Horacio Quiroga, from “Los arrecifes de coral”

Mis negras culebras…

Mis negras culebras dormían sobre la alfombra; y la intrangquilidad que de pronto se apoderó de ellas llegó a mis trémulas historietas, donde el llanto por emociones pasadas consiguiera nuevos triunfos.

La agitación de las finas bestias cobró forma de un desvelo; la seda de sus pieles aquietó pausadamente el nervioso moaré, y, ya de rodillas ante ellas, en el silencio de la gran sala, sus ojos de vidrio traslucieron el paisaje de su inquietud, bajo la tienda de un jefe de rebeldes: los espejismos crepusculares danzaban en el horizonte extrañas geometrías. Y una luna enorme surgía, tambaleándose. Y sobre el insomnia de las Negras culebras que no supieron conservar tu manto, el silencio pudo ser llenado con el chocar de tu cadenilla, Salambó! Salambó!

My black brawls…

As my black serpents slept, restlessness seized them. Writhing on the carpet, they slithered into the quivering cartoons where I triumph by weeping ruefully.

The slender beasts’ agitation took the shape of sleeplessness, their silky skin softening the carpet’s maddeningly coarse weave. In the room’s cavernous silence, I kneeled before them. Their crystal eyes revealed a landscape of worry sheltering beneath the tent of a rebel king: dusky phantasms danced on the horizon’s strange geometries. And an enormous moon rose, swaying. And the black serpents’ insomnia couldn’t stop your clanging chain from breaking the silence, Salammbô! Salammbô!

Jackie Ess, Eve Babitz, Roberto Bolaño, Amit Chaudhuri, Roberto Calasso

Jackie Ess "Darryl" Eve Babitz "Black Swans" Roberto Bolaño "The Savage Detectives" "Amulet" Amit Chaudhuri "Finding the Raga" Roberto Calasso "K."
Jackie Ess “Darryl” Eve Babitz “Black Swans” Roberto Bolaño “The Savage Detectives” “Amulet” Amit Chaudhuri “Finding the Raga” Roberto Calasso “K.”

Darryl is a wonderfully funny and big-hearted novel about a Taoist cuck. Darryl, the protagonist, gets turned on when he watches men have sex with his wife – but he starts to wonder if the cuck lifestyle is really for him. The novel is a classic journey of self-discovery, of an unhappy man searching for who he might be.

What makes Eve Babitz’s essays so much fun is that she knows exactly who she is. She’s the perfect writer for anyone who loves Los Angeles because she’s able to express one of the city’s most unusual qualities – in Black Swans (and Slow Days, Fast Company) she rides the line between the superficial and the sublime until it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the two. Even when her subjects are depression and failure, her writing feels warm and joyful. Reading her is being with her as she, by writing about LA, becomes person she wants to be – a writer experiencing LA.

I find her essays enviable because she makes that joyfulness, that confident sense of self, seem effortless – and the primary struggle I’ve had with my own writing is finding a sense of self in my fiction. The first novels I wrote were silly attempts at hardboiled crime fiction. I loved the sound of the genre, how its authors described the dullest urban intersections in intense, evocative language. They made the mundane magic. My novels started as Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Chandler pastiches, then spiralled into surreal sci-fi conspiracies.

Eventually, I realized that the surreal sci-fi I always accidentally ended up writing should be my starting point. I switched genres, writing short stories inspired by ‘70s sci-fi greats like Philip K Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and JG Ballard. I wanted to discover how, by undercutting their most brilliant ideas with silliness, self-doubt, and tragedy, they made their stories even more exciting and meaningful. Instead, I wrote stories that felt shallowly pessimistic, that were always rolling their eyes at their own characters and themes.

Every time I try to get closer to Eve Babitz’s confidence, I find myself disoriented and confused, wondering how I wound up just as unable to recognize myself as I was before.

Contemporary American writing hasn’t helped. Whereas Eve Babitz’s writing was irrepressibly joyful, literary culture in 2022 is irrepressibly professional. How-to-write books are full of craft without content, lists of rules that savvy writers should follow. Writing classes are full of advice on drafting cover letters, plotting novels that appeal to agents, and self-marketing tips.

The only time anyone asks why writing matters is in short, dull, pro forma platitudes. Writing gives readers the opportunity to explore another person’s unique experience. (If that were the case, wouldn’t it be more efficient for readers to talk to strangers about their unique experiences?) Writing creates political change. (If that were the case, wouldn’t it be more efficient for readers to volunteer or organize or campaign?) Writing helps readers process their own emotions. (If that were the case, wouldn’t it be more efficient to go to therapy?) Writing is a means to an end. Writing is a profession that should be approached professionally. Writing is joyless.

What makes this worse is that I know what my complaints are worth. They’re the terminal symptom of the mediocre writer – cliché. From the perspective of the unsuccessful, every era is uniquely inhospitable to artistic flourishing. It’s not that our art is terrible, we protest, it’s the times we live in that are terrible!

As much as I try to come to terms with my callowness, to stop wasting time whining about the literary elite, I always backslide into nostalgia for artistic cultures that never existed. Which is, I think, one of the reasons I compulsively read and re-read Roberto Bolaño.

For most of his life, Bolaño was a spectacularly unknown poet. In his final decade, he started writing short stories and novellas in order to support his family. His fortunes turned. He became widely read and widely respected, then died, which made him even more successful.

The primary subject of The Savages Detectives and much of Bolaño’s later work is the lifestyle, society, and attitudes of poets whose work is unknown and unread. What makes his fiction different than that of so many authors who’ve tackled the same topic is that he positions himself from a slightly different vantage point.

Bolaño doesn’t write from the perspective of himself as a younger writer, angry and vain, passionate and hopeful. He writes from the perspective of an older man reflecting on his youth, who sees that young poet as a fundamentally different person from himself. He pokes fun at his younger self, mining comedy out of obstinacy. But he also misses his youthful self-assuredness, the way he was so convinced that art didn’t just matter, it was the only thing that mattered. While the older Bolaño isn’t quite sure how he was able to believe in such an obvious lie as artistic truth, he also wishes that he was still able to believe in anything with that same intensity, even knowing how badly the belief would hurt the young poet as he aged.

Still, the younger Bolaño’s conviction always ends up forcing the older Bolaño to ask: Is there something he knew that I’ve forgotten? Was there a meaning to devoting life to writing obscure poetry?

Amit Chaudhuri’s Finding the Raga is also about the writer’s life as a young artist. Born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay, Chaudhuri was influenced by the Western rock as well as by the Indian classical tradition his mother practiced. When he moved to England to study, he performed Indian classical music by himself in a small apartment above a busy London street. The contrast between the city and his music helped him better understand the attitudes inherent in North Indian classical music and influenced his work as a musician and a writer.

Finding the Raga is an in-depth exploration of those attitudes, full of exciting ideas about the way art interacts with us and the world. Some of them suggest answers to the questions Bolaño poses in The Savage Detectives. For example, in this passage, Chaudhuri talks about why his mother valued precise pitch in her singing:

“Precision is often associated with control and objectivity… But precision has a very long history in many cultures… It means refusing to add, or to supply, meaning, because the detail is significant already…. it’s to do with curtailing the self’s interference with what we hear and see. Tagore (a Bengali poet) says that the first rhyme he was drawn to as a child was the four-word Bengali couplet ‘The water falls, / the leaf trembles.’ On one level, this is indistinguishable from empirical detail; on another, it’s an inaugural registering of the world’s movement. Nothing has been added.”

What hits its target more precisely than an unread poem written for no one? It effects no change, opens no minds, has no purpose. Nothing has been added.

Roberto Calasso makes a parallel point in K. when describing the climax of Kafka’s The Castle. According to Calasso’s interpretation, the novel’s penultimate scene is about the dream-like nature of storytelling, the way that stories evaporate in the waking world. K, who has spent the entire novel trying to get the castle to grant his request, finally stumbles upon a castle official. Caught off guard, the official has no choice but to confess to K “precisely what has happened and why it happened.” But this confession doesn’t have the outcome K wants. The official delays K’s request by telling a meticulously detailed story, explaining exactly why K hasn’t made any progress – and even explaining how K could force his request to be granted. By telling the story so precisely that it puts K to sleep, the official evades K’s request. He tells the story in order to make nothing happen.

Is this a return to the shallow pessimism of my failed science fiction? If poetry is a way of adding nothing to the world, if stories are a way of making nothing happen, then writing isn’t better than nothing; it is nothing. It’s worthless.

Unless nothing can have a positive value.

If we lived in my ideal non-existent literary culture, the novella Amulet would be considered Bolaño’s masterpiece. It’s where he comes closest to answering the question the older Bolaño asked his younger self: Is there meaning to devoting one’s life to creating obscure stories?

Amulet is about Auxilio Lacouture, the self-proclaimed “mother of all Mexican poets” and a semi-employed Uruguayan living illegally in Mexico. She drinks with writers much younger than her and works for writers much older than her, bouncing between bars and studies and literary gatherings of all kinds, taking care of any and every writer she finds.

Auxilio chooses the worst possible time to go to a bathroom in the National Autonomous University of Mexico – right before the university is occupied by the Mexican Armed Forces, during the Tlatelolco massacre, at which 350 protestors were murdered by the military.

When a soldier comes to check the bathroom, Auxilio evades discovery by closing the stall door and standing on a toilet. The soldier leaves and she stays, eating toilet paper and drinking water from the sink. For thirteen days, she’s the only civilian who remains on campus, secretly resisting the army’s occupation from her bathroom stall, daydreaming about the poets she mothered, listening to the ghosts of singing children, existing in an artistic culture that, at that moment, doesn’t exist. After the occupation ends, the story of the woman in the bathroom becomes an obscured legend. Auxilio listens to others tell it to her. They say that the woman in the bathroom was a Mexican medical student. They say he was a Maoist with gastrointestinal problems.

For thirteen days, the mother of Mexican poetry did nothing. No one knew she was there when she did it. And when she was finished, no one knew the story was hers.

Chaudhuri again:

“In Hindustani classical music, improvisation is deferral. If a raga is a cluster of progressions and interrelationships, I, as a performer will delay… a straightforward portrayal of these interrelationships for as long as possible… My not coming to the point will be synonymous with the pleasure of improvisation. Those less in sympathy with khayal may cry, ‘Come to the point!’; but those acquainted with alaap see evasion as the principal activity of creation.”

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Franz Kafka, Heraclitus, Du Fu, Charles Baudelaire

Franz Kafka “The Trial” Heraclitus “Fragments” Du Fu “A Life in Poetry” Charles Baudelaire “Paris Spleen”

Heraclitus on Kafka: “The oneness of all wisdom may be found, or not, under the name of God.”

In this fragment, Heraclitus comments on K’s belief that inside the castle, there is an authority that he will answer to, an authority that he can hold to account. K. endlessly strives to make contact with this authority, which proves he must at least want it to exist.

But, according to Heraclitus, there’s a catch: the way the authority reveals itself is through contradiction and paradox, in instructions that can’t be followed and rules that have already been broken. The authority K. experiences makes K. suspect that authority might not exist.

Heraclitus’ point is that, because K’s fate is controlled by belief in the castle’s authority, its existence and non-existence become oneness – it’s there even if it’s not.

Du Fu on Heraclitus: “Drifting, drifting here, what am I really like? A lone sand gull somewhere between earth and sky.”

Here, Du Fu gently critiques Heraclitus’ hypocrisy. Du Fu is interested in the way that Heraclitus thinks in opposites (for example, the existence and non-existence of the castle’s authority) and always finds a way to make those opposites collapse into oneness (for K. and the village, authority’s existence and non-existence are ultimately no different from each other.)

Du Fu uses the opposing images of earth and sky to show that this mode of thought is complementary to ideas he explores in his own poetry.

But Du Fu also pokes fun at Heraclitus, who sees duality becoming oneness in everything (existence and non-existence, mortals and immortals, justice and injustice) except for Heraclitus’ own knowledge and others’ ignorance. Heraclitus is eager to draw an unbreakable line between himself and the drunken Dionysian revelers he disdains.

Du Fu, who used his poetry to erase the difference between himself and the peasants he lived beside, uses the image of the lone sand gull to undermine Heraclitus’ confidence in the oneness of his wisdom. Between the duality of earth and sky, the gull exists. Even if that existence only lasts for the length of a single lifetime, it’s there, neither sky nor water, but something separate, fully itself.

Baudelaire on Du Fu: “And the two children, each to the other, laughed fraternally, with teeth of equal whiteness.”

Baudelaire is suspicious of Du Fu’s egalitarianism in the same way that K. is suspicious of the castle’s authority. Baudelaire is both a believer and a skeptic.

In “A Toy for the Poor,” Baudelaire pays homage to Du Fu’s techniques of collapsing the distance between the rich and poor. He describes a wealthy boy beside “a splendid toy, a figure as neat as its master.” But the young heir ignores his splendid toy. He’s distracted, staring through his garden gate at a “dirty, sickly, soot-covered” urchin who plays with his own toy – a rat. Both of the children, laughing at the rat, reveal “teeth of equal whiteness.”

Their laughter erases their class difference – in this sense, Baudelaire’s tribute to Du Fu is sincere. But what are they laughing at? An abused rat trapped in a cage. A rat the urchin pokes and shakes. Baudelaire’s homage becomes ironic – what unites the boys is the suffering of another.

Like K, trapped between the unity of authority’s existence and non-existence, never allowed into the castle or even accepted into the village, the rat remains outside the boys’ laughter. In order for the castles’ contradictions to become authority, in order for the boys’ class difference to dissolve in laughter, a rejected other must remain outside of both, forced to stay separate, fully itself.

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Leopoldo Lugones, from “El libro de los paisajes”

Verano

Vuelve con la canículas eternas.
El azul de la aurora a ser ventura.
Las noches mecen en su astral hondura.
Un húmedo silencio de cisternas.

Domestica la tarde ovejas tiernas.
El arrullo se intima en la espesura.
La falda clara gentilmente augura
Una pulgada más de lindas piernas…

En próvida sazón de resolana,
El sol hace negrear la uva pagana.
Echa una rosa campesina al cesto

De la pastora, y con amor de artista,
En la barba del viejo pone un gesto


September

Summer survives undead.
Karmic blue skies spin dawn.
Nights stumble stellar depths.
Silent noons burn.

A roadkill pigeon dead.
Traffic stutters, slows down.
Strolling swaying skirts daze;
drivers’ eyes burn.

Burn in her season of bounteous sun.
Burn through the vineyards and blacken the streets.
Pluck her pink rose.

Pulling his rope-
black beard, his deathless boundless smile
blissfully shepherds her spark. Blessed satyr.

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Olga Ravn, P.D. James, Syliva Townsend Warner, Diana Souhami, Leonora Carrington

Olga Ravn “The Employees” PD James “A Certain Justice” Sylvia Townsend Warner “The Corner that Held Them” Diana Souhami “No Modernism without Lesbians” Leonora Carrington “The Hearing Trumpet”

Five novels about communities: The employees of an interstellar startup. The barristers and employees of a British legal chambers. The nuns of a medieval convent. The lesbian artists and patrons who created modernism. The residents of a nursing home.

The darkest of these novels are the most conventional (A Certain Justice) and the most experimental (The Employees). A Certain Justice is a straightforward murder mystery. The Employees is a collection of HR interview excerpts with no identifiable characters or clear conflicts. Both novels are thick with the kind of evil that PD James writes about so well – an evil that only occasionally manifests itself in acts of violence and cruelty, but always lurks in the shadows, slowly poisoning the environment.

James turns the most innocuous characters into unsettling villains. Almost everyone in A Certain Justice is only one or two bad decisions away from becoming a murderer. The evil in The Employees is more communal – it’s the job the employees are doing, the company that hired them, the spaceship that is their workplace and home. Both novels are suspicious of community in a way that feels unhappily commonplace in 2022.

What A Certain Justice and The Corner that Held Them have in common is murder. Both communities, the first of legal professionals, the second of nuns, are full of jealousy, betrayal, and anger. But unlike the murder that defines the scope and drive of James’ novel, the murder at the convent is almost incidental. James, a devout Christian, describes a fallen world. Warner, whose novel tackles Christian themes more explicitly than James’, writes about a world that continually muddles through, where no single act can condemn or redeem an entire community.

One of The Corner that Held Them‘s central symbols is a river that runs past the convent. Every season, its course changes, as floods fill the region’s marshes and transform the landscape. The four biographies in No Modernism without Lesbians have a similar shape. Each of these women found their own unique way through a society that threw endless obstacles in their path, forcing their way through conventions and making a path for the artists who came after them. It’s very inspiring.

In The Hearing Trumpet, a group of old and eccentric women are at the mercy of a megalomaniac nursing home director. Instead of just overthrowing his regime, they overthrow nature itself – everything is broken, from the order of the seasons to the line separating wolves from men and women.

After destroying all human communities, The Hearing Trumpet‘s protagonist sets off to travel across a frozen world.

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Leopoldo Lugones, from “El libro de los paisajes”

El Hermoso Dia

Tan jovial esta el prado
Y el azul tan sereno
Que me he sentido bueno
Con todo lo creado.

El sol, desde su asomo,
Derramo por mi estancia
El oro y la fragrancia
Del polen del aromo.

Sentimental, el asno
Rebuzna su morrina
Y ayer, como una nina,
Florecio ya el durazno.

Radiant Day

The sun’s ascent
spills over bronze
mountains and breathes
juniper scent.

The desert is bright
and the sky so blue
that I am struck blind
untethered from sight.

The coyote den barks
like a girl awakened,
her dreams ripped away,
homesick for sweet dark.


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Brian Evenson, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Joy Williams, Jorge Luis Borges

Brian Evenson “The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell” Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca “Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition” Joy Williams “Breaking & Entering” Jorge Luis Borges “A Course on English Literature”

In Evenson’s stories, it always feels like something is missing, like the characters need to recover what they haven’t realized is gone. His settings are empty landscapes, undescribed except to mention objects that advance or impede narrative progress.

At the dawn of Spanish imperialism in the Americas, Cabeza de Vaca also wrote about desolate places. The difficulty of traveling through landscapes of stagnant lakes and dead trees cut Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition from a force of 300 men to four hungry, cold, and desperate survivors.

Cabeza de Vaca spent nine years trying to make his way from Texas to Mexico City. Throughout his chronicle, one unsettling pattern repeats itself – soon after he and his companions arrive at new communities, those communities are overwhelmed by disease.

By the time the next Europeans reached the regions where he had traveled, many of the nations and languages he described had vanished. His chronicle is the only written record of these peoples’ existence – written by the man probably responsible for spreading the diseases that killed them.

Joy Williams writes about Florida, the place where Cabeza de Vaca’s ships first landed. Breaking and Entering has a mood that sometimes parallels Evenson’s stories – Liberty, the main character, wanders through her days talking to neighbors and watching the ocean, but something is missing. When her suicide attempt is revealed, it becomes clear that what’s missing is Liberty herself.

In his lectures on English literature, Borges said that pre-Beowulf, “sentiment for the natural world… does not appear” in European literature. He also claims that early Germanic literature never mentioned color.

Cabeza de Vaca described cultures that were exterminated because he witnessed them. Joy Williams describes pseudo-ghosts stuck in a living world. Evenson describes landscapes that prefigure a dead planet. Each of them takes away what was once there. If it took European literature hundreds of years to build a language of life, of color, of the natural world, these three books do the opposite – here, Western writers slowly strip life away, until all that remains are ghost people on a ghost world.

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Julio Cortázar, Roberto Calasso, Deirdre Madden, Sam Riviere

Julio Cortázar “All Fires the Fire” Roberto Calasso “The Celestial Hunter” Deirdre Madden “Molly Fox’s Birthday” Sam Riviere “Dead Souls”

Many of Cortázar’s stories share the same form: two separate narratives (separated by time, by species, by distance) slowly become more similar, until they reveal they’ve always been the same narrative, pushing the reader into vertigo. They’re double narratives that hunt each other and both catch their prey.

Calasso also writes about hunters who become what they hunt. He writes that the first carnivorous ancestors of humans were scavengers. They ate what the predators who hunted them left behind – their fellow prey, what would become, if the predator’s next hunt was successful, themselves.

Calasso argues that sacrifice reenacts this primordial guilt. In sacrificial rituals, the killer paints themselves with the blood of what they killed, symbolically becoming the victim.

Madden’s novel describes another kind of symbolic imitation – writing and acting. Her story is about three friends, one a playwright, one an actor, one a critic. The playwright and actor are the closest of the three. In order to write roles for her friend, the playwright imitates how her friend would become them on stage. In order to act those roles, the actor imitates how her friend became them at the writing desk. They not only become these characters, they lose themselves in the person their friend thinks they are.

The critic, on the outskirts of their friendship, is also on the outskirts of this artistic process. Instead of entering into the work, he cordons himself apart from it in order to comment on it. His work is creative but not transformative.

There’s a strange and strong parallel between The Celestial Hunter and Dead Souls. Calasso’s book about hunting and imitation transforms, without much explanation, into a description of a higher realm where there is no difference, only simultaneity so undifferentiated it becomes nothingness. Riviere’s book is about a poet who gets in trouble for imitation and plagiarism, who confesses that, for him, writing poetry is “the replacement of things in the world with their absence.”

In the end, the only way for Riviere’s poet to escape the judgement of his peers is to voluntarily go to them, judge himself for his crimes of imitation, and sentence himself to a fitting punishment. Like Cortázar’s double narratives, Calasso’s sacrifices, and Madden’s friends, he becomes the hunter hunting himself.

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E.T.A. Hoffmann, Mark Fisher, Paul Scheerbart

E.T.A. Hoffman “Tales of Hoffmann” Mark Fisher “The Weird and the Eerie” Paul Scheerbart “Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!”

ETA Hoffmann’s gothic romances are full of implausible events and coincidences, but what makes his tales feel so unreal to a contemporary reader is the characters’ emotions. They’re never suspicious of their feelings – they immediately act in whatever way their heart tells them to.

In contemporary novels, characters mistrust and analyze and interrogate their emotions. Even when they decide to follow their hearts, authors devote dozens of pages to making sure readers understand what consciously or unconsciously motivated that decision.

Mark Fisher writes about the weird and the eerie, qualities that pervade gothic romances but are absent from most modern literature’s dominant genre, psychological realism (and the vast majority of today’s popular sci-fi, horror, and fantasy work adheres to psychological realism’s rules of character construction). He argues that the weird and the eerie occur when an element exists where nothing should exist or an element is missing where something should be.

I think this feels especially strange to contemporary readers who live in a culture dominated by scientific materialism. We instinctively trust measurements of a flower’s weight and height – but distrust the qualia of its color. How do we know you and I see the same blue? If we’re not seeing the same blue, does blue exist at all? The weird and the eerie are the unmeasurable aspects of reality erupting – they frighten us because we’ve been trained to ignore them.

Is that why contemporary writers dedicate so much space to motivating every character action? Nothing is more unmeasurable than emotion. It’s both what contemporary literature is about and what it can’t quite believe is real. Our stories are filled with irony that distances characters from the emotions they feel and readers from the stories they’re reading. Gothic tales are also full of irony, but it’s an entirely different kind – it’s the ironic coincidence, the ironic resonance, that brings themes and characters and readers closer together.

Paul Scheerbart wrote science fiction in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. He made many predictions about the future, few of which were accurate. Other classic sci-fi writers are praised for making correct predictions. But do we gain anything by reading writers who happened to guess write? We already know what they already told us. Instead, we should read the past’s greatest wrong sci-fi authors. Then, we could imagine a present other than the rationalism-bound one we have.

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