Arifa Akbar: An author who is writing his best work from beyond the grave
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Tuesday 28 January 2014
Some great authors have published their worst works from beyond the grave. A few though, keep getting better when they’re dead, such as the Chilean novelist and short story writer, Roberto Bolaño. His seminal five-part novel, 2666, came out posthumously, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and convinced the world he was not just a master of the short form but could put out his life’s best work at nearly 900 pages, even after death.
Since then, more has emerged from his personal cache of unfinished works, and in the English-speaking world, we are getting a drip feed of newly translated works. I read my first Bolaño short story in Granta, the magazine for new writing. I was so struck that I immediately wanted to read more, and only then realised that he was not so much a new writer as a dead one.
But now it really is the end. Bolaño has brought out his last short story collection, The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador, £14.99), the last book he prepared for publication before he died in 2003 at the age of 50. It reads like a complete work, not something that’s been cobbled together by an editor, unlike Nabokov’s last incomplete book or David Foster Wallace’s (the late Maeve Binchy is also bringing out new short stories this year, but which was fully finished before her death).
There is a story of a sewer rat, alongside one about an ageing judge and a wonderfully surprising story of a murderer. All the hallmarks of narrative experimentalism are present. So is his hallmark contempt of the Very Important Novelist in “Alvaro Rousselot’s Journey”. Bolaño has satirised the emotional fragilities and vanities of the novelist before (Pablo Neruda in By Night in Chile and Octavia Paz in The Savage Detectives), but this story seems like the final flick, as it were. The entire story is an extended – and thoroughly enjoyable – pastiche of a novelist’s narcissistic temperament, his abject insecurity and his repeated need for reassurance. And despite its absurdist, exaggerated elements, there is a certain resonance.
The successful contemporary writer is an
extremely laudable, and lauded, person, but can also be a pompous and precious one. A brilliant set-piece in the recent film Le Week-End, whose screenplay is written by Hanif Kureishi (whose latest novel, in turn, also about a writer, is reviewed on page 23), illuminates this perfectly. Jeff Goldblum is the simultaneously charismatic and contemptible renowned writer/academic who has invited all the right people to his dinner party at which his flouncing vanities and insecurities are amusingly, and appallingly, in full view.
Bolaño’s story – about an Argentine writer who goes to Paris to track down a plagiarising film-maker and has tawdry adventures with a Parisian prostitute along the way– does much the same thing. There are superstar novelists whose autographs are a premium; there are cliquey young writers snorting white powder; and there are novelists who are busy writing their magnum opus: “Riquelme told Rousselot that he was writing the great Argentine novel of the 20th century. He had passed the 800-page mark, and hoped to finish it in less than three years.”
How could Bolaño have known that the novel would continue to get bigger and bigger and finally end up resembling a bloated TV box set? And that the Novelist would become ever more precious, shutting himself off in a hotel room or a converted closet, ear-plugs in, blinds down, with a terrifyingly self-important sense of Total Purpose?
His protagonist once won a young writer’s accolade and is still dining out on it, though Bolaño’s sly commentary undercuts his achievement: “It is common knowledge that the rising stars of any literary world are like flowers that bloom and fade in a day; and whether that day is literal and brief or stretches out over ten or twenty years, it must eventually come to an end.” A light-hearted warning against hubris, perhaps, but also against the fickle wind of fashion in the literary world. Accolades are not to be coveted, he says, because we will all be forgotten (except for Shakespeare and Milton, maybe). Zadie Smith puts it more simply in her 10 rules for writing: “Don’t confuse honours with achievement.” Tim Parks’s recent blog in The New York Review of Books comes at it another way: writers rush to be published, and to call themselves published writers so they can separate themselves from the mass of wannabes, so they can be revered by us, the readers. “Why do we have this critical reverence for the published writer? Why does the simple fact of publication suddenly make a person, hitherto almost derided, now a proper object of our admiration, a repository of special and important knowledge about the human condition?”
I wish Bolaño would continue to write stories such as this one. He is clearly in his flow, poking fun not only at others but also at himself. His heavenly distance has given him a clear-eyed, if mischievous perspective on the life of The Writer.
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Tate Britain hosted a very literary protest this week. I wish I had been there to see it: a Shakespearean flashmob, consisting of 30 members of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company, performed an anti-oil version of Macbeth inside the newly opened BP Walk Through British Art, watched by surprised passers-by –and Sir Nicholas Serota. More pop-up Shakespeare, please.
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