Tag Archives: between parentheses

Bolano and Poets

The thing that makes Bolano’s novels so good and his criticism generally mediocre is the way he went about writing about poets, bravery, etc. In the context of the fiction, Bolano’s mystification of poets and romanticism in general comes across as sober and interesting. In the nonfiction it tends to sound pretentious, inconsistent, etc:

Whether or not he was planning to collect them for a book (as Echevarría claims), they form the backbone of a very good one. He makes us shake our heads when he goes from calling César Aira “one of the three or four best Spanish-language writers alive today” to “mostly just boring,” but there’s a central line to the book’s overall critique and investigation, and it has to do with what it means to be a poet and what it means to be brave. Cervantes may have said the soldier’s work is more honorable than the poet’s, but Bolaño’s hero is Archilochus, the Greek mercenary who fled the battlefield to save himself. “Not for nothing are [poets] descended from Orpheus,” he says, because sometimes doing the wrong thing, as Blanchot showed us with “Orpheus’s Gaze,” can bring about the most unexpected inspiration. “If I had to hold up the most heavily fortified bank in America,” Bolaño says, “I’d take a gang of poets. The attempt would probably end in disaster, but it would be beautiful.”

Francisco Goldman is exactly right, though, in saying that it’s wrong to consider Between Parentheses an “autobiography.” I think most writers would find it pretty bizarre if someone got together a bunch of middling work with little in common other than the fact that it was done for pay and called it an auto bio.

. . . adding, here’s a good response via Twitter:

@bluelephant Javier Moreno
@ScottEsposito: He wrote his best non-fiction within his fiction, I think.

Between Parentheses Review

The National has just run my review of Between Parentheses, the collection of 99% of Bolano’s nonfiction writings. (Also see my Between Parentheses reading list, which has become quite popular of late.)

As the review shows, this was a book I was deeply mixed about. I completely understand the impulse to collect all Bolano’s nonfiction, but this would have been a much better volume if the editors had trimmed back the fat.

That said, I also felt that this book had some more interesting problems, problems that went beyond there mere inclusion of uninspired work that was clearly written for pay. For more on that, read the review. Here a quote:

They also point towards the quality shared by most of the worthwhile items in this volume: they are carried by Bolaño’s inimitable voice. It is that voice that allows Bolaño to get away with a line like “the best thing about Latin America is its suicides, voluntary or not”. Such a sentiment, which might otherwise be offensive or nonsensical, takes on a new logic in the context created by Bolaño’s non-fiction voice, articulating a version of the truth that one finds more and more commonly in the works of Bolaño’s friends and peers, among them Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Cercas. It is a voice distinguished from the novels by its willingness to play games with the line between fiction and non-fiction, yet similar in that Bolaño launders his own thoughts through a heavy wash of irony.

Where that voice begins to suffer is in the masses of Bolaño’s newspaper commentary, a form he seemed to have varying degrees of interest in. Such writing makes up the bulk of Between Parentheses, and Echevarría has done yeoman service in corralling the chaos of Bolaño’s journalistic writings, along with sundry other work, into headings like “Scenes” and “The Brave Librarian”. The vagueness of these headings gives some indication of how loosely this work cleaves together, as well as its fundamental unsuitability for publication in book form.

The book’s fat middle – a 126-page expanse simply called Between Parentheses – collects the columns Bolaño wrote in three stints between 1999 and his death in 2003. As Echevarría admits, his newspaper column was something Bolaño had mixed feelings about, and it shows.

Entre Parentheses — Between Parentheses

Published yesterday was Roberto Bolano’s collected nonfiction (about 99% of it), Between Parentheses. I’ll have a review of it eventually in The National, but for now I’ll point you to a list of recommended reading I extracted from Bolano’s voluminous recommendations.

Among those is the remarkable short story “Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm, which you can either read for free (it’s in the public domain), or as part of Beerbohm’s Seven Lives, republished by NYRB Classics (Soames is one of the seven lives.)

On Bolano’s recommendation I read the story last week, and found it quite compelling. It’s a very pleasant mindfuck about literary status, immortality, and the relationship of fiction to reality. At the center of it is Soames, an obscure British writer at the close of the 19th century who is either a genius or a crank. No one can tell. An impressionable young Beerbohm (the narrator) attempts to read him and befriend him, but can’t make heads of tales of Soames, either as man or author. An impromptu deal with the devil allows Soames to travel 100 years into the future to discover whether or not he has passed the time, wherein he learns that history records him as a figment of Beerbohm’s imagination. (Soames is chagrined. So is Beerbohm; “I’m an essayist!” he declares in disgust.)

But don’t let this tiny summary stand in for you reading it yourself; the story is full of all kinds of nice effects and details that I’ve left out of here, and I haven’t even discussed the end-ending that comes after Soames and Beerbohm discuss the London of the future.

The Between Parentheses Reading List

New Directions will publish Roberto Bolano’s collected nonfiction, Between Parentheses, in May. I’ve got a review of the book coming up, and as I read the book for the review, one of the most striking and enjoyable aspects of it was the sheer number of other writers Bolano exhorts you to read. You could get an entire education in Spanish-language literature just by reading the writers he recommends.

So in that spirit, here are 19 books or authors Bolano recommends in Between Parentheses, complete with rave-style quote drawn from the essays in Between Parentheses.

Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz
“The key work in the Gombrowiczian oeuvre . . . one of the key novels of this century.”

Cuentos de Bloomsbury by Ana María Navales
“She’s bold enough to write in the first person, even when that first person is the voice of Virginia Woolf, and the result is first-rate and often unsettling.”

Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great by Nicanor Parra
“As far as I’m concerned, Parra has long been the best living poet in the Spanish language.”

The Literary Conference by César Aira
“To begin with, it must be said that Aira has written one of the five best stories I can remember. It’s called ‘Cecil Taylor’ and it’s collected in an anthology of Argentine literature edited by Juan Forn. Aira is also the author of four memorable novels: How I Became A Nun, telling the story of his childhood; Ema, la cautiva [Emma the Captive], describing the luxury of the Indians of the pampa; El congreso de la literatura [The Literary Conference], recounting an attempt to clone Carlos Fuentes; and El llanto [The Weeping], retailing a kind of epiphany or insomnia.”

Hannibal by Thomas Harris
“He’s a craftsman, but every once in a while it’s nice to read someone who can tackle something long without boring us to death before we get to page fifty.”

The Good Cripple by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
“Miguel Ángel Asturias, Augusto Monterroso, and now Rodrigo Rey Rosa, three giant writers from a small, unhappy country.”

The Missing Piece by Antoine Bello
“In the tradition of Georges Perec . . . Antoine Bello’s novel is narrated from different points of view and through the lens of various genres, among them the epistolary novel, the detective novel, the satire, the adventure novel, the ethnographic novel, the populist novel, the symbolist novel, and the naturalist novel, not to exclude chapters in which the storytelling is based on mathematics, logic, or religion.”

Enoch Soames by Max Beerbohm (and it’s free for the Kindle!), (and collected in this NYRB Classic)
“Personally, if I had to choose the fifteen best stories I’ve read in my life, ‘Enoch Soames’ would be among them, and not in last place.”

Jonathan Swift
“And then there are those classics whose main virtue, whose elegance and validity, is symbolized by the time bomb: a bomb that not only hurtles perilously through its age but is capable of flinging itself into the future. It’s to this latter category that Jonathan Swift belongs.”

Homage to the American Indians by Ernesto Cardenal
“Superior in many ways to Neruda’s Canto General and a new, if flawed, response to Whitman.

El asco by Horacio Castellanos Moya
“So far I’ve read four of his books. The first was El asco, maybe the best of all, or at least the darkest.”

Bartleby & Co by Enrique Vila-Matas
“The answer, the only answer that occurs to me just now, is that it’s something else, something that might be a blend of all the preceding options, and we might have before us a 21st- century novel, by which I mean a hybrid novel, a gathering together of the best of fiction and journalism and history and memoir.”

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas
“The third part centers on the unknown Republican soldier who saved Sánchez Mazas’s life, and here there appears a new character, someone by the name of Bolaño, who is a writer and Chilean and lives in Blanes, but who isn’t me, in the same way that the narrator Cercas isn’t Cercas, although both characters are possible and even probable. . . . With this novel, published to critical acclaim and appearing in French and Italian translations a few days before it even landed in Spanish bookstores, Javier Cercas joins the small group at the leading edge of Spanish fiction.”

Braque: Illustrated Notebooks
“Some of his aperçus, like Duchamp’s or Satie’s, are infinitely superior to those of many writers of his day, even some writers whose main occupation was to think and reflect: ‘Every age limits its own aspirations. This is what gives rise, not without complicity, to the illusion of progress.'”

Ubik by Philip K. Dick
“Dick is the one who, in Ubik, comes closest to capturing the human consciousness or fragments of consciousness in the context of their setting; the correspondence between what he tells and the structure of what’s told is more brilliant than similar experiments conducted by Pynchon or DeLillo.”

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
“It could be said that the landscape of Blood Meridian is a landscape out of de Sade, a thirsty and indifferent landscape ruled by strange laws involving pain and anesthesia, laws by which time often manifests itself.”

Alan Pauls
“You’re one of the best living Latin American writers and there are very few of us who know it and can appreciate it.”

The Cubs by Mario Vargas Llosa

“From these four novels (if their authors had written nothing else, which isn’t the case, one could create a literature. Of the four, The Cubs is probably the most caustic, the most fiendishly paced, and the one in which the voices–the multiplicity of forms of speech–are most alive.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernandez
“Everything says we should read him, but Macedonio doesn’t sell, so forget him.

And one notable dis . . .

“Norberto Fuentes, the author of Condenados de Condado [The Condemned of Condado], in a number of ways a memorable book, has sold his soul to the devil.”


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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