The Other Bolaño

There is another Roberto Bolaño, one that is different from the man I read. The Bolaño I read is vicious in his prose, and relentless in his poetry. He is an artist, but one who seems to have willfully abandoned celebrity for his art. He tried to cheat death by searching for immortality on the page, but try justifying that to his children. Still, his writing is a gift to those who did not know him. For those of us to became aware of Bolaño only after his death in 2003, we have the texts to go by, but little else. Because my reading of Bolaño has become something of an obsession, I lament the fact that I will never get to meet the man who wrote the books that have come to mean so much to me. There can only be a limited number of monumental moments in one’s life, and reading Bolaño has been one of mine. Reading his books has not only changed the way I read fiction, but has changed my outlook on the contemporary world. It’s not a cliché to say that Bolaño sacrificed himself for his art. He knew, after all, that he was dying of liver disease as he feverishly worked to finish his last masterpiece, 2666. So, what was this other Bolaño like? The one who sat at the computer while he was dying? The one who could be difficult and outspoken? The one who was the voracious reader? The one who was still married but lived in a separate apartment in Blanes, Spain? I have read that this Bolaño left a number of letters behind, but those letters have yet to be sorted, collected, and published. There are at least two documentaries on his life, and a handful of books about him by those who supposedly knew him. There are countless interviews with those who knew him, intimately or slightly. There are hundreds of articles about him by those who didn’t know him at all. Then, of course, there are those interviews with Bolaño himself. His voice is as we would expect it to be: scratchy and contemplative, but at times he talks quickly, trying to get the thoughts out. Watching Bolaño being interviewed is like watching a man in the throes of exhaustion. There is one video that can downloaded of Bolaño sitting with another man in a coffee shop in Blanes. He sends his tea back and smokes his ever –present cigarette. He looks utterly exhausted. Perhaps this is how he spent his last months (years?), exhausted by the illness that plagued him, exhausted by the writing that still needed to be done, exhausted by his newfound celebrity, exhausted by life. In any case, that other Bolaño is no longer with us. All we have left is the specter of his persona contained between the covers of his books. But isn’t that the real, the authentic, Bolaño?

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The Dentist Chair

There are all kinds of chairs I would not like to find myself occupying: the defendant chair in a trial, a juror chair in someone else’s trial, the chair facing police or governmental interrogators, the doctoral dissertation chair (I’ve already done that once, and although my doctoral defense went well, the anxiety leading up to the day was almost more than I could take), and especially the electric chair, to name a few.

I’m willing to bet that for most people the chair in the dentist office is another chair that sends waves of dread through them. I’ve been lucky enough never to have had a cavity in my nearly 50 years on this planet, but I still become somewhat unnerved when I go to get my teeth cleaned once every six months. My hygienist is always pleasant, but insists on talking to me about the most mundane things in the world. The truth is, with a little less chit-chat I could be in and out of that chair in less than an hour. Yet, I always find myself there for over an hour. Moreover, I always seem to feel nauseated for several hours after visiting the dentist. I do feel like I’m being interrogated about flossing, as if I were a child that needed constant reminding. As the hygienist continues to talk I always find myself receding deeper into my own head.

I wonder how much of our lives are spent staring at the ceiling in a dentist office. If we added up all the hours spent in that chair throughout our lives would it add up to one year, five? How much time do we spend thinking about the possibility of the hygienist accidentally dropping one of those sharp tools down our throats, or slicing our gums open? Must I always be reminded of the Marathon Man every time I enter the office and make my way toward the chair? To be fair, my dentist looks nothing like Laurence Olivier, but still.

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Recently I read The Story of My Teeth by the fabulous Valeria Luiselli (full disclosure: I have something more than an intellectual crush but less than an amorous crush on her), a novel published by Coffee House Press and translated by Christina MacSweeney. The novel is about a down-at-his-heels auctioneer named Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez. Highway comes into possession of the teeth of famous writers, or so he claims, and sells them at auctions. At an auction in Miami Highway successfully bids for the teeth of Marilyn Monroe. Things get stranger from here and at one point Highway goes around wearing Monroe’s teeth in his own mouth. As dreadfully strange as the premise to this story is, it is wonderfully told and reads like a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm.

Of course, there is also Poe’s frightening story “Berenice” (published in 1835) concerning two cousins about to be married. Egaeus, the narrator is a sickly bookish boy and Berenice is his cousin. She too becomes ill and eventually dies, but not before giving Egaeus the fright of his life one night in the library. Egaeus is alone reading when he finds Berenice’s sickly, emaciated form standing before him. She says nothing, but just before she takes her leave she flashes him a smile, revealing the most exquisitely perfect teeth. Egaeus becomes obsessed. The following day Berenice dies and is buried. The story so far reads like a perfectly outlined gothic tale. But Poe being Poe, we know that something sinister is waiting for us. Egaeus blacks out on the night of his cousin’s burial only to be awakened by a servant, who finds his master covered in mud. I’ll let Poe speak for himself:

“He [the servant] pointed to my garments; they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand: it was indented with the impress of human nails. He directed my attention to some object against the wall. I looked at it for some minutes: it was a spade. With a shriek I bounded the table, and grasped the box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open; and, in my tremor, it slipped from my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces; and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.”

What can be missed by a superficial reading is the brilliance of the above paragraph’s punctuation, which slows the pace down just enough to build the suspense; it’s impossible for us to read this too fast, despite a desire to get to the end, thus the revelation. Poe’s genius lies not in his descriptions, or at least not only, but in his ability to pace a tale.

In the “real” world there is the story of Martin Amis’ teeth, which had Britain preoccupied for much of the mid 1990s. The story goes that Amis’ teeth were in such rough shape that he had to have them all extracted and replaced. He had the implants put in at considerable cost and pain. In fact, the cost was so great that he was forced to leave his longtime agent Pat Kavanagh (wife of his then buddy Julian Barnes) for Andrew Wylie, AKA: The Jackal. Amis received an enormous advance for his 1995 novel The Information and fell out with Barnes. Meanwhile, Britain would not let Amis forget about his teeth, which many thought of as the supreme act of vanity on Amis’ part. Pat Kavanagh died in 2008 from a brain tumor and Amis has since moved to Brooklyn. Amis’ move to the Wylie Agency might not have been just about his teeth, but the advance he received for his first novel with Wylie didn’t hurt his pocket any.

In my mid-thirties, I had a recurring nightmare that my teeth were constantly falling out. They would slide from my gums and accumulate in my mouth, like a handful of Chiclets. Most of the time I began to swallow them or spit them out, only to wake up to realize that my teeth were still firmly ensconced in my mouth. I never bothered to look up the meaning of losing one’s teeth in dreams, mostly because I was frightened of what I might discover. Nevertheless, the nightmare has long since stopped, but I can still recall it with almost superhuman vividness. In fact, there are times that I can still feel them coming loose in my mouth and pooling on my tongue.

At this point the hygienist brings me back to myself and the chair I’m sitting in begins to rise. The ceiling falls away to walls and a smile from the hygienist. I take my new toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and get the hell out of there.

Dog Ownership

I’m pushing fifty years of age and for the first time in my life I’ve become a dog owner. We’ve had pets before, two cats, both of whom died at an early age, a few goldfish, one that lasted nearly two years, but for the better part of a year our two children have been pushing for us to get a dog. When our last cat died of heart failure at the age of seven, combined with the hurricane in Houston, we decided that the time was right to adopt a dog from that area so devastated by Harvey. So, after several attempts, for adopting a dog is not as easy as it sounds, we finally were greenlit for a small terrier mix. Interestingly, the dog arrived on a tracker trailer from Tennessee and we picked him up at a rest stop in Maine, along with dozens of others who had adopted dogs.

Dog ownership is something like finding oneself in a secret club. For the first time people with dogs are now coming up to us on our walk and saying hello and stopping to chat. Neighbors who have never given us more than a passing wave or a banal remark about the weather are now engaging us in real conversation. Granted, the talk almost exclusively revolves around our dogs, but still, I’ve never experienced this type of acceptance before. It’s actually a little disconcerting since I live mostly inside my head. Having to stop and chat is, most of the time, a great chore, and truth be told, I get very little pleasure from the exchange. Nevertheless, the camaraderie of speaking with others is grudgingly pleasant. To interact with other people over our dogs gives us a commonality that non-dog owners seldom experience, I know, because as I’ve said, most of my life I’ve never owned a dog. For the first time in my life I feel like I am on the inside of something.

As a dog owner, my social circle has expanded. There seems to be no restrictions on the people who now come up to me wanted to pet the dog or discuss his pedigree, behavior, sleeping and eating habits, and of course, his need to relieve himself almost every hour. Moreover, people never seem to be short on or shy about giving advice. We have found a large group of fellow dog owners who give us advice on everything from doggy daycares, vets, treats and dog food, to what type of leash and harness we should have. The advice is always well intentioned and for the most part welcome.

The best moments about dog ownership for me is when we are out on a walk together. It gives me a chance to break away from whatever it is I’m doing and get in some exercise. It’s a terrific excuse to sweep the cob webs away and take in the fresh air. But now that the cold weather is upon us I’ve found that I have less patience with my dog. He loves the snow and is eager to jump through it, sticking his nose into piles every chance he gets. Most of the time this is fun to watch, but he is already an easily distracted dog, so now that snow is on the ground he’s more distracted than ever. If I’m working from home and he signals to me to take him out, I need to stop what I’m doing, regardless of where I am in my work, and bundle both him and myself up against the cold. However, once we are outside he’s off playing in the snow, leading me to places only he seems to know about. I tug at his leash, trying to move him along, but mostly it’s a game to him. Terriers, I’m told, are a stubborn breed anyway, so my dog and I become engaged in a battle of wills, which I always ending up losing. When it comes time for me to leave the house and I try to put him in his crate, he runs, avoiding me. But this is a game to him as well, for he wags his tail and barks for me to chase him. My patience, by now, has become depleted, and I find myself swearing at him. Then it dawns on me: I’m becoming Camus’ old Salamano, tugging and screaming at his spaniel. On our walks, I’ve tended to cry out in Italian to him, mostly “Che fai!” In my failure to be patient, I’ve witnessed myself devolving into a mess of raw emotion. “Filthy, stinking bastard!” Salamano lost his dog, and in the end was crushed by its absence. I now know how Salamano feels in a way that I never have before.

The love a dog shows you once you return home is one of the great joys in life. It’s wonderful to know that at the end of the day, no matter what you’ve said or done, there is a dog waiting for you excitedly on the other side of the door.

Bring Out Your Lanterns

Dig us up from this grave, Father
And wipe the dirt from our eyes
You who are so old, so ancient, so cold
Yet, you still retain life, like an eternal relic
Bring us to the clearing and remind us of the song.

Bring out your lanterns and pick up your spades
Call out to your neighbors, your lovers, your slaves
We must not remain forgotten and alone,
Lost in the shadows of time
Retrieve us from these dusty, dark rooms
Where cruelty and oppression mark up our skin.

Under a father’s harsh judgment you cast our souls adrift
You who once fed us and clothed us, then betrayed us to the night
Have you forgotten what it was like to be so young?
So vulnerable, so uncertain, and full of pain?
Have you, Pilate-like, washed our blood from your hands,
Thus cleansing yourself and unburdening your conscience?

Bring out your lanterns and pick up your spades
Call out to your neighbors, your lovers, your slaves
March yourselves to the square and shout out
Show your fury at the god’s indifference
Plunge your daggers into their sacred hearts
And wash your souls in the sacred blood.

Bring out your lanterns and pick up your spades
Call out to your neighbors, your lovers, your slaves
Dig us up from the earth and carry our bodies
Through the streets.

Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part XII: Karl Ove Knausgaard

When I went to hear Karl Ove Knausgaard speak in Cambridge a few weeks ago I hadn’t read anything he wrote; not one word. If memory serves, this was the first time I had gone to hear a writer in person cold. I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, I knew all the hype surrounding him, all of the awards and accolades he had received for his writing, but the reputation of his work wasn’t something that jumped out at me, and I’ve become almost hyper-conservative when it comes to reading authors for the first time. Nevertheless, when the opportunity to see him in person, and in conversation with critic James Wood of the New Yorker, I couldn’t pass up the experience. Moreover, I wanted to see what the hype was all about.

The line to get into the First Parish Church wrapped around the block long before the doors were due to open, and consisted of all kinds of people. There were older, more professorial looking men and women (at one point I think Sven Birkerts walked past me on the street to get in line), as well as a multitude of young men and women. What I didn’t see were many people of color. There were a few, but the people waiting to get into the event were mostly white. This made me wonder about Knausgaard’s appeal to readers of color. At first glance a Norwegian might not have much to offer people of color, but the overwhelming popularity of his writing would seem to contradict this assumption. Nevertheless, the audience was mostly white.

After a short reading from Autumn, Knausgaard was paired with New Yorker critic extraordinaire James Wood for a conversation, followed by questions from the audience. It was a thrill to see these two literary heavy weights discuss the importance of literature, making several detours toward the writing process itself. Knausgaard is almost tragically hip. His longish hair and beard make him look more like an aging musician than a writer. He spoke in halting English, and in a low voice, as if he was unsure of his right to be asked these questions.

The book Knausgaard read from was the first in a quartet named after the seasons. The first book, Autumn, also the book he came to promote, begins with a letter he wrote to his unborn daughter. When I got home I started reading and finished it the next day. It’s hard to characterize Knausgaard’s writing. He defies categorization on many levels. Like his series of biographical novels, “My Struggle,” Autumn is a blend of fact, fiction, observations, and philosophy. The writing is quite beautiful. Knausgaard can take the most mundane thing, like a can of peas, or lice, and explore the implications of that thing on our lives in enlightening fashion. Autumn is in many aspects a series of observations on domesticity. What begins with a desire to show his unborn daughter the world becomes something Voltaire or Rousseau would write. Each observation is short, yet rich in detail and suggestion. In a chapter entitled “Rubber Boots,” Knausgaard discourses on the properties, physical and metaphorical, of the boot. In a lesser writer’s hands this would be mundane at best and painfully boring at worst. Yet, Knausgaard sees a world beyond the one that we all see. This is why he lives up in every way to the hype of his reputation. Autumn is a magnificent tome and should be required reading by anyone who wishes to write, professionally or otherwise. When Winter is published in January 2018, I know I will be in line to purchase my copy at my local independent. These hymns to domesticity demonstrate exactly why literature still matters in a frenzied world so dominated by social media and the pithy nature of the Tweet that has come to represent contemporary thought process.

What words did Knausgaard and I exchange? Well, we didn’t talk literature. Instead we touched on our mutual admiration for the music groups Lambchop and the War on Drugs. Knausgaard is a cool dude in the true sense of the word. He’s uniquely and, I believe, sincerely, unaware of the impact he’s had on contemporary world literature over the past few years. In fact, he looked slightly embarrassed by all of the well wishers and fans lined up to greet him and get their books signed. He was patient and gracious with his time. But then, the event was sold out, and a lot of books were being sold.

Soft-Drinks

My paternal grandparents lived on the second floor of an apartment building that could be considered Binghamton’s version of a tenement; I do not mean this pejoratively, as the building served as the home for many members of my grandfather’s family, beginning with his own father who came from Avellino, Italy. It was always familiar and a place of childhood joy for me. My grandfather was born in the building and he himself never lived anywhere else until he was well into old age and moved with my grandmother to the “country.” I can still recall the steepness of the stairs leading to the second floor porch in the front of the building, as if in climbing those stairs we were ascending to our ancestors. My grandparents had nine children, so the apartment, which contained four bedrooms and one bathroom, wasn’t nearly enough space to give one a sense of privacy, but I always remember the place as quite large and roomy.

I recall many parties and family gatherings at the apartment, most of which seemed to have been joyous, if chaotic occasions. I loved being part of a very large family, even if I couldn’t fully understand the family dynamics at the time. Some of my earliest memories revolve around soda, or “soft-drinks,” as my family called them. My brother and I drank soda, but mostly with meals. Going to my grandparents meant that we could drink a soda brand called Eagle’s Beverages, produced by the Binghamton Bottling Company. The soda, or soft-drink, would come in tall, clear bottles with the label stenciled in white on the glass. These bottles always seemed to be in abundance, especially on Sundays when most of the family would stop by and the apartment would be sweltering in the summer heat.

The kitchen was in the back of the apartment, and its back door opened onto a porch, with a set of stairs leading up to the third floor and another down to the ground floor. I remember the back porch as being a long and narrow passage, and dark, even in summer, but with light enough from the window or opening in the wall (here memory fails me) to see onto the backyards of the neighbors. The back porch always seemed to be the place where the Eagle’s soda bottles were stored. The bottles came in a large wooden crate, and there were always several flavors: cola, ginger ale, cream soda, root beer, orange, and lemon-lime, among others. My mouth salivates at the memory of the soft-drinks, even as I write this. I remember wanting to taste them all, but my parents would only let us choose one flavor. If I remember correctly, the ginger ale was my favorite.

My own children do not drink soda, because they say it “bubbles their tongues,” not liking the way the carbonation feels in their mouths. I am mostly happy that they don’t, but a part of me thinks that they are missing out on one of life’s greatest inventions. Now that I am an adult I rarely drink soda, opting for “harder” drinks or water. Still, I often find myself thinking about Eagle’s, especially when I’m eating pasta or pizza, and those thoughts have a powerful nostalgic hold on me. In my memories the soft-drink bottles are still standing at attention in those wooden crates, with dividers for each bottle; there is always a bit of sun shining down, reflecting off the bottles that were such a meaningful, but at the time neglected, part of my life.

What I wouldn’t give to have just another taste.

The Bibliophile’s Dilemma

Bibliophile: (noun) A person who collects or has a great love of books

For several years now I’ve purchased more books that I can afford or store. Much more traumatic is the fact that I buy more books that I will ever be able to read in one lifetime, which is ironic, since reading allows the reader to live many lives over the course of one lifetime. Bibliophilia is the sickness that comes with the obsessive need to be surrounded by books. This, as all bibliophiles will inform you, is much different from hoarding. Books lend a certain prestige to the collector whereas hoarding is the inability to part with anything. For the serious bibliophile there is no situation too outlandish to stop one from obtaining a certain book. I, myself, have occasionally stooped to larceny to liberate a particular volume from a particular place.

Perhaps my “lowest” moment came a few years ago when a colleague in my department passed away. He was an English professor for over thirty years and had never married. I managed to find my way into his apartment to see what I could take out, all under the guise that I was willing to help unload a townhouse full of books. This was not entirely untrue, but to be honest, I was more interested in having the opportunity, the first crack if you will, at his collection. I spent the next hour or so combing over books that proved to be so specific that I left feeling more than a little disappointed since most of the books focused on the Catholic religion. However, I did manage to find one or two worthy books to liberate. Before I finished up I was searching the bookshelves in his bedroom, the last room I had left to search. Bending over at an odd angle, I lost my balance and fell onto his mattress, the mattress he had died in just a few days before. Thankfully the bed had been stripped of its sheets, but the feeling has attached to itself to me like a stain.

Unless the bibliophile is wealthy, he or she must be careful with buying books, as the habit works like a drug on the psyche of the afflicted. Every year I spend thousands of dollars on books, and every April when my taxes come due I wince at the thought of how much I spent during the previous year. My wife, bless her, has never really given me any grief when it comes to buying books, but she has drawn the line whenever I attempt to spend more than a few hundred dollars on a single volume. And who can blame her? I have at the moment at least four different versions of War and Peace, Madame Bovary, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Don Quixote, to name a few. Each time a new translation is published I rush out to purchase that translation. I have at least twelve translations of Dante’s Inferno alone! If I read a hardcover book that I really like I find that I must buy the paperback so that I can have a “reader’s copy,” which means one I can write in. I also try to buy paperback copies of all my first editions, so as to keep the integrity of the spines of the books in place.

Whenever I come across a certain book or author that I do not have I go to great lengths to obtain the desired item. In order to finance my book buying I have had to take on extra work and often teach over the summer to subsidize my habit. Moreover, when, in the midst of my research on this or that academic subject, and I come across the reference from a book I think I should read, I buy the book instead of checking it out from my home institution’s library. This, as one might imagine, is costly and, one might say, crazy. 2017-06-22 19.59.44

As understanding as my wife is with the amount of money I spend on books, she is less understanding because of the space the books take up in our home. In fact, we are now at the point where we either have to look for a new house or I have to stop buying books. I lack the moral courage to stop buying books, so that will never happen. Therefore, moving seems to be our only option. However, as anyone who has even a modest home library knows, moving books is perhaps the hardest part about moving. First, there is the psychological damage that occurs to the bibliophile when he or she packs away a library. Second, there is the weight of the books in countless boxes waiting to be moved. Space is a terrible enemy in the bibliophile’s life. There is never enough space and one finds oneself placing books in almost every conceivable location in one’s home. Digitizing one’s library in not an option for the bibliophile, for books are not like one’s musical or video library. Digitizing one’s library is the same as getting rid of one’s books altogether. No self-respecting bibliophile has a digital library that takes the place of the physical one.

Of course, enemy number one in the bibliophile’s life is time. There will never be enough time to read all of the books one has purchased in one’s lifetime. And yet, we continue to buy books despite, or perhaps in spite of, this knowledge.