Today I made the trek to the Marcus South Shore multiplex to see Rusalka, the Met Live in HD simulcast of the performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. $24 for a four-hour experience, including two ample intermissions. It was, for me, a powerful experience. This is only the second Met Live in HD production I've seen, and, not coincidentally, the second time I've understood the fuss about opera. Renee Fleming's voice was luscious and buttery, all the other singers were very good, and the production, though old-fashioned, made consistent dramatic sense--though I must admit the wood nymphs put me to sleep whenever they appeared. Maybe their musical theme has a powerful effect on the sleep centers of my brain, or maybe the lack of dramatic momentum during their frolics just gave me an opportunity to doze. 

The message of Dvořák's opera appears to be: 

1. If you are a magical immortal creature, especially a water-based one, avoid those treacherous humans, with all their incomprehensible socially-motivated passions. No good will come of miscegenation with one of them. You'll find yourself in cut-for-music-video version of Les Liaisons dangereuses, with no opportunity to learn their evil human games.

2. However, if you do fall in love with a human, dooming both of you forever, it is possible that beauty will come of it--ravishing, heart-rending beauty--but only if your love is pure and strong.
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1. AMNESIA

I'm not quite sure if I've actually read all of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp. Normally this fact would disqualify me from discussing the book, but in this case, as the U.S. Supreme court might say of certain kinds of pornography, it's intrinsic to the experience. The book consists of 56 numbered and named sketches, most of them less than a page long. I started reading at the beginning, but soon found that I was suffering from a kind of amnesia—that is, while I was reading each sketch, I found it quite absorbing—each word, each sentence seemed meaningful, indeed full of an intense energy or focus or concentration that carried me along, but when I reached the bottom of the page, or more typically, when I reached the substantial white space at the bottom of each page (the sketches are really short), I would realize I had no memory of what I had just read. After a few pages of this, I started skipping around. I would bounce from sketch to sketch randomly, and then, perhaps, read a few sketches in reverse numerical order. I recall that starting at 33. THE REDHEAD and then proceeding, in descending order, to 24. FOOTSTEPS ON THE STAIRS resulted in a more-or-less coherent narrative. I'm not sure whether the story was moving forward or backward in that reversed sequence—but it held my attention even as it disoriented—sort of like that dolly zoom in Hitchcock's Vertigo—a sense of movement, even as things seem to stand still. After several hours of reading this way, I know I've spent enough time reading to have read the whole book, but I can't be sure whether I've read all the sketches or not. It's entirely possible, for example, that I've read 7. THE NILE four times and 6. REASONABLE PEOPLE VS. UNREASONABLE PEOPLE not at all.

2. THE ELEMENTS

The scenario of the cop and the witness. A certain taste in porn. As if seen. As if remembered. The fevered glimpses. Through a peephole. There's a writer, working at a nothing job, a security guard a campground near Barcelona, writing this story. It's happening to him, this story, one way or another. The writer refuses to indulge in cheap narrative completions. There's a red-haired girl in the drug trade whose job, apparently, is to have sex with a narcotics cop. A body found in a park of some sort. Maybe it's the campground where the writer works, maybe the writer found the body in his official capacity as night guard, maybe he spent the next day re-imagining the discovery of the body as a lurid hard-boiled crime novel. Or as a hard-core porn flick. Watching the cops. Watching the body. The cop has sex with a witness. It feels like a specific genre of hard-core porn: cops having sex with witnesses at a murder scene. If the genre didn't exist, Bolaño would need to invent it, or the writer in Antwerp would need to invent it. There's some story about pigs and death in Antwerp. The cheap crime novels and hard-core porn flicks inform the real world, where real bodies and real cops and real drugs meet. Or real bodies and real cops and real drugs inform the experience of a hard-core pornography, which the insomniac writer watches. The writer tries to put it all in words, but he refuses to make it a conventional story. An English writer struggles to control his tenses. Bolaño tells Arnold Bennett to fuck off. Did I really read that? I can't find the passage again... Maybe you can find the line about Arnold Bennett only if you read the sketches in a certain order...

3. SOME QUESTIONS FOR THE BOOK CLUB

  • Is Antwerp a failed experiment?
  • If it's an experiment, what hypothesis is being tested?
  • Does it succeed as immersive narrative? Is it a good beach read? (Hint: No.)
  • Would success as immersive narrative constitute a failure of the experiment?
  • Does it transgress, explore, discover, test boundaries, push things too far? Hint: Yes.)
  • Is it diminished or expanded by its own self-referentiality?
  • Did Bolaño violate an important rule by including himself in the narrative?
  • Is the rule really important?
  • Is Antwerp an attempt to grow a crime novel from the compost of a poetic imagination?
  • What do the body, the cop's huge cock, the vibrator plugged into the wall for power, the fingered asshole, the watching eyes, the pigs in Antwerp and the author's refusal to compromise have in common?
  • Who the heck chose this book for our club?

Reading Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Marcenda leaned back on the sofa, slowly stroking her left hand, her back to the window, her face scarcely visible. Normally Salvador would appear now to turn on the chandelier, the pride and joy of Hotel Baraganca, but on this occasion he does not, as if to show his displeasure at being excluded from a conversation which he, after all, made possible. This is how they repay him, sitting there rapt in conversation, whispering almost in darkness. No sooner did he think this than the chandelier went on, Ricardo Reis had taken the initiative, because anyone walking into the lounge would have been suspicious to find a man and a woman together in the shadows, even if the man was the doctor and the woman a cripple.

Emerging from the page, he says to himself: yes, that’s it, I will devote myself to the pursuit of pure beauty, beauty in its pure form, no, that’s not the right word, beauty doesn’t do justice to what Saramago achieves, for one thing there is a simplicity, an ordinariness to his language, what elevation it has come from something other than the urge to write beautiful prose...

...maybe that’s the problem, a definition of beauty derived from poetry, for there is certainly an imaginative intoxication in Saramago’s description of the conversation between Ricardo Reis and the girl with the paralyzed hand at dusk in parlor of the hotel, but the beauty that Saramago achieves is an inherently fictional beauty, an inherently narrative beauty, an inherently dramatic beauty...

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Over the last week or so, I've re-read the opening section of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives—the diary of one Juan García Madero, the seventeen-year-old law student, who joins the visceral realists, stops attending classes, loses his virginity (several times in close succession, with several different women), and squeezes several years worth of reading, writing, fucking, and wandering around Mexico City into the two months between November 2, 1975, and the first few minutes of New Year's Day, 1976. Some observations:

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Read in English

Also published in El Beisman (English version)

“El Quijote”, aclara Menard, “me interesa profundamente, pero no me parece ¿cómo lo diré? inevitable….  El Quijote es un libro contingente, el Quijote es innecesario. Puedo premeditar su escritura, puedo escribirlo, sin incurrir en una tautología.… Mi recuerdo general del Quijote, simplificado por el olvido y la indiferencia, puede muy bien equivaler a la imprecisa imagen anterior de un libro no escrito. "

Borges, "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote"

Yo también, más o menos. Mi recuerdo general del Quijote es el de un estadounidense, quien ha visto "El Hombre de la Mancha" cuando joven y muchos años después ha escuchado un libro en audio en inglés del libro completo, sin abreviar, incluso la aprobación del Rey y el diálogo en forma de soneto entre dos caballos: Rocinante y el corcel del Cid, Babieca. El paquete grande de cassettes de la biblioteca pública quedó en mi Hyundai por seis semanas, y en cada viaje yo escuchaba por pocos minutos más. No importaba que tan duro era el viaje, me reía en voz alta por lo menos una vez, allí solo en mi carro. Fue sin duda el libro más divertido que he escuchado en mi vida. Y también a lo largo de los años, he leído muchas referencias al Quijote en los escritos de muchos escritores que admiro, de los que no es el menor el mismo Borges. Entonces para mí, la imagen del Quijote es de una obra vasta de la imaginación que aun vislumbrada por los espejos de traducción y narración tiene la capacidad de sorprender, divertir y subvertir.

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