Monthly Archives: September 2012

Roberto Bolaño has certainly become the darling of literary critics and reviewers over the past few years, so it interests me that he remains largely unread and unknown among most of the people I meet, even those who would call themselves readers.  Though I recommend Bolaño often in conversation, his name is generally still unfamiliar to most people, and those who do recognize it usually respond with a kind of wariness and a remark about how “difficult” Bolaño is to read.

I had a conversation like this in a used bookstore this past spring.  I was buying a hardcover copy of Bolaño’s 2666 to replace my worn paperback, and I asked the owner whether he had read it.  He looked embarrassed and confessed that, yes, he had started it, but that he hadn’t been able to get very far, because it was “such a difficult read.”  I responded as I usually do, by recommending that he begin with one of Bolaño’s more accessible novels, By Night in Chile perhaps, or The Skating Rink, and then go on to The Savage Detectives before giving 2666 another try.

The more of these conversations that I have, however, the more I wonder if I should introduce people to Bolaño differently, not by pointing them toward his more readable books, but by recommending that they begin with his most difficult novel, the strange and surreal Antwerp.  This approach is admittedly counter-intuitive, because Antwerp is a troublesome book even to describe never mind recommend to someone.  It is a collection of fifty-six highly poetic scenes that are connected only by a narrative loose enough to remain unnoticed until the reader is well into the book.  It combines richly poetic passages with slang, sparse dialogue, ambiguous action, apparent non sequitur, and even a hand drawn picture, all of which makes the meaning of each scene is often unclear.  It is even more unclear in most instances how the scenes are meant to integrate into the larger story, which circulates vaguely around the investigation of a murder.

All of this can make Antwerp a quite intimidating book despite its small size.  It requires its readers to be patient.  It makes them pause, reread phrases or sentences or whole pages, flip back to earlier sections for clarification, sift through the words for clues to its meaning, just like the detectives that Bolaño wrote about so often.  Antwerp asks of its readers that they go slowly, reading its prose like poetry, immersing themselves in the sound and the sense of its words, feeling their way almost by touch and smell and taste in order to experience the novel rather than just to read it.  In this sense, it pushes the genre of the detective story to its limits, making the book itself a mystery that the reader must take the time to investigate.

The reader who is willing to take this time finds that Antwerp‘s central mystery is not the obvious one of who committed the murder, or even the more immediate one of what the novel actually means at any given point.  Instead, its concern is with the far vaster mystery of how literature investigates the stuff of life at all.  Antwerp‘s difficult prose, read slowly and attentively, shows the struggle that words have to describe human experience — the failed life, the violent death, the banal existence, the unsettling dream, the faulty perception, and everything else —  all related only by strands of meaning that we do not always understand.  It is a novel that makes its readers hunt for clues, not to identify the killer, not even to comprehend the story, but to discover how tenuous and presumptuous a thing it is to make meaning through art.

This is why I think new readers of Bolaño should be fairly warned and then made to begin with Antwerp, because it shows how Bolaño’s later novels need to be read.  Even if these later novels are less difficult in some ways, they have the same themes and the same concerns, the same need for a slow and careful reading.  Antwerp is, in this sense, a kind of manifesto.  It shows us the kinds of mysteries that Bolaño’s writing presents and the kinds of clues that his readers should be seeking.  It prepares us to be patient with the ramblings of a priest on his deathbed in By Night in Chile and with the art of a fascist skywriter in Distant Star and with the litany of a police blotter in 2666.  It forces us to understand that these stories all represent art as a kind of criminal investigation into the lives we live, and that this investigation is worth a little of our patience.

One of my curious obsessions is with the colours that sunlight makes when coming through a forest canopy. This poem is only another example of many on this subject, and I doubt it will be the last.


The sunlight, viscous as pine pitch, enfolds
The wold’s vain, struggling, insect limbs, and holds
Them fast, though frantic still, as sap-light sets
To amber hardness, and transluscence lets
This moment keep its frenzied, golden poise,
Though time all other things destroys.

A few months ago, when I announced the publication of Island Pieces, I mentioned a new venture that I was beginning with some friends, a co-operative, community oriented publisher called Vocamus Press.  Though we are not quite as far along as we had hoped, which means that our official launch might not be for a month or two yet, we do now have a website, at, where you can learn a bit about us, see which titles are forthcoming, and follow the Vocamus Press Blog to hear about upcoming events.

I will be adding content over the next few weeks, and I will also be making whatever changes need to be made, so please feel free to have a look and pass on any suggestions or comments that you might have.

I have already written more than once on the distressing tendency I find for writers to be more interested in playing the role of author than in actually writing anything, but the very interesting and polymath man who was refinishing our floors the other day, and who stopped to have an extended conversation with me on this and other subjects, summed up this problem in a phrase so succinct that I thought I should post it.

“Most writers,” he said, “are less interested in the art of writing than in the art of getting published,” and this reflects my experience exactly. I make no claim to having mastered the art of writing, not even to having made any great progress in that direction, but I can say without reservation that I am deeply passionate about the art of writing, that I am always striving to write better, and that I desire very strongly a community of writers who feel similarly.  This is why I am endlessly frustrated to find that so many writers are motivated, not by the art of writing at all, but by the art of being published.

We have several nesting pairs of cardinals around our place, and it is one of my regular joys to see a streak of red in the green of our yard.


The cardinal sits in the walnut tree,
His colour dimmed by the twilight, still red,
But smudged against the green-tinged shadow,
Almost total, that makes the walnut tree
A mystery, lets the cardinal be
Its flitting, flickering, unfathomed soul.

Marlon chose to go to school this year rather than to learn at home, so this morning was the first time that I have ever gone through the first day of school routine.  He was very excited, coming into our bed at 6:30, rolling around endlessly, asking the time at thirty second intervals.  All this I expected, because he has always been interested by the idea of school, and he has always been so social, and because he likes anything that makes him feel bigger and older and more gtrown up.

When we arrived at the school, however, Ethan surprised me by asking if he too could go to school this year, which was much less expected, since he has always boasted to his friends about how little time he has to spend doing school compared to them, and since he generally avoids situations with large numbers of people.  He seemed sincerely interested though, so we got the paperwork, and his first day of school will be tomorrow.

I must confess that all this is a little difficult for me, not because my kids will be gone for a large part of every day, which actually inspires in me some hopes of getting some things done around the house, but because I have so much idealogically invested in the idea of home learning.  We had always told them that they could go to public school if they chose, because I never wanted them to feel as though we had robbed them of that experience, and we had always suspected that Marlon would choose school, at least for a time, but to have both my school-aged children make this choice on consecutive days has produced some complicated emotions in me, as I come to grips with the fact that my children have chosen to learn in a way that I seriously distrust.

We will continue to learn at home of course, just by living the way we do, by pulling the kids out of school for special trips and occasions, and by encouraging them to pursue their interests, but I am still mourning the ideal of learning that I have been nurturing for something like a decade.  I know that my kids may return to homeschooling at some point, and I also know that they will be fine if they choose to remain in the public school system.  Still, it is hard to let them go.

I just came back from camp, where three hawks (probably turkey vultures actually) would come to visit most mornings, hanging almost motionless over the field despite the breeze that was quite stiff below and must have been even stronger above. I thought they deserved a poem.

Three Hawks Hang in a Steadfast Sky

Three hawks hang in a steadfast sky
To make the vastness still,
And pin their pinnions there on high,
The wind blow as it will.

Three hawks hang in the aching blue
To dip their feathered quill,
And lay the line of heaven true,
The wind blow as it will.