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January 1, 2009

Gutless Realism: James Wood’s Housebroken Bolaño

There are times when James Wood indulges his professional vanity in so blatant a fashion that one is tempted to feel embarrassed for him.  Fortunately these moments occur in pieces the rest of whose contents remove the temptation – let him go ahead and embarrass himself!  How Fiction Works, for example, is dedicated to novelist Norman Rush and Rush’s wife, to telegraph the idea that Wood is on intimate terms with – and even taken seriously by – real writers.  Just in case we missed the point, however, on page 4 he writes, “W.G. Sebald once said to me . . .”  More recently we have the example of his review of Patrick French’s V.S. Naipaul biography; Wood opens the article with the story of his own encounter with the forbidding novelist, which reads very much like something out of Paul Theroux’s memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, writ small.  Ostensibly intended to illustrate a consistent duality in Naipaul’s personality, the anecdote’s subtext – in screaming neon – is that the young critic’s literary intelligence had more than met the novelist’s exacting standards. “The Naipaul who took me to lunch that day was different from the horrid interviewee. Stern father had become milder uncle. ‘It’s a buffet system here. Don’t pile everything onto one plate’ . . .

As luck would have it James Wood didn’t meet Roberto Bolaño before the latter’s death in 2003 (I imagine the prodigiously retentive reviewer having to use up an entire bottle of antiseptic hand-gel in such an encounter’s wake), but Wood still manages to come up with a self-serving personal aside to buttonhole us with in the first paragraph of his 2007 New York Times review of Savage Detectives:

Over the last few years, Roberto Bolaño's reputation, in English at least, has  been spreading in a quiet contagion; the loud arrival of a long novel, "The Savage Detectives," will ensure that few are now untouched. Until recently there was even something a little Masonic about the way Bolaño's name was passed along between readers in this country; I owe my awareness of him to a friend who excitedly lent me a now never-to-be-returned copy of Bolaño's extraordinary novella "By Night in Chile."

Did you catch that?  I am not a bandwagon jumper, he declaims from his perch atop the bandwagon (now, thankfully for critics of Wood’s ilk, a hearse), I know the top-secret handshake, I was in the word-of-mouth loop . . .

It’s a curious review.  With his Saramago piece, at least, one got the feeling that Wood, in some baffled way, genuinely admired the Nobel laureate’s books, even as his personal biases and professional blinders compelled him to misread and misrepresent (or, to use Saramago’s own words, “to dilute and obscure”).  The Bolaño review reads a little more like an assignment, and Wood lets us know early on that in his opinion Bolaño’s best work isn’t Savage Detectives but rather the novella that his lodge-brother from the anecdote lent him, By Night in Chile, a book whose protagonist, writes Wood, “comes to emblematize . . . the silent complicity of Chilean literary establishment with the murderous Pinochet regime.”  This is sheer brazenness coming from the establishment figure who was the New Republic’s lead reviewer in the years when it was pounding war-drums on behalf of a regime many times more murderous than Pinochet’s, and one can imagine Wood smiling as his dancing fingers tapped the line out on his keyboard.  It’s just a bit of context, after all, to help set up the quotation from By Night in Chile that is the centerpiece of his appreciation of Bolaño, whom he sees as a practitioner, along with Saramago, Sebald, and others, of the contemporary long-sentence form.  Wood unpacks a formidable example from the novella and even feels stirred to offer one of his trademark “fine writing” metaphors in response:  The musical control is impeccable,” he enthuses, “and one is struck by Bolaño's ability to nudge on his long, light, ethereal sentence — impossibly, like someone punting a leaf — image by image.”  There’s more to be said about that leaf-punting metaphor, but for now it will suffice as an example of Wood’s showiness, as if the image had occurred to him at some time in the past and he had been waiting, like a bore at a party, for just the right time to spring it on a group of listeners, even if he must strain to steer the conversation in the right direction.  For it is one of this review’s curiosities that the metaphor-bedizened run-ons of By Night in Chile turn out not to be as prominent a feature of Savage Detectives as Wood’s treatment suggests.  This is not to say that long sentences are absent from Savage Detectives – some of the novel’s first-person testimonials make use of them, others do not, depending on the speaker – but reading Wood’s review by itself would leave one with the mistaken impression that the entire book had been spooled out of examples as rococo as the flight of fancy quoted from the novella.[1]  Once Wood turns his attention to Savage Detectives proper, however, the enthusiasm he showed for the earlier volume becomes more tempered; the best he can muster is a candidate blurb for a future paperback reprint – “wildly enjoyable!” – and the fainter praise of pointing out how Bolaño courts yet ultimately avoids various postmodern pitfalls that other writers (by implication the so-called hysterical, rather than visceral, realists) would have pitched headfirst into.  

So what is going on in this odd review?  Wood esteems the earlier By Night in Chile and manages to find things he likes about the more recent novel, but it is clearly not love that has prompted him to the labor of a Bolaño review.  In several earlier posts I have been developing the argument that James Wood’s reviewing often works by domesticating novels that are not examples of domestic fiction to begin with, and that is certainly the case in his review of Savage Detectives.  It is almost as if Wood needs to respond, not to Bolaño’s work, but rather to his reputation, his growing popularity.  There is a contradiction at the heart of the rise of Roberto Bolaño in the English-speaking countries that has been nicely outlined by Ilan Stavans in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Witnessing Bolaño's canonization in academe has been fascinating. Barely a few years ago, he was a don nadie, a supreme nobody; now The New Yorker puts its imprimatur on him with a review, he's a household name at symposia, and he's taught as a refreshing perspective, a kind of Jack Kerouac for the new millennium.


And why Bolaño now? Because once again, literature in the West seems to have grown complacent: It isn't so much written as manufactured. The genres dictated by mainstream publishing are suffocating. We're in need of a prophet — or an enfant terrible — to wake us from our slumber.

Of course, the way to neutralize a prophet is to tame him through acclaim. Bolaño would have laughed in particular at his arrival in Spanish departments. His mordant tongue frequently attacked the holy cows: He described writers like Octavio Paz, Isabel Allende, and Diamela Eltit as complacent, solipsistic, and tedious. With Borges, he built his own parallel aesthetic tradition, a rebel's gallery of outlaws and pariahs. And yet he is now moving steadily to the center of the curriculum.

“To tame him through acclaim” – yes.  But when it comes to the actual mechanics of such a procedure, more than sheer acclaim might be necessary.  This is where professional domesticators such as James Wood come in.  If there’s no way to stem the burgeoning Bolaño tide, then the effort must be made to direct it into the proper – safer – channels.

We’ve seen how Wood, in his review of Death with Interruptions, turned the long-time communist Saramago into an advocate of Original Sin and ‘fallen’ human nature.  It’s in a similar spirit that Wood transforms The Savage Detectives into a story about growing into an adult ‘maturity’ after being disabused of adolescent enthusiasms such as aesthetic and political radicalism.  Bolaño in the 1970s was “an avant-garde poet bristling with mad agendas,” and so are the characters who make up the narrative’s “gang of literary guerillas,” says Wood in his summary of the novel.  Yet Savage Detectives, he goes on to affirm, “is both melancholy and fortifying; and it is both narrowly about poetry and broadly about the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth.”  In other words, zany antics involving things like avant-garde agendas and guerilla gangs are fine as long as they are seen (or can be portrayed) as properly childish preoccupations; a book is “good” and merits a positive review to the extent that its pretty sentences are “about” the putting away of childish things.  Wood, you see, likes a book with a healthy “message” – it needs to be “about” something that will keep children and servants in line with middle-class morality.  And if the book is not really “about” that at all, then like any good media pundit he will spin it, cherry-picking the two or three examples that might best support his thesis.  Here’s one:  “A painter, interviewed in Mexico City in 1981, says that Belano and Lima weren't revolutionaries: ‘They weren't writers. Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don't think they were poets either’.”  See how this works?  Here are a few more:

An Israeli friend of Ulises Lima's says that the importance of the poets' lives had nothing to do with visceral realism: "It has to do with life, with what we lose without knowing it and what we can regain." He continues, and says that what we have lost we can regain, "we can get it back intact." Can we? Minutes after delivering this wisdom this same man dies in a car accident. A Mexican academic, interviewed late in the novel, says that hardly anyone remembers the visceral realists anymore. Many are dead. Lima, he says, is living in Mexico City. "About Arturo Belano," he says, "I know nothing." This is finally how the novel makes good on its playful, postmodern impulses.

I love that last touch – a novel with “playful, postmodern impulses” is OK as long as it ends in sackcloth and ashes (i.e., “realism,” but not of the visceral variety).  Reading Wood’s review, in fact, you would actually think that Savage Detectives was a book about apostasy.  Wood even includes, apropos of very little, a quote from that arch-apostate Wordsworth: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”  Superficially the quotation is supposed to apply to the sad fates of Belano, Lima and their cronies in the novel, but Wood is completely aware of its full resonance and has no doubt chosen it with that in mind.  Bolaño and Wordsworth – it’s hard to think of a less suitable literary association; it tells us little about Bolaño’s sensibility or the book’s, although it speaks volumes about the reviewer.[2]

Contra Wood, The Savage Detectives articulates the stubborn persistence of a utopia of poetry (poetry in its broadest sense, not just verse but the subversive transformation of daily life by the “marvelous”) in the face of history’s sharpest disappointments.  This utopia persists precisely to the extent that it has not appeared; it is the “absent center” of the novel itself.  Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are the trägers, the bearers, of “poetry” for young Juan Garcia Madero and many the novel’s other characters, just as, in a kind of infinite regression, Cesárea Tinajero of the original “Visceral Realist” generation is poetry’s träger for Lima and Belano.  Yet the pair’s rediscovery of Tinajero leads to her demise, and Belano and Lima themselves fade away.  Nobody therefore really occupies “the place of poetry,” but it is this very fact which keeps poetry alive as a radical possibility, as – to switch to a different idiom – une promesse de bonheur.  At another level, the death of Tinajero and the play of Bolaño-Belano in the context of the absence from the novel of the alter-ego’s point of view all suggest an effacing of author-as-authority.  Could “the author,” even a nominally radical author, really be a kind of caudillo that needs to be displaced?  If this is the case, then if anything perishes in the course of the novel it is the elitism that was such a prominent if problematic feature of much twentieth-century aesthetic and political vanguardism, here giving way not to restorationist ‘maturity’ but to an ostensibly more radically democratic and indigenous aesthetic, “from below.”  And in fact we can see precisely this sort of working-out of a historical and cultural dialectic in the very form of The Savage Detectives.  On the one hand, the novel’s comprehensive, epic ambitions – it is nothing less than the life-cycle of a generation – and its carnivalesque juggling of voices and chronologies call to mind the great ‘high modernist’ novels of El Boom – of Marquez and Cortazar, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes.  These novels were the products of a period of Latin American optimism and self-assertion in the wake of the Cuban Revolution.  Yet Savage Detective’s most fundamental structuring device is the testimonio, the first-person testimonial-style narrative that came to occupy an important place in Latin American prose in the period after the Boom.[3]  This was the period not of revolution and self-assertion but of reaction and retrenchment, of dictatorships and death-squads, and its predominant literary mode is correspondingly both more chastened and more populist – a bedrock of fugitive resistance.  The Savage Detectives, then, may be read as a Boom novel filtered through, and revised by, the post-Boom testimonial, in the service of creating a new form that includes its own prehistory.  It's a feat of insurgent literary zapatismo.

Once again, however, Wood’s ideological biases will not allow him to read the novel that is actually in front of him.  Instead, ever the Restorationist, he must turn Savage Detectives into one more accommodation with existing “reality,” a specific social arrangement that he wishes his readers to take for a metaphysical absolute.  Think of it as another sortie of James Wood’s arrière-garde literary movement, Gutless Realism.

Earlier in the review, in a brief biographical sketch of Bolaño, Wood writes, “Returning to Chile in 1973 to help with the socialist revolution as he saw it, he was caught in the Pinochet coup and briefly arrested.  As he saw it”– in a single, sniffy phrase, Wood dispenses with Bolaño’s leftism as if it were a dirty old sock found among his freshly laundered and triple-starched tighty-whities (he’ll have to have a word with Consuela, the housekeeper, about that sock!).  But his refuse is our rose, so we’ll tarry for another whiff:  “The socialist revolution as he saw it.”  This means, of course, that Wood himself doesn’t see “it” – the whole social process unfolding around the embattled leftist government of Salvador Allende – “that” way.  Somehow I doubt that Wood is criticizing the Allende government from the left, for its reformist timidity and half-measures. No, that phrase – “as he saw it” – is Wood’s way of distancing himself from any of that leftist taint, that socialist stink.  “Yes,” he’s telling his readers (and employers), “I’m about to give this seedy punk’s book a good review, but don’t think for a minute that it means I’m no longer clubbable” (likewise he would never put “U.S.-backed” in front of “the Pinochet coup”). 

It’s a priceless moment, but I know that many of you would rather vote for “like someone punting a leaf” as your favorite phrase, as this review’s most preciously Woodsian locution.  It’s a real specimen, after all, of the much-vaunted Wood “style” – maybe you’ll even cut it out of The New York Times and press it, like a flower, between the pages of Savage Detectives.  But I think you should take “as he saw it” along with “like someone punting a leaf.”  They go together, really, the former being the root, as it were, of the latter’s foliage.  For this is how Wood’s style works:  what he’s able to appreciate, and how he appreciates it, is dependent on what he won’t allow himself, or his readers, to see. 

Punting is, of course, a term from soccer, and in the context of this particular article it makes certain associations unavoidable.  Bolaño managed to get away from the U.S.-backed Pinochet coup, but thousands of others, that grim September eleventh, were not so lucky, and after being rounded up by the armed forces they were interned, infamously, in – the soccer stadiums.  Up to forty thousand were held in Santiago’s big Estadio Nacional; thousands of others, including the folk-musician Victor Jara, were kept in the Estadio Chile.  Of these, many hundreds – mostly leftists who had been “helping the socialist revolution as they saw it” – were soon to be tortured, or murdered, or were simply “disappeared.”

In an earlier post I quoted a long passage from John Felstiner’s Paul Celan:  Poet, Survivor, Jew, about a review of Celan’s volume Mohn und Gedächtnis by a German critic, Hans Egon Holthusen, who was intent on (mis)reading Celan’s poetry in a way that would further the cause of German self-exoneration in the wake of the Holocaust.  The very terms by which Holthusen sought to praise Celan betrayed the grotesqueness of his project of cultural whitewashing:

Celan has “mastered” a technique of repetition, says Holthusen, disregarding the use of “master” in "Todesfuge."  He is congratulated for “singing” a ghastly event, even as the commandant tells his Jews to “sing up and play.”  The poet has “overcome” a staggering theme – here Holthusen’s verb is bewältigen, as if Celan were part of Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“overcoming the past”).  This gruesome theme “can escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors to rise into the ether of pure poetry.”  But it was the Jews in Celan’s poem who rose into ether, never the poem; not “Todesfuge” but its German readers who wanted to “escape history’s bloody chamber of horrors.” 

Some of the same creepy frisson comes through in the way that Wood treats Bolaño.  Holthusen wrote of “the ether of pure poetry” rising from the death chambers; for Wood, helping out his adopted nation with its own project of cultural amnesia, it’s “punting a leaf.”  But as with Holthusen’s rhetorical choices, this one can’t help but point back to the scene of the crime, and bear a trace of the very thing it’s meant, oh-so ‘aesthetically’, to transcend. 


[1]  The short essay on Bolaño in the Fall 2008 n+1, in fact, offers a perspective on the Chilean’s style that is the exact opposite of Wood’s:

Bolaño can write page after page without indulging in a single metaphor, or adding a dab of rhetorical color to the account of a dinner party or a murder. Of course you can find perfect sentences in Bolaño, and crazy metaphors too, but for the most part he proceeds as if literature were too desperate an enterprise to bother with being well written. The rationale for his antieloquence belongs to the internal dynamic of any modern language: an idiom encrusted with poeticisms needs a solvent bath. But for Latin Americans of Bolaño's generation there may also be political grounds for preferring writing degree zero to purple haze. One more disgusting feature of the Argentine junta (it is Argentines who predominate in Bolaño's gallery of imaginary Nazi writers) was the generals' magniloquence.

Wood, then, was responding to (and enthusiastically over-generalizing, if you’ll excuse the pun) a sample of such magniloquence that had been successfully ventriloquized by Bolaño.  One silently complicit, morally somnolent literary-establishment figure resonating to another. 

[2]  If there is any figure from era of the English Romantics who could be compared with Bolaño, it is Shelley, but I offer this only as a vaccine to the restorationist comparison put forward by Wood.  It’s always a risky exercise to assimilate Latin American writers, as part of the process of culturally vetting and “approving” them, to canonized English-language writers.  The novelists of El Boom, for example, were routinely recommended to readers in much U.S criticism on the basis of their being “like” Joyce or Woolf or – the favored comparison in such cases – Faulkner.  That gesture is being repeated today, even by people who ought to know better, such as Benjamin Kunkel, who writes of Savage Detectives:

It’s something close to a miracle that Bolaño can produce such intense narrative interest in a book made up of centrifugal monologues spinning away from two absentee main characters, and the diary entries of its most peripheral figure. And yet, in spite of the book’s apparent (and often real) formlessness, a large part of its distinction is its virtually unprecedented achievement in multiply-voiced narration. The confessional or first-person novel done in multiple voices was an important Modernist mode, a logical extension of the tendency towards authorial self-effacement that we associate with Flaubert. English speakers will think of ‘The Nighttown’ section of Ulysses, Dos Passos’s USA, The Waves, and – probably the most successful – several of Faulkner’s novels.

[3]  The best-known example of the testimonio is, of course, I, Rigoberta Menchú; adaptations of the testimonio-form for works of fiction include Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Manilo Argueta’s One Day of Life, and Elena Poniatowska’s Here’s to You, Jesusa!


V said...

Hugely illuminating! Thank you. Though disagreeing with Wood's critique, and uneasy with his tone, I was unable to LOCATE my disgruntlement until you put it in such plain idological terms. Looking back, of course Wood was trying to domesticate Bolan[y]o, but I was so taken with his essentially aesthetic argument that I couldn't see, right then, his colonial ambitions, or, in less political terms: Wood's insistance on a kind of hygeine, in which style goes neatly here, and politics neatly there, and lucidity within the context of a certain, explicable [and probably academic] literary tradition made him blind to what I see as an essentially revolutionary work. My overwhelming impression of Bolan[y]o's writing is that it is propelled from without, or generated by real and external conditions that moved him so fundamentally that his style and ideology are inseperable, totally united by need, and too close to the edge of the abyss [the one he often wrote about] for Wood's aesthetic approach to mean much at all, resting as it does on precedent and the assumption that writing is, first and last, creative and the product of heroic makers.

Leo said...

'Punting' is not just a football term. It's also what you do if you're at Oxford or Cambridge and you go in for the whole Brideshead Revisited thing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punt_(boat)#Punting_in_Cambridge

If Wood had any association in mind, it was probably that one, rather than football.