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.