Bolaño’s Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary: A Review of Nazi Literature in the Americas

Although I haven’t yet seen a copy of the latest (Fall 2008) issue of The Chattahoochee Review, I’m told by a reliable reader that my review of Nazi Literature in the Americas indeed appears there. I’m pleased to share the review with all of you as well.

Bolaño’s Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary

Nazi Literature in the Americas. Roberto Bolaño. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, 2008. 280 pp. $23.95

Review by Erika Dreifus

One of the first assignments I received as a freelance writer back in 1994 was a series of profiles intended for publication in a reference text titled Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Not once in the course of researching, writing, and, later, proofreading entries — including a considerable number of entries focusing on writers — did I encounter the name “Roberto Bolaño.” Published by a highly reputable reference text company, the dictionary failed to account for this particular author, moving swiftly from Adolfo Bioy Casares (whose profile I was in fact assigned to write) to Jorge Luis Borges.

Today, five years after Bolaño’s death at the age of 50, it would be unthinkable to omit his name from any serious discussion of Spanish-language, or, for that matter, world literature. For those who cannot read Spanish (myself among them, I must confess), the Chilean-born Bolaño’s work is becoming increasingly available in English translation. I’ve lost count of the reviews that focused on The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2007); at this writing, the blogosphere is already filling with anticipatory posts from readers awaiting 2666, also translated by Wimmer and scheduled for a fall 2008 FSG release.

Sandwiched and, I fear, somewhat lost between these two blockbuster titles is Nazi Literature in the Americas, the fifth translation, to date, of Bolaño’s oeuvre from New Directions (Australian Chris Andrews, who translated this book, also brought us the first four). It’s a work of fiction that doesn’t quite read like one. Rather, it’s constructed like a work of history: a reference work. Which is not to say that those who love fiction — not to mention those who write it — won’t be drawn in.

Nazi Literature in the Americas is an imaginative and, despite its apparent straightforwardness and simplicity, an intricate creation. Let’s begin with the characters at the heart of the profiles. The book’s title notwithstanding, these fictional men and women don’t all belong to the era of the Third Reich (although it’s true that “Luz Mendiluce,” we read, throughout her life “treasured the famous photo of herself in Hitler’s arms”); some, in fact, belong to the future, with death dates cited as far into the future as 2029. The narrator/biographer also alludes repeatedly to a “Fourth Reich” with which he associates several of his biographical subjects.

Thirty central characters emerge here, with half of them hailing from either Argentina or the United States. They write prose and poetry; they travel. Their lives are chronicled, for the most part, in just a few profile-format pages, and they are grouped into categories ranging from “Poètes Maudits” and “Wandering Women of Letters” to “Speculative and Science Fiction” and “Magicians, Mercernaries and Miserable Creatures.” After the 30 profiles, Bolaño appends a list of “secondary figures,” collecting the names of still more invented figures, individuals whom the reader may or may not remember from their appearances in the chronicles of the lives of others. For example, “Luz Mendiluce” receives a full profile; “Susy D’Amato”’s name appears within it, and D’Amato therefore merits a brief identification at the end: “Susy D’Amato. Buenos Aires, 1935-Paris, 2001. Argentinean poet and friend of Luz Mendiluce. She ended her days selling Latin American handicrafts in the French capital.” The inventions continue with a list of all the fictional publishing houses, magazines, and assorted places that have similarly emerged throughout this “history,” plus a bibliography of works by Luz Mendiluce and the 29 other primary “Nazi” writers in the Americas.

Sound complicated? Bolaño mixes it up even further by having his fictional writers interact not only among themselves, but also with “real” writers. For instance, “Juan Mendiluce Thompson” (born in Buenos Aires in 1920, we are told, and died in that city in 1991)

became known as the Argentinean Cato. He fought with his sister, Luz Mendiluce, over control of the family magazine. Having won the fight, he tried to lead a crusade against the lack of feeling in the contemporary novel. To coincide with the publication of his third novel, Springtime in Madrid, he launched a campaign against francophilia, the cult of violence, atheism, and foreign ideas. American Letters and Modern Argentina served as platforms, along with the various Buenos Aires dailies, which were keen to publish, although sometimes flabbergasted by, his denunciations of Cortázar, whom he described as unreal and bloodthirsty, and Borges, whose stories, so he claimed, were “parodies of parodies” and whose lifeless characters were derived from worn-out traditions of English and French literature, clearly in decline, “repeating the same old plots ad nauseam.” His attacks took in Bioy Casares, Mujica Lainez, Ernesto Sabato (who, in his eyes, personified the cult of violence and gratuitious aggression), Leopoldo Marechal, and others.

Elsewhere, we learn about American Jim O’Bannon, a “poet and football player” who “remained firm in his disdain for Jews and homosexuals to the end, although at the time of this death he was beginning, gradually, to accept African Americans,” and his rather complicated connection to Allen Ginsberg. Well-read readers can’t help being lured in.

A conventional novel or collection of short fiction, Nazi Literature in the Americas is not. But it’s undeniably an extremely intriguing exercise in literary imagination. And for some readers, who may also delight in reading about literary life in all its potentially inglorious, which is to say human, aspects, it may well offer a most enjoyable read.

This review was published in the Fall 2008 issue of The Chattachoochee Review.

From My Bookshelf: How to Write Like Chekhov


How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight from His Own Letters and Work, edited and introduced by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek and translated from the Russian and Italian by Lena Lencek. Da Capo Press, 256 pages. Paperback, $14.95

Review by Erika Dreifus

Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov is remembered today as a masterful playwright and short story writer. His work is widely anthologized, and he has inspired countless literary descendants. Fortunately for us, Chekhov, who lived only 44 years, also left a legacy of correspondence in which he offered advice that applies not only to the writers and editors of his own time, but also to those living in ours.

In this book, Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek have done something others have tried before them: mined Chekhov’s correspondence for advice on the craft of writing. What’s new and particularly noteworthy in this volume is a focus on lessons to be learned from a close reading of The Island of Sakhalin, a work of nonfiction reportage that emerged from the doctor-writer’s travels to a Russian penal colony.

How to Write Like Chekhov comprises two parts. Part one (“Theory”) includes Chekhov’s explicit advice on writing as directed to his correspondents, including other writers seeking his take on their work. In a Jan. 3, 1899, letter to Maxim Gorky, for example, Chekhov advocated simplicity in descriptions of nature:

Your nature descriptions are artistic; you are a true landscape painter. However, your frequent comparisons to humans (anthropomorphism)–the sea breathes, the sky looks on, the steppe basks in the sun, nature whispers, speaks, weeps, and so on–these kinds of personifications make your descriptions somewhat monotonous, a touch saccharine, vague; in descriptions of nature, vibrancy and expressivity are best produced by simple techniques, for example: using simple phrases such as “the sun set,” “it got dark,” “it started to rain,” and so on.

Again, others have cited such Chekhovian words of wisdom before (and it may be worth considering that parts one and two were published separately in the original Italian version edited by Brunello).

Part two (“Demonstration”) is where this book offers its most significant contribution. Subdivided into three subsections–“The Project,” “The Report,” and “Actual Writing”–“Demonstration” suggests how to construct a work of investigative nonfiction by examining how Chekhov assembled The Island of Sakhalin. As Brunello explains in his introduction, this part of the book “is especially addressed to writers who, like Chekhov, are interested in discovering, exploring, and understanding the unknown. The modus operandi of his voyage of discovery is useful not only to writers who make long journeys and wish to write about them but also to those who want to understand life closer to home.”

Chekhov’s pre-journey correspondence reveals, for example, that before embarking on his trip he conducted considerable research and wrote up material that did not require field research. Excerpts from these letters lead Brunello to suggest steps other nonfiction writers might follow, including “read and summarize” and “write up the notes.”

Matters become increasingly interesting when we read letters Chekhov sent while traveling to and through Sakhalin and text that appears to be drawn from his actual report. Brunello evidently believes that if we attend closely to how Chekhov conducted his field research, we’ll glean some useful tips on how to pursue similar work.

So Chekhov’s description of a local wedding moves Brunello to suggest the usefulness of attending a similar event and observing “what people are wearing, their ages, rituals, conversations, and social roles.” And a Chekhovian paragraph about messages scratched into benches prompts Brunello to highlight how instructive studying graffiti may be. Other tips attached to relevant excerpts from Chekhov’s Sakhalin work include “save receipts, schedules, and fliers,” “study the climate,” “take a census” and quantify.”

The Sakhalin material also provides advice on the actual writing process, encompassing both logistics and craft. In one letter, for instance, Chekhov tells a correspondent that delaying his post-journey writing on Sakhalin “would be dangerous because my impressions of Sakhalin are already evaporating, and I risk forgetting a lot”; from this, Brunello highlights the importance of writing “while your impressions are still fresh.” And with a wrenching excerpt in which Chekhov describes witnessing a prisoner’s flogging, Brunello points to the importance of the writer sharing his own emotions in the narrative.

It’s difficult to predict the degree to which any reader will finish this book and be able to “write like Chekhov.” But it’s equally challenging to think of a nobler goal.

© Copyright 2009 Erika Dreifus

(A version of this review appeared in The Writer magazine.)

From My Bookshelf: American Jewish Fiction, by Josh Lambert

You’ve seen me mention Josh Lambert on this blog before. I’m delighted to tell you that Josh’s new book, American Jewish Fiction, is now available. Go and get a copy!

Why? It’s not merely a matter of what Josh knows about his subject (which is, frankly, quite a lot). It’s also a matter of his excellent, engaging writing style. Epitomized in this e-mail he sent about the book’s release:

“First let me tell you a little about the book. It’s a handbook to American Jewish fiction: think Uris, Roth, Malamud, Bellow, Bashevis Singer, Potok, Ozick, Paley, Foer, and Friday, the Rabbi Slept Late, plus a whole lot of truly excellent writers you’ve never heard of. It’s sort of like a Zagat guide, except that there are no quantitative scores and I had to come up with all the snappy remarks myself. The book contains short reviews of 125 novels and short story collections published from 1867 to 2007, including lots of classics and many lost treasures, plus there’s an introduction that gives a broad overview of the development and contours of the field, and some useful appendices. The book aims to give you a good sense for the range and depth of what I believe is one of the stronger literary traditions of the 20th century. The best part is that you don’t even need to read the whole thing to tell me how much you like it. You can just flip through and see what catches your eye. And if you happen to have a deeper interest in American Jewish fiction–either as an enthusiastic reader, or as a student of American literature or Jewish Studies–I hope you’ll ifnd that my book leads you to some interesting discoveries (or, at least, that it allows you to pretend convincingly that you’ve read books when you’ve only read my summaries of them).”

Intrigued by this (perfectly accurate, in my view) description? How about this? The Jewish Publication Society is offering a 40 percent discount through February 28. Go order your copy now!

And Mazel Tov to Josh for writing a guide that’s a “coffee table book” in the best sense–one I am leaving within ready reaching distance so I can pick it up (more often than not) whenever I settle on my sofa.

Quotable Quotes from The Journal of Jules Renard

The first in a new “Lost and Found” series from Tin House Books, The Journal of Jules Renard holds a number of lines bound to resonate with practicing writers. They’re not always cheerful (to say the least!), but they are there. I’ve chosen some to share with you.

Renard lived from 1864 to 1910. This edition was edited and translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget.

And here’s some of what Renard had to say about writing:

“To write in the manner that Rodin sculpts.”

“The critic is a botanist. I am a gardener.”

“Yes, I know. All great men were unknown at first. But I am not a great man, and I should be just as pleased to be known now.”

“If the word arse appears in a sentence, even in a sublime sentence, the public will hear only that one word.”

“I have not renounced ambition. The fire still burns in me–a banked fire, but alive.”

“Writing. The most difficult part is to take hold of the pen, dip it in the ink, and hold it firm over the paper.”

“This is a notebook of abortions.”

“The arm I want to extend toward my manuscript seems to be paralyzed.”

From My Bookshelf: November 22, 1963

According to the Historical Novel Society, “To be deemed historical…a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).” Author Adam Braver may have been alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated: Braver was born in 1963. But he obviously does not remember the event, and he has approached it through a fascinating combination of research and fiction-crafting in his new novel, November 22, 1963 (Tin House Books).

I thought I knew a lot about the assassination, which is an historical event for me, too (my parents were still a few months away from meeting each other on November 22, 1963). But Braver’s book, which focuses in depth on the events of that day through the closely-drawn third-person eyes of everyone from a Dallas policeman to Abe Zapruder to Maud Shaw (Caroline and John-John’s nanny) to, of course, Jackie Kennedy, opened up so much more.

Most of us will never know what it was to be Air Force One as it bore the slain President’s coffin back to Washington; Braver has imagined that. Most of us didn’t witness the autopsy at Walter Reed; Braver has evoked it. Most of us can’t imagine how Maud Shaw told six-year-old Caroline what had happened (I hadn’t even realized that Jackie Kennedy had given the nanny that awful task); Braver shows us how it might have happened.

They were the only two in the room, but…Miss Shaw could barely look at Caroline, tucked firmly in bed under the canopy of rosebud chintz, forcing a confident expression, though it was clear she knew something wasn’t right; and Miss Shaw’s eyes were tearing while Caroline stared at her, almost demanding an explanation other than Miss Shaw taking her hand and apologizing for the tears; and Miss Shaw knew she could wait until morning (Mrs. Auchincloss told her Mrs. Kennedy said it was up to her to gauge what the children did or didn’t know), but she looked at Caroline and something told her it wouldn’t be fair to send the girl to sleep, to let her wake up full of promise—better for the girl to wake up as part of the grief, and that way maybe she’ll mourn more purely; then Miss Shaw inhaled so deeply her gut almost burst, and on the exhalation she said that there had been an accident; then she paused, realizing the sound of hope in the word accident, and corrected herself to say, ‘He’s been shot, and God has taken him to Heaven because they couldn’t make him better in the hospital,’ and then closed her eyes, praying that when she opened them she wouldn’t see Caroline crying—that this had all been a dream.

This is historical fiction at its best: intensely researched (check out Braver’s staggering list of acknowledgments, including the Oral History collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum [Maud Shaw’s is among the transcripts Braver tells us he accessed]) and beautifully written. I recommend it highly.