Tšiili nokturn

Kirjutasin paar kuud tagasi Ekspressile ühe nupu Loomingu Raamatukogus värskelt ilmunud Bolaño kohta. Tundub, et see siiski lehte ei jõudnud, nii et olgu siis siia üles riputatud.


Roberto Bolaño on ühes oma intervjuus öelnud, et romaan on olemuslikult ebatäiuslik žanr – ning mida pikem see on, seda suurem on ka võimalus neil vormile omastel puudustel ilmsiks tulla. Nii on Loomingu Raamatukogu sarjas värskelt eestikeelsena ilmunud “Tšiili nokturn” oma napilt alla saja leheküljega ideaalseks võimaluseks teha tutvust ühe tähtsaima kaasaegse romaanikirjanikuga, kes juba kümme aastat tagasi meie hulgast lahkus.

“Tšiili nokturn” on surmaga vastamisi seisva vana mehe tagasivaade elatud elule. Isa Urrutia elu on olnud väärikas ja mõistlik, ta on olnud jumalakartlik vaimulik, hinnatud intellektuaal ja luuletaja ning lugupeetud kriitik, teda tunti kui “suurepärast tšiillast”. Tema sõnad on alati olnud kaalutletud ja ta vaikimised laitmatud. Meenutades oma elu liigub isa Urrutia justkui läbi suure maja, avades järjest uksi, mis viivad aina uutesse tubadesse. Ta kulgeb läbi vaimulikeseminari, läbi sõpruse Tšiili kõige tuntuma kirjanduskriitiku Farewelliga, läbi tutvuse Pablo Neruda ja lugematu hulga väiksemate Tšiili kirjanike ja luuletajatega. Ta astub Opus Deisse, tema teele satuvad härrad Mrih ja Ahiv (vihjeks: neid nimesid tasub tagurpidi lugeda), kes lähetavad ta Euroopasse, uurima sealseid kirikute säilitamise meetodeid. Seejärel võidab Allende valimised ja Pinochet korraldab riigipöörde ning sealt edasi viib isa Urrutia eluteekond läbi Santiago sumedate ööde, Maria Canalese juurde äärelinna majja, kus Tšiili literaadid kogunevad ühiselt meeldiva vestluse saatel õhtuid ja öid veetma, ja kuhu vaatamata läbi komandanditunni kestvale melule kunagi politsei ei saabu.

Oma mälestuste lossis toast tuppa liikudes jõuab isa Urrutia lõpuks aga vääramatult trepile, mis viib alla pimedusse. Ja seal, keldri kõige kitsama koridori lõpus olevas viimases ruumis, kus valgust näitab vilets pirn ja kus keset tuba on raudvoodi, lebab kinniseotud silmadega isa Urritia südametunnistus.

Bolaño on lõpuks eesti keeles kohal. Oli ka aeg.

Let’s be reasonable

Guardian reports that Orhan Pamuk, while speaking at Jaipur Literary Festival, has expressed his concern over the fact that very little literature that is not written in English will ever get translated and will therefore remain unavailable for most of the reading public worldwide and thereby “much of human experience is marginalised”. This gripe is, of course, not a particularly novel one and I guess that Pamuk himself counts as a lucky exception, insofar as all his major works, such as Snow, My Name is Red and Museum of Innocence have been originally written in Turkish. This, however, leads to another problem that Pamuk raised in the same occasion — despite of his global renown and status (not only as a writer, but also as a Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia), critics keep on provincialising his work as somehow inherently “Turkish”. As Pamuk himself puts it:

When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can’t love be general? I am always resentful and angry of this attempt to narrow me and my capacity to experience this humanity. You are squeezed and narrowed down, cornered down as a writer whose book is considered only the representation of his national voice and a little bit of anthropological curiosity.

This is of course another long-standing issue that, among others, Edward Said has talked about in his Orientalism — when a Western writer tells a story about love, loss, joy or what have you, it is apparently a universal tale that touches every human soul from inside out. However, when there’s an African, Asian or muslim writer, it becomes an interesting side-glance, a shard of mirror to reflect our own existence upon, necessarily limited in its universality.

Reading this reminded me of one great poem by Martin Espada that I found from Open Letters a while ago:

Revolutionary Spanish Lesson

Whenever my name
is mispronounced,
I want to buy a toy pistol,
put on dark sunglasses,
push my beret to an angle,
comb my beard to a point,
hijack a busload
of Republican tourists
from Wisconsin,
force them to chant
anti-American slogans
in Spanish,
and wait
for the bilingual SWAT team
to helicopter overhead,
begging me
to be reasonable.

Writing words about words

TS Eliot

When it comes to literary criticism or theory, I am almost entirely an autodidact, with all those few pros and many cons that this entails. I have had a good fortune to meet and talk with some extremely smart and distinguished people in those fields, but the closest I have personally come to studying it is a seminar with Mihhail Lotman where we did close reading of Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” — and that’s about all of it.

However, lately I have become a regular, if not too frequent, practitioner of the critical genre — mostly in my capacity of a co-author of the main literary blog in Estonia (in addition to occasionally fooling around here). Most of the stuff that I post to Varrak hardly deserves the title of criticism, as usually it is just an offhand review of a book I’ve happened to read recently or a reference, with a few supporting lines, to an article worthy of attention. However, earlier this week it was my turn to be a moderator of the public reading of Andrei Ivanov’s wonderful novella “Tuhk” — and that entailed posting an introductory piece to open the discussion. This posed me with kind of a difficult choice, as Ivanov is an extremely interesting author on many different levels, and his book — while it may look simple — is a very intricate work (think of, for instance, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Danilo Kiš).

Writing the piece (and the internal discussion we had in its wake with a couple of people) made me to reflect upon literary criticism in more general terms. One question that came up in that follow-up discussion was that of why do people tend not to question the need for analysis and reflection upon issues that are political or economic, while when it comes to discussing literature it is all too easy to have it summarily dismissed as navel-gazing and mindless banter that can have no relevance outside the cuckoo-land of humanities departments of academia. It is not rare to hear gripes over this sort of “technical approach” killing the “simple fun of reading”, and this not only for those who actually do like to read this way (and apparently fail to recognize that there is no fun left), but also for others who would like to retain their own personal private fun, unspoilt by references to death of the author, narrative discourse or political unconscious.

My own response to this was that perhaps it has to do with the different ways how people think of politics and literature. While the first does, by general opinion, properly belong into the public sphere, reading a book or a poem perhaps tends to be seen as a private experience — something that can indeed be talked about but that ultimately cannot be shared or related with similarly private experiences of other people. I am, in fact, rather sympathetic towards this kind of defense of readerly autonomy and private sphere that Richard Rorty has been arguing in favour of in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. However, there is a price to pay for this kind of autonomy that is eloquently pointed at by Pankaj Mishra in his contribution to New York Times’ recent panel on “Why Criticism Matters:”

Both Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner from China, who is a literary critic by profession, and Mario Vargas Llosa, the literature laureate from Peru, testify to the impossibility of considering aesthetic matters in isolation from social and political movements. They confirm that a writer’s individual self-awareness is always historically determined, and that one cannot assess a writer’s work without examining her particular quarrel with the world, the rage or discontent that took her to writing in the first place.

Or without situating herself as a reading into this historically determined social and political frame, I would add. Trying to separate aesthetic beauty from the nitty-gritty of our mundane political and social existence courts the danger of denying it the very dimension that makes it matter to us. Or, as says Elif Batuman in her piece in the same series:

Beauty is surely the defining property of literature — but what can criticism do with it? Doesn’t it invariably leave beauty to one side like a pile of indigestible fibers? To approach the question from a different angle: If literature is a vehicle for some other content, why doesn’t it express that content more efficiently? Why the surplus value of beauty? Is beauty just “a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down”? If that’s what you have to believe to be a critic, then who wants any part of it? Freud shows that beauty isn’t a surplus value at all. It isn’t superimposed onto content like icing on a cake. Rather, aesthetic features almost always indicate a hidden level of meaning, a richness of signification, which is itself the very thing that we perceived as beauty to begin with. “A beautiful dream and no indiscretion — do not coincide,” Freud wrote, and the same may be said of beauty and meaning. In other words, the precise features that make “Anna Karenina” a work of art, and not some kind of a treatise, may be signs that interpretation is not just possible, but necessary.

My own personal paragons of the literary criticism genre are decidedly old school — T. S. Eliot, George Steiner, Isiah Berlin, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin, Northrop Frye, and so on. It is a curious thing to notice that all of them have not only written exceptional critical interpretations of literary works, but also highly influential critical reflections of what does it mean to be a critic. They have wrestled with their own position towards literature in general as much as with those particular authors and texts that they have been analyzing and interpreting. They are also, despite their extremely high level of technical skill, extraordinarily lucid, and when reading their work it is not the technical mastery that dazzles, rather than the breadth of their grasp and depth of their insights. And this, to me, fundamentally becomes a question of being able to see and establish relationships, to work the text outwards the same way as one can analyze it internally. Or, to conclude with a quote from Sam Anderson:

Isn’t “Ulysses” a boundless, self-devouring review of the “Odyssey,”  “Hamlet,”  “Madame Bovary” and even Carlyle himself? And isn’t “Molloy” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses”? Isn’t “Infinite Jest” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses” and “Molloy” and “JR” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “White Noise”? The membrane between criticism and art has always been permeable. That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books.

The critic’s job is to help amplify that conversation. We make the whispered parts of it audible; we translate the coded parts into everyday language. But critics also participate actively in that conversation. We put authors who might never have spoken in touch with each other, thereby redefining both. We add our own idiosyncratic life experiences and opinions and modes of expression — and in doing so, fundamentally change the texts themselves.

Short and sweet

By Austin Kleon: http://www.austinkleon.com/2006/05/17/concentrate/

Recently I have been reading lots of short fiction — books like The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, David Foster Wallace’s collection Oblivion, the latest issue of Granta (titled The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists), Andrei Ivanov’s two wonderful short stories by Estonian Loomingu Raamatukogu, I.B. Singer’s The Spinoza of Market Street, pieces from Dalkey Archive’s The Best European Fiction 2010 and so on. Indeed, to think of it, many of my favourite writers are very well versed in the short form: Babel, Borges, Kawabata, Kiš, Cortázar, Dahl, Nabokov, Pessoa, Rushdie are all recognized masters of short story, so I am probably rather inclined to like this particular genre.

Not everything that I’ve come across has been uniformly strong, but this is one of the beauties of short fiction that it is much less of a commitment in terms of time and effort and therefore if something doesn’t quite live up to my expectations it is relatively easy to brush aside the disappointment and simply take the next story, while if a book lets me down after I’ve slugged through four or five hundred pages, I tend to get rather seriously pissed. At the same time, if a story is really good, it can be pure bliss in a very concentrated way — and the form plays no small part in this particular effect.

For me, the essence of this is beautifully captured in a post by Marisa Silver (a writer of short stories herself) at the Elegant Variation, worth quoting at length:

To me, the short story differs from the novel in the way that, say, a watercolor differs from an oil, or a concerto differs from a symphony. Each form is telling a story, but the medium chosen by the artist informs  (thank you, Mcluhan) the message. Obviously, an author doesn’t choose to write a short story instead of a novel because it’s shorter. She writes it because the shorter form suggests something different about the objectives of the narrative than does the longer form.  For me, the short story generally conveys an existential situation, rather than a fully-fledged narrative plot. Of course things happen within the pages of a compelling short story, sometimes startling things, reversals of character, of fortune. But for me, the plot serves to explore a state of being. When I read a great short story, I don’t imagine that by the story’s end I will have been delivered to some wholly new place in a character’s life. Instead, I revel in the experience that the story’s author has delivered what a story can deliver: she has stopped time and expanded a moment so that I am able to witness the myriad elements that make up any brief experience of human interaction. With the best short story, you come to the end but your mind races forward, propelled by all the story has expertly suggested but not overtly stated. It’s magic.

Although not every short story will neatly fit this mold of “expanding the moment” and there are indeed also stories that do take their reader to a different place in characters life, in general I am very much in agreement with above. It absolutely nails the experience that I have had with some of the best experiences of my recent reading — stories such as DF Wallace’s Incarnations of Burned Children, Bruno Schulz’s Mr. Charles or Georgi Gospodinov’s Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots are all just a couple of pages each, but have lingered with me for weeks after I read them.

Oh, the picture above is by Austin Kleon of the Newspaper Blackout Poems fame.. for some reason, WordPress wouldn’t let me link the image to his site – but go and check him out.


November is a National Novel Writing Month – a supposedly fun collective undertaking that has a stated aim for its participants to pound away at their keyboards for 30 days, in order to produce a 50,000 word novel. The organizers of the whole thing go out of their way to stress that it is quantity that counts, urging the participants “to write without having to obsess over quality”. I have no intention to prescribe other people the kind of fun they are supposed to have (or not, as the case may be) — if writing a novel in a month is what floats your boat, then sure, go for it.

However, I can’t help but wonder where is this whole notion of “writing a novel for fun” coming from. It would seem to me that for most great novelists, writing was not something done for fun, rather than out of necessity. Kafka or Beckett didn’t write because it was so much fun – if anything, the opposite must have been the case. David Foster Wallace, a prolific producer of huge quantities of text, was obsessed over anything he wrote, constantly second-guessing its worth.

There is a passage in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera that addresses the same topic:

The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within them, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: “We are all writers!”

For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words.

One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.

Given that NaNoWriMo started 10 years ago with just 9 novels written in 30 days and has grown to 32,178 finished novels last year, this morning may be drawing close.

Benjaminian easter egg

The ‘Angel of history’ must be one of the most widely recognized phrases among the great many famous things that Walter Benjamin has said or written. It often rings a familiar bell even for those who do not know its origin or perhaps haven’t even heard much of Benjamin himself. It is found in a short paragraph in Theses on the Philosophy of History that Benjamin wrote in contemplation of a 1920 watercolor painting

by Paul Klee (bought by Benjamin upon its completion), and it reads like this:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.(1)

Benjamin’s description is a powerful and poetic image that, among other things, turned Klee’s painting into an icon of its own. I have known and indeed used the phrase for a long time myself, but it was only today that I stumbled upon something that made me appreciate it even more. I was reading a book on Dante (Dante and the origins of Italian literary culture by Teodolinda Barolini, should you be interested) and suddenly came across the following small epiphany:

Dante’s view of the human experience as a linear path affording encounters with the new, a line of becoming intercepted by newness, may be extrapolated from a passage in the Paradiso that denies the faculty of memory to angels. Because angels never turn their faces from the face of God and see all things in his eternal present, their sight is uninterrupted by new things, and they have no need of memory (which we use to store the new things once they are no longer new):

Queste sustanze, poi che fur gioconde
de la faccia di Dio, non volser viso
da essa, da cui nulla si nasconde:

pero` non hanno vedere interciso
da novo obietto, e pero` non bisogna
rememorar per concetto diviso.

(Par. 29.76–81)

Thus the “angel of history” is a fabulous allusion to Dante’s Commedia that is one of the formational texts of the European modernity, of this very same “storm that we call progress” that is blowing from Paradise. Benjamin is clearly taking an issue here with Hegelian teleological view of history — not by rejecting it outright, rather than simply distancing himself from the optimism over this progress. To be able to create such a powerful melancholic and poetic impact along with a striking point about the relationship between history and memory and their relation to the past is another testimony to Benjamin’s complete mastery of both the form and substance.

(1)For the benefit of my Estonian readers, a translation of this paragraph can be found on page 173 in the recent collection of Benjamin’s essays by LR 2010/26-29.
(2)These substances, since they were gladdened by the face of God, have never turned their faces from it, from which nothing is hidden; therefore their sight is not intercepted by new objects, and therefore they have no need to remember by means of divided thought.

The difficult art of writing well

Not long ago I got involved in yet another online debate on the relative merits of simple and difficult when it comes to literature. Those who are at all familiar with my general views on the subject will not be surprised to find out that, while I do not equate difficult with good and simple with bad writing, I believe that there are things to be said in favour of being selective in one’s literary choices. I also took an issue, in particular, with a view that reading anything is better than not reading at all — but this is a whole another can of worms that I won’t get into here and now.

There is a delightful if somewhat lengthy article in recent Open Letters dealing with the same topic that takes off from Jonathan Franzen’s distinction of Status and Contract models of literature — and eventually veers off into a Süskindian rundown of some difficult-to-appreciate perfumes.

Franzen, who has recently been all the rage due to his becoming the first living writer to appear on the cover of a major mainstream magazine in the last 40 years and, perhaps even more pertinently, the inclusion of his latest novel in Oprah’s book club, is himself very much in the Contract model camp, which according to Franzen, “represents a contract between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience” and thereby purporting that “a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Franzen tells us, is the Status model, whereby “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” For the adherents of the contract model, this is tantamount to betraying the reader’s trust and smacks of snobbery, contempt and hollow self-indulgence.

This all boils down to an age-old argument on the function of art in general, and literature in particular — is it to please or to challenge us? I would, of course, argue that those two need not be opposed and mutually exclusive. There is a lot of pleasure to be derived from overcoming a challenge, as anyone who has ran a marathon or climbed a mountain can readily attest. In popular attitudes towards literature, however, the complex and difficult is all too often summarily dismissed as meaningless navel-gazing, l’art pour l’art that serves no other purpose than to let a small number of smug and arrogant people lord over the proverbial simple folk.

While I firmly believe that a certain resistance to reader is a necessary component of “good literature”, it is important to note that the level of this resistance is not absolute, nor is it fixed for any particular reader. Reading is not something one learns by memorizing the alphabet, it is a skill that can never be “acquired” or “perfected”, as there is always room for improvement, no matter how much one has read. In a way, this is in fact not primarily a matter of what rather than how one reads, although it is certainly true that some books offer less opportunities for challenging oneself as a reader than the others. The very best of literature provides us with a multitude of such challenges, it resists us in a number of different ways and at several different levels, we won’t outgrow it the way we do in case of Pippi Longstockings (which, of course, is not to say that Pippi is a bad books in itself).

Neither am I trying to say that the extent to which a book makes us toil and struggle is in itself a measure of its literary worth. There is a lot of stuff written that is pretentious, difficult to read and obscure to the point of incomprehension. In a way, I do subscribe to the view that a book is “a contract” between its writer and reader — what I don’t agree with is that the terms of that contract should be set by reader alone. And perhaps it is here where I would draw the line, separating good writing from the bad — if a certain book offers no resistance and places no demands to its reader, in order to be “approachable” by everyone with a minimum effort, it is not a good literature.

Then there are imposters — books that offer faux challenges, that to my mind are the worst of them all. They present an obstacle and then subsequently bulldoze a reader through it (like Dan Brown does it) or go on to completely trivialize the challenge (as in Paolo Coelho). This, in my opinion, is the most serious violation of an implied contract between writer and reader and here I would side with Salman Rushdie who was recently quoted saying that although he is generally very much against burning of books (certainly having some personal experience in this matter), he would burn the stuff that Dan Brown has written. This is also the reason why I am very much skeptical of an apparently rather widespread view that reading sloppy or outright badly written books could somehow eventually lead people to appreciate good literature. If good literature has, as I believe it does, something to do with being taken to a task, then how can one learn to like it by being constantly kept away from any challenges? How can one learn to struggle with a text if he is denied any effort when reading? In other words, I fail to see how does basking oneself in the warm and comforting glow of Coelho’s Alchemist prepare one for the bleakness and struggle of reading Beckett’s Murphy? It would seem to me that the only two experiences that are shared between reading those two books are keeping your eyes open and turning pages.

Speaking of bad books, I am currently reading — or rather, forcing myself through — Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love which is every bit as inane, predictable and generally bad as I expected it to be. I am reading it, however, for a rather specific reason — in order to eventually produce a piece on a particular kind of travel narrative in the Western literature — and when read like this, I must say that it provides some pretty interesting challenges. Those challenges, however, are unfortunately external to the text and therefore will not redeem the book itself.