Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Bolaño

I’ve found that people who’ve read stories by Roberto Bolaño tend to have stories to tell about Roberto Bolaño. These stories are inevitably about ourselves, our own life stories and the stories of those in our lives.

The first time anyone ever told me about Bolaño was when I had a chance meeting with my friend K, on Bold Street, which anyone in the Liverpool art scene knows is the street on which chance meetings are inevitable, so not really chance at all, and it’s really the only place I see K these days. K is a Glaswegian former Situationist, a playwright and DJ – at the legendary Eric’s in the punk era and on Toxteth pirate radio stations in the 90s, which is when I got to know him well, though our paths had first crossed as adult literacy tutors in the back end of the 80s. He set up the annual African and Latin American music festival in Liverpool and I’m used to him recommending artists to me whose names sound like songs – Orchestre Baobab, Oumou Sangaré, Lisandro Meza, Zaiko Langa Langa – and, to be truthful, the words “Roberto Bolaño” similarly washed over me as a melodic statement rather than a name to follow up. What did stick with me was that there was a buzz about a novel by this writer, that the work was unfeasibly ambitious and certainly messy but, K told me, “some of the things he does with prose” justified the hype. Slightly closer attention to the susurrus from the literary salon told me that the novel was Bolaño’s five-part, posthumously published 2666, so I got hold of a copy. In the spring of 2009, I began reading it in the café of Liverpool’s World Museum while waiting for a meeting about the Charles Darwin-inspired Evolving Words workshops I would be facilitating there over the summer.

The story of how I came by Bolaño now becomes a different story, not really a story about friendship and meetings and work and time, but a story about writing; it’s about reading and it’s about being a writer; it’s about being this writer and not being that writer. That’s why I am using these stories as a preamble – in case you were losing faith in my remembering the title of this post – to talking about Bolaño’s short story, A Literary Adventure from the similarly posthumous 2008 collection, Last Evenings On Earth: because any story I tell about Bolaño should rightfully mention the story about when I was reading 2666 and my head spun round in a complete circle.

I began reading with thoughts of K’s paean about the quality of ideas in the prose. For eight-and-a-half pages, I was conscious of the lack of spectacle. The writing was fluid, engaging, and the story was interesting. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for – I had the experience built up as something akin to a first hearing of a musical revolutionary like Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman, but what might that be like in prose fiction, with words on the mortuary slab of a page? If a work of prose is like a building, then in these early few pages I was still in the hallway of the prose, able to admire only the basic masonry and door hinges of the text. Then, on page 9, a character called Liz Norton, an English academic in an Oxford college, began reading a novel by an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi:

She read it, liked it, went to her college library to look for more books by the German with the Italian name, and found two: one was the book she had already read in Berlin, and the other was Bitzius. Reading the latter really did make her go running out. It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs, or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
[translation by Natasha Wimmer]

And that was when my head performed a 360.

The willingness to perform prosal trapeze acts is the facet of Bolaño that first grabbed me but even the rococo stylings of the above passage give indications of some of the staple concerns in his writing. There, creeping in at the last in the reference to peyote, is the Latin American sensibility, one that is dropped – here via the Englishwoman reading the “German with an Italian name” – into a European setting where such identities drift, maybe disappear, maybe re-settle, often co-ordinate themselves in a foreign place around a sense of artistic belonging, yet are always in the grip of home. Bolaño was 20 when, on September 11th 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup deposed the government of Salvador Allende and proceeded to brutalise the Chilean people for the next seventeen years. As one of the exiled, Bolaño carried into his writing the certainty of impermanence – endings rarely provide closure – and the sense that somehow life is a thing that’s already been lost. As liver failure led towards his early death, aged 50, this must have darkened the shadows under each tender observation of the artistic existence.

Nicanor Parra

The disposition towards melancholia related to exile and to illness but it was there in Bolaño’s essential literary condition, that of the lesser known poet. From the passage quoted, you can see that poetry underpins his prose. Fiction was also the strategy he turned to in order to achieve a modicum of financial success – to support a young family – of the kind poetry had never been able to provide him. Key to the first story you are told about Bolaño is his intended structuring of 2666 as a series of separate books to be released as posthumous publications over successive years, ensuring a regular dribble of revenue. When the time came, the decision instead to polish up the working draft of the fifth book and publish them all in a single volume was vindicated by the subsequent Bolaño fever, which in turn made his previous writing viable again. He even started to be recognised as a poet. As a commentary on this writing life, it was a very Bolaño-like plot development. Wry observations on literary fortunes, bordering bitterness, run through much of his writing. How could he have had success as a poet? He was a Chilean poet in exile and the world had already placed Pablo Neruda in the single occupancy vehicle that was Chilean poetry in exile. Bolaño’s own idol was Nicanor Parra, a pricklier presence in Chilean poetry, in whose lines (as below) we can get a sense of Bolaño’s own poetic disposition:

I Take Back Everything I’ve Said

Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
Generous reader
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.

[Nicanor Parra; translated by Miller Williams]

It’s possible that a story like A Literary Adventure, translated by Chris Andrews, might seem a meandering tale of obsession, a more loosely-structured take on Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal shadow-chaser, The Man Of The Crowd but without the pay-off of Poe’s final, frustrated confrontation. This is more than a case of Bolaño spinning a shaggy dog story: the marginalised writer moves with a shambling gait through most of Bolaño’s stories, whether as stand-ins for the writer himself, or personified by the almost mythic figure of Archimboldo, or emerging from the pages of forgotten literary journals picked up in thrift shops by the characters in the short stories. It’s not difficult, as a writer, to relate to such figures because we all have our sense of marginalisation; of being overlooked in favour of other lesser, or if not lesser then luckier, or if not luckier then simply younger talents; or of – whatever level of satisfaction we may have with our own relative status – griping that there is insufficient regard for what we do because the public is misdirected as to why, how and what to read. For the most part, these miseries can be absorbed, comfortably and productively, into a world-view laced with a generous and genial scepticism but Bolaño provides catharsis because he never absorbed that stuff: it bounced straight onto the page.

Osvaldo Soriano

Benjamin Samuel, blogging about literary feuds, cites Bolaño’s pronouncement on the Argentinian writer, Osvaldo Soriano: “You have to have a brain full of fecal matter to see him as someone around whom a literary movement can be built.”

It’s in this context of affronted ego mixed with wounded self-doubt that A Literary Adventure takes shape. As elsewhere in his short stories, Bolaño’s protagonist is simply identified as B. There is an antagonist, as unwitting a nemesis as the suspicious-looking old man trailed by Poe’s narrator, referred to as A. These may well be substitutes for Bolaño and a specific contemporary, but they are archetypes as well. A is:

a writer of about B’s age, but who, unlike B, is famous, well-off and has a large readership; in other words he has achieved the three highest goals (in that order) to which a man of letters can aspire. B is not famous, he has no money and his poems are published in little magazines.

I know I’m a B; to my friends and acquaintances and Facetwitter whatever whatevers, if I’m more in the A category to you, then I beg your forgiveness but, you know, you should get out more because there are some real As out there and each of them considers his or herself a B in relation to someone else again. The details that inject this story with the pain of a chord played by Victor Jara are phrases like the “in that order” ranking of writerly aspirations, or the heartbreaking diminuitive “little magazines”. So personal disappointment is fused with a righteous sense that success is lavished on the undeserving, or that it corrupts. B notices “a sanctimonious tone” appearing in A’s writing as his recognition grows and it’s this pomposity he attacks when creating Medina Mena, a thinly-veiled representation of A, for one chapter of a novel he is writing (presumably because poetry isn’t paying). The novel is picked up for publication and sent out for reviews. A is a reviewer – an influential one, at that – and he loves B’s book. While singing its praises, he appears not to recognise, or at least publicly to acknowledge, the satirical version of himself B has written.

The story revolves around the moral crisis A’s enthusiastic review triggers in B’s conscience and imagination. The layering of speculation upon assumption here is an utterly believable depiction of B’s mounting paranoia:

He’s praising my book to the skies, thinks B, so he can let it drop back to earth later on. Or he’s praising my book to make sure no one will identify him with Medina Mena. Or he hasn’t even realised, and it was a case of genuine appreciation, a simple meeting of minds. None of these possibilities seems to bode well.

Neurosis makes for great, bleak comedy and there’s a Picaresque feel – B as a hapless Gulliver in the land of Spanish literature – to the way the plot spools through B’s efforts to get to know A and thereby get to the truth of exactly what he felt about the Medina Mena character. There is the publication of B’s second novel and A’s equally warm, though suspiciously swift, review of that. There is a party in which a meeting with A seems about to take place in a dark recess of a garden which Chekhov might have fashioned to represent a soul in torment. And there are phonecalls made at inappropriate times, visits planned, voices overheard, all of which seem to be inching us towards a resolution.

But B’s identity as a writer must leave agonies like this unresolved. This story isn’t what matters anyway: what matters are the stories that happen in the corner of your eye while you’re keeping watch on something you should ignore. When following A but deliberating on whether to try to speak to him, B goes to a restaurant and, for a few minutes as he eats, we sense a respite from the literary frustration that’s eating away at him. Could the story have been here instead?

B sits down next to the window, in a corner away from the fireplace, which is feebly warming the room. A girl asks him what he would like. B says he would like to have dinner. The girl is very pretty. Her hair is long and messy, as if she just got out of bed. B orders soup, and a meat and vegetable dish to follow.

The next sentence – “While he is waiting he reads the review again.” – sucks him back into his grim quest but in that sliver of life in the restaurant, that moment of survival and possible hope for more than mere survival, we glimpse the beauty of Bolaño’s storytelling. We get that his stories and our own swim around one another, with beginnings that are impossible to trace and no resolution in the endings, just these moments that happen on the way to the end.

My good friend O, a songwriter, guitarist and drummer, was another Chilean who left the country after youthful struggles against Pinochet. Before he arrived in Liverpool, he spent some time in Spain, where A Literary Adventure and other Bolaño stories are set. He hasn’t read Bolaño but he has a story he wants to tell about the beautiful Madrileña daughter who recently stepped out of his past. I want him to read Last Evenings On Earth as he sets about writing down his stories. Because he’s in Bolaño’s stories and because Roberto Bolaño is in his. Because that’s the way Bolaño’s writing works: it’s intravenous. I read Bolaño and I glimpse beauty in small moments of survival but I read Bolaño and I feel the volume of self-doubt that’s in all writers’ libraries easing itself off the shelf and dropping onto my lap. And that’s too overwrought a metaphor, isn’t it, making the process sound like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And I’ve made this blog too long so readers will probably cut out after they click on the Sun Ra link I inserted earlier, so then that’ll be yet another thing to add to the list of all the other things.

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< A-D

E is for Emotional Choreography

A line I’ll often throw out to students facing the construction of their first ever short story is to think of as simple a plot as possible, then make it simpler. If someone is telling you the summary of their short story plot, by the third or fourth “and then…” alarm bells are ringing out. Any short story, even the most fleeting vignette, requires a plot, whereby the characters do things, or things happen to them, or things are revealed to the reader, in a particular order – it’s just not always helpful to try to break it down in those terms. The idea of emotional choreography can be more useful when talking about a story in which little takes place in the way of external action or happening but we are witness to a shift in the internal state of the character(s), and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a conversation in between, but the emotional choreography is worthy of Gene Kelly.

F is for Forbrydelsen

In 1995, Steven Bochco’s Murder One unravelled a single murder trial over 26 hour-long episodes. In a TV world in which the biorhythm of any crime was that it should be solved with time for a bit of banter at the end within the space of one hour, where the feature-length deliberations of Morse had seemed an impossible luxury, Murder One‘s progress towards the truth, led by Daniel Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman – the shaven-headed, ursine embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s line “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – seemed more in keeping with the complexity and level of commitment we’d expect from a novel. When novelistic TV series, like The Sopranos, began to roll out of HBO and the other US networks, Bochco’s innovation receded into fond memory. Once high production values, narrative complexity and mumbled articulacy had become familiar to drama viewers, the crime-solving drama moved towards being the type of quality pulp that enabled you to switch your brain to autopilot without feeling you’d surrendered it to a tribe of reality show producers.
First airing in its native Denmark in 2007, but only reaching the UK when it was shown at the start of 2011 on BBC Four, Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing, but the poncey insistence on the Danish also serves to differentiate it from the patchy US remake) took on the police procedural genre. While crime, in general, and police procedural or criminal psychologist narratives, are staples of the fiction bestseller lists, as well as the TV ratings, and while “fiction bestseller” equates to novels rather than short stories, it’s also possible to argue that the Whodunnit is a pertinent model for short fiction. Getting to the truth, or a good enough truth to enable us to move on, is as much a short story reader and a Chandleresque detective-figure can hope for over the course of a story. Forbrydelsen‘s first series ran for 20 episodes, but each episode represented one day of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, and one day at a time in the grieving process of her family. So, while it had a similar novelistic scope to Murder One – and in Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, a shrewd, sensitive, tunnel-visioned Sam Spade for our times, and for the future series of the drama to come – it often carried itself like a short story. As one example, Lund’s relationship with chewing gum is a crucial aspect of Gråbøl’s performance but it’s one never given overt reference in the script: we just see her chewing her way through the barriers – bureaucratic, emotional, political – that hamper her progress towards the truth. The correlation between her chewing and the stress tells us enough so that when the frustration piles up to the extent that she bums a cigarette from her colleague, Jan Meyer, an arc, reaching back to way before we knew any of the characters, is completed.

G is for Gil Scott-Heron
For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that for Pieces Of A Man:

Saw my Daddy meet the mailman
and I heard the mailman say,
“Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,
‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
that he was only talking to
pieces of a man.

H is for Hunger

“Cig?”
“Come on.”
“Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Eh?”
“Oh aye.”
“Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?”
“We only smoke the Lamentations – right miserable cigarette.”
“Nice room.”
“Very clean…”

Hunger is Steve McQueen’s 2008 depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes and dirty protests in the Maze prison, culminating in the death of the IRA prisoners’ Commanding Officer and newly-elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The film, drawing on McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning video artist, deploys the essential short story technique of observed detail to extraordinary effect, so much so that the genuinely harrowing scenes of filth, brutality, a shocking assassination and Sands’ lingering demise acquire a perverse luxury through the beautifully patient storytelling. The heart of the film, for which co-writer Enda Walsh deserves credit, is a 17-minute dialogue between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran. With just one change of shot after ten minutes, we are able to focus on the dialogue’s humour, tension, tragedy and politics, not to mention the relief – for us and, we can empathise, for Sands – to have this break from literally wading in shit. This clip is just the first chunk. There are breezeblocks of exposition in fiction – and then there’s this expositional sculpture:

I is for iPadding
Nothing at all wrong with first person narrative. Nothing wrong with streams of consciousness nor with charismatic narrators who are the stars of their own stories. Writing what you know: tip-top advice. We often enter into the process of writing short stories as an act of self-expression or memoir; we come via the poetic statement that’s acquired a narrative; via the anecdote; via life’s epiphanies or forks-in-the-road. And when I say “we”, we write “I”. “I” in fiction can be a Nick Carraway or a Charles Ryder, the unremarkable foil to the Gatsbys and Flytes that absorb the light throughout those novels. But “I” can also be an obstruction to any given scene or story. A writer can wrap themselves around every detail so every piece of information about place, action or other characters comes to the reader already evaluated and filed under a particular conclusive emotion. It can make for a narrative effect similar to having someone sitting next to you, talking all the way through a film you’re trying to follow, not only drowning out the dialogue but explaining the plot as well. Simple(-sounding) solution: get “I” to step back and allow us to see the sunset, the actual sunset and not just what “I” thinks about the sunset – we know “I” can see it, otherwise we wouldn’t have it narrated to us, so we get very little from “I looked across to the West and saw in the sky a beautiful sunset.”

J is for Johnny Cash
When you can sing a song like this, you’ll get a great reaction from any audience, but when you’re stuck in Folsom Prison or, as the crowd is here, in San Quentin, then the visit of a country&western superstar, singing songs about the life you used to lead and the one you’ve got now, will be a story you’ll be telling each other every day until your release, and every day thereafter. Confinement is a key to short fiction. One night in a cell might get you enough material for a short novel, if you’re Roberto Bolaño (By Night In Chile), and a train journey might provide you with a murder mystery novel, but you’d beter hope that train’s the Orient Express: for the 13.34 from Irlam to Widnes, you’re going to need a short story. A restricted temporal or spatial setting alerts the reader to the idea that what happens here and now matters: what’s being described is not leading you to anything or anywhere else more important so stick with it, pay attention to every clue and, eventually, you’re going to find that sonofabitch that named you Sue.

K is for Stanley Kunitz
His last published poem, written and performed here at the age of 100. “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” This is a poem that anyone, but especially each and every writer, needs to “remind me who I am” and this video is a short story in itself:

L-R S-Z >

I met with some writers yesterday. There is probably a dubious statistic – much like the one I heard when on a coach passing through Luxemburg in the 80s, that there was one restaurant for every four Luxemburgers and one brothel for every five; you wonder if the dishes ever get done – about the number of novels-in-progress per capita across the population of Liverpool. It’s a city of storytellers and the Windows Project monthly Writing Advice Desk in Larkhill Library gives some of them the opportunity to tell the story of the book they’re writing to a professional and gain some guidance. Also, as one gentleman pointed out, writing can be a lonely business so it’s good to have the chance to get out and make some human contact.

Yes, but if it’s lonely for you, sitting there in your café, wishing you’d gone for something more substantial than a macchiato, or at your computer with the world’s dramas playing out beneath your fingertips – – with a cast of characters of such oddball diversity it makes Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 look like an episode of Button Moon, think for a moment about the characters for whom you have responsibility and over whom you have authorial control. There they are, straining every unobserved sinew to act out the fabulous ideas you’ve constructed, to break free from the overbearing influence of the friend or former acquaintance who inspired them in the first place, to throw off the burden of expectation placed on them by that high-powered first chapter or opening paragraph – and what do they get back from you? Plot, plot, and more plot. They get angry, they get sad, they get tough and they get going but, increasingly, it seems you don’t get them. Writers will often find themselves with – or fail to notice they’ve created – a pivotal character who just carries out the necessary functions of the current scene in order to get to the next one, without ever seeming to come alive. Your character needs downtime, space to breathe. You need to give this character a tea-break.

The Cup of Tea Exercise is one I give to students ostensibly to drill them in the skills of 3rd person objective narrative. If you click on the link to the Wikipedia entry on this narrative voice, you’ll see mention of it as a “camera lens” approach. It’s therefore relevant as we start to consider the synergy between short stories and film. In either medium, it’s the principle of show-don’t-tell writ large. If you can describe a scene and track the action, allowing the narrative to be experienced mimetically – as it’s happening to the character(s) – you can tell any story with intensity, clarity and coherence. The exercise is flagged up as a way for students to appreciate detail (an element touched upon here). Notice, for example, how unadorned with character motivation is this line from Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog:

On the table was a watermelon. Gurov cut himself a slice from it and began slowly eating it. At least half an hour passed in silence.

Yet this could be the most celebrated moment in the last 200 years of short story writing. This is the anti-“Reader, I married him.” This is, “Reader, he shagged her, cut himself a slice of fruit and then realised he’d lost interest in both.” The line tells us all this without spelling out any of it. Understanding why this precise piece of imagery works is easy: understanding how to make your characters so real to the reader that their unconscious gestures and acts will be interpreted as contributory factors in the narrative is, as many of my students discover, not so easy. It’s essential in a short story to get this type of detail right but it’s important to consider when working on your novel as well. Simply this – listen to your reader: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care when s/he’s saving the world.

It’s this aspect of characterisation that is the true source of the Cup of Tea exercise and here, in the most concise terms possible, is what it involves:

Your task is to get to know your character better by having him or her make a cup of tea. The action starts with filling the kettle (or equivalent) and ends with taking the first sip. What happens in between is governed by the following –
We must never read the character’s thoughts. We can only view his or her actions.
– No back-story is allowed in the form of narrative that addresses the reader. You must not directly explain the context for anything you present in the passage. This includes not giving a separate introduction to your passage to explain who your character is meant to be. It should all come out in the process of making the tea.
– No speech or dialogue is permitted that deals with anything that is happening outside the making of the tea. So, if there is another character present, comments or action between the two can only relate to the process of making the tea. Ideally, the character should be alone or any other characters should be very much in the background.
– The character should not do anything that reveals his/her back-story that takes place away from the making of the tea. The information we receive about your character should be gleaned entirely from the manner in which the tea is made. So the character can’t, say, leave the tea to brew and pick up a letter/gun/gift that will tell us more about his/her life. But if a gun is moved to get to the sugar, for example, you’re fine.
– Description is therefore paramount. The approach to making the tea and the tea-making facilities; the physical appearance of the character; the room in which the action takes place; even sounds and smells if they can be put across via the outward demeanour and behaviour of the character – all these are acceptable as details to include. But remember not to tell too much: if you character has a scar, then s/he has a scar – leave it to us to interpret where this scar might have come from.
– Coffee/cocoa are allowed, but the act of making the drink has to be a process involving a number of different stages. No opening of Coke tins.

What often shocks students is how much subjectivity there is in their writing voices. And why shouldn’t that be the case, since most of us come to the idea of writing as a means of expressing our personal intellectual, emotional and imaginative thoughts? Yet it’s exactly this part of the process that should help you understand that writing isn’t that lonely after all. There are others involved – and they in turn depend on you. Just try to give them a break from time to time.

This isn’t an invitation to bombard me with passages of writing, but if you do have a go at the Cup of Tea exercise, let us know how you got on. And don’t forget to keep checking the Twitter feed in the sidebar for Real Time miniatures, news and random witterings.


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