Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Part About The Critics

Two mysteries propel the narrative of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. That is incorrect. The novel contains not a narrative but sub-narratives, narratives couched in other narratives, some wandering far and sometimes never coming back. I have the impression this novel will end without a resolution. The overwhelming mystery, escalating throughout the novel’s first three parts, relates to the ongoing murders of women in the fictional Santa Teresa, Mexico, a stand in for Ciudad Juarez, where hundreds of women have been showing up dead since 1993. The title of the fourth part, “The Part About the Crimes,” comforts the reader with the hope that the novel will finally start making sense after 300 pages. I’m not hopeful. For the reader looking for a grand pattern, Roberto Bolaño deploys self-referential clues implying that that searching for a unified structure may be a pointless endeavour – at one point a character, Almafitano, remarks that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.” But since I can’t turn down my apophenia, I search on.

I notice that everyone’s looking for someone. There’s a woman who abandons her husband and daughter to go look for a poet locked up in a mental hospital, in Spain. There’s a an Afro-American reporter who meets a woman in Mexico trying to get in touch with the main suspect in the murders. I suppose part four will also be about the police looking for the murderer, or murderers. People travel a lot in this novel, Amalfitano also comes to Mexico from Chile, in self-imposed exile because of Pinochet. And then we have the critics, flying all around the world, easily meeting up at conferences, lectures, and gatherings in this globalized world, while looking for an elusive German writer called Benno von Archimboldi, who was also last stopped in Mexico. Perhaps their search represents the reader’s search for meaning.

I wrote two mysteries, but there’s probably just one, about the dead women of Santa Teresa. The first one is probably just to bait the reader, since the critics disappear after the first part, although Archimboldi is promised to reappear in the final part. The reader doesn’t know anything about Archimboldi save what his loyal critics discover. They are: Jean-Claude Pelletier, who first reads Benno von Archimboldi in 1980; Piero Morini who reads him in 1976; Manuel Espinoza; and Liz Norton, who reads him for the first time in 1988. The three men meet at conferences, and then they meet Liz when she delivers a piece on issue 46 of Literary Studies, aligning herself with their group in opposition to a group of Archimboldi scholars constituted by “Schwarz, Borchmeyer, and Pohl,” that is, foreigners versus Germans. After that their lives become intertwined as they travel together, vacation together, investigate together, and even have sex together and feel heartbreak together.

As for Archimboldi, the reader learns that he was a German soldier who deserted in World War II and since then has lived a reclusive live to shame Thomas Pynchon. To the critical quartet he’s a tremendous writer, although I wonder. At no point is Archimboldi’s writing disclosed, not even for a glimpse, although we’re assured he has an eye for catchy titles: The Leather Mask, D’Arsonval, Bifurcaria Bifurcata, The Berlin Underworld, and so on. This resolves Bolaño’s problem of having to write in a different style, and as a method it has Borges’ blessing. Not everyone has the brio to create an epic poem from the ground up for critics to comment on it, like Nabokov.

But perhaps this works to the novel’s advantage. Ultimately this means the reader’s idea of Archimboldi is only shaped by the critical quartet. And this poses interesting questions about how literary critics work. How do critics understand a writer? Where does their authority come from? Is it based on objective data or mere subjectivism bordering on an intuitive grasp of the author’s work? There’s a character called Mrs. Bubis, wife of Mr. Bubis, Archimboldi’s publisher. He sensed something in him, something great, and decided that his publishing house would publish all his books. After he died, his wife carried on his wish. Obviously they go to her for information about Archimboldi. She disappoints them with the fact that she can’t tell them much more than what is publicly known, she can’t even produce a photograph of him. But their meeting takes an interesting turn on the subject of “how well anyone could really know another person’s work.” Mrs. Bubis tells a story about the painter George Grosz: to her, Grosz is a funny painter who makes her laugh, whereas to a friend who’s an art critic he’s a serious painter who commoves him with his seriousness. So who has the best understanding of Grosz’ art?

“Or let’s tell the story a different way. You,” said Mrs. Bubis, pointing to Espinoza, “present an unsigned drawing and say it’s by Grosz and try to sell it. I don’t laugh, I look at it coldly. I appreciate the line, the control, the satire, but nothing about it tickles me. The art critic examines it carefully and gets depressed, in his normal way, then and there he makes an offer, an offer that exceeds his savings, and that if accepted will condemn him to endless afternoons of melancholy. I try to change his mind. I tell him the drawing strikes me as suspicious because it doesn’t make me laugh. The critic says finally I’m looking at Grosz like an adult and gives me his congratulations. Which of the two of us is right?”

The painting analogy is telling because faking paintings is easier than faking books. In fact I think faking great writer’s books is unheard of. Painting involves more technical precision: a Turner sunset can be faked by a forger; a Nabokov paragraph, no. Even in Grosz’ post-technique age, faking art is easy (I’m positive that faking a Rothko is infinitely easier than faking an Old Master) since the reproduction of the elements of painting can be taught, even an uninspired forger – and most of them become forgers because they’re uninspired and lack that je ne sais quoi; the noble exception was Michael Angelo, who did it just to take the piss of his teacher – can master technique and learn to convincingly imitate styles, but an uninspired write can’t mimic a Saramago or a Borges, for instance. But the analogy is also relevant because it’s not uncommon for art experts to be duped by forgeries. Abraham Bredius, the most renowned Vermeer expert of his time, once considered a then-recently discovered Vermeer the finest painting the Dutch master had ever painted, never guessing it was a forgery by Han Van Meegeren, who created several fakes during the 1930s.

The critical quartet’s adulation of Archimboldi likewise meets some contrary voices. One German critic called Schleiermacher, on reviewing his first novel, was dismissive of him, describing him in unflattering terms:

   Intelligence: average.
   Character: epileptic.
   Scholarship: sloppy.
   Storytelling ability: chaotic.
   Prosody: chaotic.
   German usage: chaotic.
   Average intelligence and sloppy scholarship are easy to understand. What did he mean by epileptic characters, though? that Archimboldi had epilepsy? that he wasn’t right in the head? that he suffered attacks of a mysterious nature? that he was a compulsive reader of Dostoevsky? There was no physical description of the writer in the piece.

I love this passage because of its quiet desperation. The four are so anxious to find clues to Archimboldi’s life, that they turn a reviewer’s throwaway adjective like epileptic into a possible key to his character, when more than likely Schleiermacher knew nothing about him either and gleaned that impression from reading the novel, which is all they can do, read his books.

But the critical quartet insists. So they continue to interview the people who may know him: a Swabian who met him in the 1940s; Almendro, nicknamed El Cerdo (Pig), an intellectual who works for the Mexican government and who helped Archimbolgi get out of a legal entanglement with the police. Their question eventually takes them to Mexico, curious to know what he may be doing there. What transpires, as this part of the novel ends, is that their lives are rather empty, and investigating him has become a replacement for living, living is only possible through him. And they submerge the possible insignificance of their lives by connecting themselves to Archimboldi’s life:

A veteran, a World War II deserter still on the run, a reminder of the past for Europe in troubled times. A writer on the Left who even the situationists respected. A person who didn’t pretend to reconcile the irreconcilable, as was the fashion these days. Imagine, said Pelletier, Archimboldi wins the Nobel and at that very moment we appear, leading him by the hand.

Now that’s a portrait of pathos.

Read for the Caravana de Recuerdos' Readalong.


  1. What a tremendous intro post, Miguel, both in terms of its scope and in your wrestling with what Bolaño has to say about the search for meaning in writing. Does he mean all he says or is he just baiting the reader? In terms of the pathos you refer to at the end, though, I'm curious whether you feel that the critics end up transformed by their experience in Santa Teresa or whether that's even relevant to the portrait of the critical "readers" that they are that emerges. Also, is it fair to say that you or both somewhat appreciative and somewhat frustrated by the novel thus far?

    1. I haven't given any thought to the critics' transformation, I'm not sure there's any, other than Liz realizing who she wants. I think they're self-centered people, with eyes only to Archimboldi, and in a limited way, but oblivious to much of what is going on around them. I'm not sure they're perceptive enough to change. But then I also think that doesn't matter at all, since the novel just segues into the next part.

  2. Your point about looking for someone, and moving about from one place to another throughout the first three parts, is well taken. I notice a search in general, from the characters on their own agenda to the reader trying to uncover it all. I'm so interested I pursuing this book to the end, now, not only to discover all the mysteries,but to continue our discussion. It's been fabulous to have such an interesting novel to contemplate with one another.

    1. Bellezza, thanks. I'm very interested in finding out all the connections between the parts, and so far reading everybody else's posts has been helpful. I'm noticing bridges that to me didn't exist previously.

  3. I love to think that Mr. and Mrs. Bubis are just helping to perpetuate a playful fraud of some sort, that they laugh at the untoward curiosity of the critics and those of their ilk. I looked up possible roots or meanings of their names and came up with the German word "bubisch" which means villainous, knavish, roguish, mischievous. On the level that the critics seek the man not so much his work in this section, they seem to deserve whatever the publisher serves (or denies) them.

    This is an extremely impressive post as Richard already noted. A fantastic start to the conversation.

    1. Frances, I don't know how much you've read so far, I've read on, and I can say there's more to Mrs. Bubis than meets the eye.

  4. Miguel - A terrific post, with a line that might well sum up the experience of reading 2666 "But since I can't turn down my apophenia, I search on" (yes, I had to look it up). I too was struck by the utter absence - other than the titles - of any text by Archimboldi, but I love that you rather hilariously point to the possibility that Bolaño is partly trying to get himself out of the difficulty of writing another Pale Fire. The passage about the Grosz painting is another highlight in your post; I have to pay more attention to the art Bolaño brings into 2666. And the Schleiermacher assessment - also a great thing to pick up on (it does make me laugh). Anyway, though I can't wait to read your subsequent posts, I'll wait nonetheless until I'm done reading those sections and getting some thoughts down about them.

    1. I was thinking that the opposite of apophenia, in literary terms, must be what John Keats called 'negative capability,' that ability to confront a mystery without needing an explanation for it, living mentally at peace with the unknowable. A rare talent, I think, because we're all unconsciously, and for evolutionary reasons, pattern-making creatures. In that sense, a novel like 2666 is custom made to the creatures we are.