy Thomas Mann clearly had in sketching the progress of the morally flexible young hero of “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years,” the novel left unfinished at the time of his death at age 80.

Put Albert Cossery’s “The Colors of Infamy” (Les Couleurs de l’Infamie) in that category. Written at age 85 after a decade and a half of silence since his previous publication, this final work, the shortest of his novels, fills a mere 92 pages. It offers a sketch of his constant themes and a handy summation of his lessons. Except for the very serious questions it touches upon, I would call it a light entertainment. All in all it provides a good entry point for new readers interested in sampling “the Voltaire of the Nile.”

On the streets of Cairo we follow three characters, each in his own way an outcast from society. Ossama is an educated but unemployed 23-year-old who has chosen to become a high-class pickpocket. He “instinctively grasped the flaw of a society based on appearance,” and so he dresses richly to more easily prey on wealthy marks, not unlike the con-man Felix Krull who learns that society operates under the premise that illusion is reality. Nimr is Ossama’s street-smart teacher in the thieving trade, and is somewhat affronted that Ossama has gone upscale. Karamallah is a middle-age writer and intellectual whose rebellion against the corrupt system has led to imprisonment followed by exile to his family’s mausoleum. The book’s slender plot gains motion when these three come together to decide how best to confront an injustice. A shoddily constructed apartment building recently collapsed, leaving 50 dead, and Ossama acquires an incriminating letter that firmly assigns culpability for the horror to a powerful real estate developer. What’s to be done with such knowledge?

The open-ended discussions these three engage in include age-old questions. Is it possible to be virtuous and become rich? Is the world complicated and absurd — an idea “dreamed up by illustrious thinkers from cold climes” — or does the world still possess an “Edenic simplicity” of a kind that all men can enjoy, as Cossery’s stand-in, Karamallah, believes? Is happiness within our reach? And to speak of an issue of critical importance to societies aspiring to fairness and equal opportunity: Is business “unimaginable without corrupt networks”?

This is a novel of ideas that will impress you with its contemporary resonance. I was immediately startled by the opening pages of this 1999 novel, when Ossama surveys a bustling Tahrir Square and wonders about the future of its denizens (the author unaware the site was to be transformed during the 2011 Arab Spring into a locus of revolution). Does Cossery have something to say to an America that today is exhibiting Egypt-like traits: a growing cohort of educated but unemployed youth; a growing inequality of wealth; a growing sense that 1% have inordinate power over the fate of the other 99%? Here is a book to talk about.

The translation from the French, by Alyson Waters, is excellent, smoothly capturing Cossery’s rich and elegant prose. For those interested in reading an insightful online interview with the translator, Google the phrase, Alyson Waters on the Colors of Infamy. Some may find Cossery’s prose old-fashioned or overwrought (too adverb- and adjective-heavy), but I suspect for most it will be a respite from the inelegant prose we encounter regularly in our daily reading, especially online. Critics have noted Cossery’s prose has a Balzacian touch. This stylistic similarity is matched by the two French authors’ common view of society. Cossery adopts as a truism Balzac’s notion that behind every fortune is a crime.

As for the meaning of the book’s title, fear not: this is revealed two pages from the end.


A shorter version of this review is posted on Amazon.

“Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life” by Ann Beattie

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011



Ann Beattie set for herself a daunting challenge when crafting Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life.

Three players occupy the book’s 300 pages — Ann Beattie, Richard Nixon, and Pat Nixon. Each of these persons is known for practicing a strain of obscurantism, deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known. For Beattie this has been an aesthetic choice (Jay McInerney once described this choice as a “refusal to overdetermine her characters, her reluctance to explain their behavior”). For President Nixon the practice was a political strategy that ultimately led him to the brink of impeachment. For his wife Pat Nixon this behavior was an emotional defense, the means she chose to preserve personal dignity in the face of prying inquisitors.

Ann Beattie and Pat Nixon: for this Novelist to imagine that Life, and then to deliver a relatively satisfying reading experience, is something of an achievement. Beattie jettisons the staid narrative conventions she long since mastered in favor of boldly litting out for new territory. She wills Mrs. Nixon likewise to escape her comfort zone. What emerges is an imaginative literary concoction that initial critics have labelled, accurately, as unclassifiable, genre-bending, playful and polymorphous, and unlike anything Beattie’s written before.

What’s to like? If you’re a die-hard Beattie fan, my advice is dive right in. Part of your enjoyment will be finding just how suitably matched are the author and her subject (consider, for example, how many of Beattie’s stories contain the incomprehensible mystery of an oddly paired woman and man). Mrs. Nixon is made up of a well-paced series of chapters, over 40 in all, each representing another attempt by Beattie to conjure up something, anything, of the elusive, real Pat Nixon. There are autobiographical glimpses as well: of Beattie’s relationship with her mother, and husband; scenes set in the couple’s house in Maine.

What may be of interest to readers beyond the circle of Beattie acolytes are the chapters that interrupt the experimental fictions and turn instead to a general examination of the art of writing. In these pages Beattie engages in literary analyses of her favorite authors (Chekhov and Carver especially) and her favorite short short stories. Reading these terrific asides is like auditing one of Professor Beattie’s creative writing seminars at UVA. In a similar vein she offers haunting ruminations on the limitations of language and the limits, finally, of knowing anyone. All is not dour, however. The book is animated by Vaudeville-like antics, once its dark opening pages give way to story after story that reminded me of an experimental variety show. It’s a stylistically diverse exhibition whose theme is, Who was Pat Nixon?

Beattie tells us her guiding spirit for these proceedings is Donald Barthelme, a writer whose stories she admires for their mix fact and fiction, high and low, art criticism and gossip and comic strips. A few chapters adopt Barthelme’s brand of flash fiction, inserting Pat Nixon into exceptionally compact stories that focus only on incident rather than rolling out an arced narrative. You are in for a heady blend of serious dirge swirled with playful yelps (as in the chapter about Elvis’s visit to the White House). One delight: you’ll find Beattie’s mimicry of President Nixon’s speechifying (even in his private moments with Pat) to be as clever as that of Philip Roth in his Nixon-era satire, Our Gang. Her humor is more subtle, though, as apparent when she sums up Mr. Nixon: “This is not a little boy to whom you would have wanted to give an ant farm.”

I wondered if Beattie wasn’t also riffing on the Pirandello quandary of characters in search of an author. In a recent interview Beattie confessed: “I came to understand as I was writing that I too was a character in the book.”

What’s not to like? Well, Mrs. Nixon is not a book for history buffs nor is it a good choice for readers seeking a conventional biography. Beattie does not hold herself out as an historian, not even one of amateur status. She made little or no effort to uncover new facts or details about Pat Nixon and instead relied on existing published sources. In the Notes section she lists the material she read; the one book that looms largest is daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s loving biography, Pat Nixon: The Untold Story (1986). I recommend that as your better bet, especially if you want a biography as a gift to please a traditional reader. Certainly be wary of “Mrs. Nixon” if you were resistant to Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1999), Edmund Morris’ unconventional and largely fictionalized biography of President Reagan. Mrs. Nixon is a book for the adventurous, literary minded reader.

A couple omissions should be mentioned. In an early chapter entitled “Major and Minor Events of Mrs. Nixon’s Life,” Beattie includes dozens of items but forgets to list the weddings of her two daughters. An odd oversight, I’d say.  Also, while the author says she was interested to find other writers who treated Pat Nixon imaginatively (for example, she includes a poem by David Kirby entitled, “Skinny-Dipping with Pat Nixon”) , she does not mention the John Adams opera, “Nixon in China,” whose libretto by Alice Goodman features Pat Nixon as perhaps its most fully formed character.

After the hit-or-miss quality of the middle sections of the book, I was struck by the simple power of its concluding two chapters. These serve as twinned goodbyes. In the first farewell Beattie presents some final personal thoughts on writing (“All writing is about altering time.” “You erase yourself every time you write.”). In the final goodbye Mrs. Nixon, “quietly loyal and enigmatic” to the end, is set free.


A shorter version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.