Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

June 17, 2014

Transcritic


Many modern novelists, at one time or another, have felt that storytelling is a tedious obligation, a regrettable concession to popular taste. Writing to Louise Colet in 1852, Flaubert reflected wistfully, What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style. In the first of his Clark lectures, given in 1927, E. M. Forster imagined three voices answering the question, "What does a novel do?" The third voice, his own, says regretfully, "Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story." He adds: "I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form" (34). In 1963, Alain Robbe-Grillet combatively declared that plot was an obsolete notion; not only was storytelling no longer necessary, it had become "strictly impossible." Ten years later, in the introduction to Aren't You Rather Young to Be Writing Your Memoirs?, B. S. Johnson lamented the prevailing backwardness of fiction writers and readers: "surely it must be a confession of failure on the part of any novelist to rely on that primitive, vulgar and idle curiosity of the reader to know 'what happens next.' ... Why ... do so many novelists still write as though the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened, still rely on the crutch of storytelling?"

Chris Andrews opens the third chapter of his expansive book of literary criticism Roberto Bolaño's Fiction: An Expanding Universe (Columbia University Press, 2014) with a display of erudition. The chapter is called "Something Is Going to Happen: Narrative Tension", and it offers a reading of Bolaño's fiction in terms of the deployment of narrative suspense. According to him, Bolaño handles narrative tension by "cultivat[ing] suspense more than curiosity, and surpris[ing] the reader by confounding expectations rather than by revealing withheld information." Then he offers specific sample passages of this suspenseful tendency in Distant Star, making me want to reread the novel and closely observe the technique for myself.

Another tendency he observes in the writer is to favor a particular blend of uncertainty and secrecy in stories. He builds on two types of suspense explored each by Ricardo Piglia and Guillermo Martínez. The former explains how the classic short story and modern short story distinctly use and combine the "visible story" and the "secret story" in their plots. The latter explains suspense in terms of how the "logic of fiction" and "logic of common sense" initially coincide before coming apart, with the logic of fiction starting to displace common sense. To illustrate these two modes of narrative tension, Andrews chooses to analyze three short stories by Bolaño.

With this study, Andrews proves himself to be not only a consummate translator of Bolaño's outputs but a wonderful guide to them as well. His careful translations, in fact, are what must be the ballast that allowed for authoritative commentaries on his writer. Like his subject, he shows a natural, effortless erudition and mastery of prose/narrative structure. If writer B is capable of using compelling structures to tell his tension-filled narratives, then translator A is capable of teasing out ideas using a carefully worked structure of long form criticism.

Andrews develops his approaches to Bolaño's "fiction-making" system in intricate fashion. The book does not claim to be comprehensive and exhaustive yet it somehow provides a synthesis of a writer's seemingly inexhaustive and prodigious works. His fluent eye for details and literary perspectives must have enabled him to translate and think through fiction with creative facility. The translator's openness to ideas is evident in the way he modified passages from his own published translations quoted in the book. The translator is a bonafide critic too.


Read in anticipation of Stu and Richard's July Spanish Lit Month. My book copy is from NetGalley.



10 comments:

  1. What a nice surprise to see this for--or in anticipation of--Spanish Lit Month, Rise. I didn't even know it existed! Sounds like an interesting read (no offense to Martínez, but you had me at Bolaño and Piglia...), and I'll certainly try and take a look at it before too long.

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    1. I'm actually not finished with it, Richard. Not even halfway, but what I've read so far already reveals many things not only about RB's unique writing style but also about writing fiction in general.

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  2. It's always curious to see 20th century writers lambasting plot and story. Borges, in a prologue to Bioy Casares' The Invention of Morel, presciently defended that plot and story were precisely the preeminent elements of the century. Looking at the growing complexity of plot since Kafka, the lynchpin of his argument, spilling into giants like Fuentes, Nabokov, García Márquez, Pynchon, Torrente Ballester, with their many levels of story, mirrorings, doubles, self-awareness, disjointed time and mixture of the real with the wondrous, it's hard not to treat all these naysayers like slow-witted students who have to sit at the back of the class because they can't follow the lesson that is most clearly being explained to them.

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  3. Miguel, I'm not even sure writers can truly escape plot. These novelists' extreme attitudes may be about the handling of plot rather than plotlessness per se. In the context of creating the narrative tension and suspense, they may be rebelling against the traditional linear (boring) storytelling. Not sure they advocate for plotlessness, perhaps they are calling for experimentalism, in language and structure. The next paragraphs clarified something about how RB attempted o hold the reader's interest without necessarily eschewing atavistic storytelling.

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    1. When I read 2666 I was impressed by the way Bolaño was a traditional storyteller; he's basically telling an ordinary crime story, albeit with an anticlimatic ending. There are policemen and suspects and a look into the socio-economical structure, the way lots of modern crime novels do (Ellroy, for instance). I'd like to read this book to understand what is so revolutionary about Bolaño's storytelling or the way he disrupts traditional formulas, which were all disrupted long before him anyway. I think Andrews is just trying too hard. Bolaño has many virtues as a writer, an experimentalist or an iconoclast I don't think he is, at least not on the strength of this novel.

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    2. On the contrary, I think Andrews makes a strong case for the points he raised, one I was not able to give justice to here in this blog post. Andrews gives clear theoretical definitions of literary concepts from writers and scholars, applies them to RB's text with sufficient quotations and rigorous analysis, and gives his conclusions. Of course 2666 is not the usual genre fiction and the ordinariness of the crimes in it was what makes them troubling. Unlike me, Andrews is a very careful writer. He does not simply introduce ideas and statements without backing them up with examples or giving clear grounds for them.

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    3. Rise, I think you should continue to write about this book, a couple more posts at least; it'd be interesting to know better what Andrews has to say about Bolaño.

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    4. I'd like to, given the time. I'm just too lazy at the moment. :)

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  4. Rise - a comment I tried to leave yesterday apparently went into the void, so here it is again. Re-reading 2666 a couple months ago I was really struck by Bolaño's expert manipulation of suspense and tension. There's a passage in "The Part About Fate," in fact, which he seems to include simply as a demonstration of his ability to heighten tension (he admits as much, via Fate). Anyway, this sounds like a book I'd like, so I'll look for it - and look forward to whatever else you may write about it.

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  5. Scott, not sure if I'll write another post on the book. But yes, a book worthy of attention. I think writers will stand to benefit from its discussion of mechanics of prose.

    Like you, my first longish response to Miguel vanished and I had to reconstruct it. It was due to unstable online connection. ugh.



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