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Research Notes from the Library at Alexandria: Roberto Bolaño and W.G. Sebald Write the Century's End

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Jessie Ferguson
San Francisco State University

Both the Chilean expatriate writer Roberto Bolaño and the German expatriate W.G. Sebald construct first-person narratives out of an uneasy, hybridized mixture of invention, literary reference, and historical fact. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement in a review of Bolaño's magnum opus, 2666, Amaia Gabantxo remarks that "both Bolaño and Sebald were world-weary, slightly disgruntled, awed by the human capacity for evil and survival; both included ghostly versions of themselves in their books; and both rejected straightfoward conceptions of the novel" (Gabantxo 34). This is a fair thumbnail sketch of similarities between the two writers, although a fourth point of contact—that both are literary omnivores and write out of a Borgesian labyrinth of narrative—is equally crucial to understanding their fiction.

In this paper I will examine the way in which both writers incorporate literary and documentary history directly into their fictional narratives, specifically Bolaño's novels La literatura nazi en América (Nazi literature in America) and Estrella distante (Distant Star), and Sebald's novel Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn). In particular, I will focus on their use of two stories by Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" and "Pierre Ménard, autor del Quijote," both enormously influential models of intertextual engagement and play between reality and fiction. All three novels employ a fictionalized, autobiographical narrator whose position in the world of reality and text is complicated; I argue that the narrative methods generally serve to cast suspicion on both fiction-writing and documentary historical writing. The novels foreground the mechanics of history, time, memory, and violence, without requiring the reader to accept the substance of the narrative as "fact" or "fiction."

Sebald's break with "straightforward conceptions of the novel" may be the more extreme case of the two: he writes in a superficially documentary style and includes photographs and other visual reproductions (e.g. of passports, journal entries, etc.) to both underscore and call into question the facticity of his subject matter. All of his novels deal to some extent with the destruction of the physical landscape by human and natural acts, and with the reflection and refraction of this pattern of destruction in the suffering and troubled memories of the human inhabitants of those landscapes (most of them in England, Germany, Switzerland, and other parts of Europe); thus a variety of complex relationships arise between the fragmented, documentaristic narrative and the themes of severed and fugitive memories and experiences.

Bolaño, on the other hand, is a writer consciously embedded in a "Latin American" literary tradition; his work frequently confronts the traumas of Latin American political experience during the second half of the twentieth century, in particular the fall of the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile and episodes of violence in Mexico (the series of unsolved murders in Ciudad Juárez, on the border with Texas, in the 1990s, or the police invasion of the Universidad Nacional in 1968 culminating in the Tlatelolco massacre). He is less concerned than Sebald with landscapes and physical documentation of history, but equally, if not more, concerned with literary texts and with the relationship between literary production and political responsibility, two preoccupations linked throughout the history of the postwar Latin American novel.

In La literatura nazi en América, Bolaño creates an extensively documented fictional encyclopedia of "Nazi" writers throughout the Americas, complete with lengthy bibliography and a list of (invented) publishing houses and journals. The invented writers interact with real ones (for instance, a fictional Cuban writer challenges José Lezama Lima to a series of duels, although Lezama never shows up); one or two also meet Hitler and/or serve in the German army. As a shadow history of European influences in Latin American society, and of the debates of the 19th and 20th centuries about national and ethnic identity, cosmopolitanism, and social legitimacy, Bolaño's narrative has a vast supply of historical models. He spares few countries, although two sets of Argentinians, "Los Mendiluce" and "los hermanos Schiaffino," form neat bookends for the encyclopedia, singling out a nation which shares both an illustrious literary culture and a historically favorable disposition towards the Third Reich. But the narrative ultimately closes in Chile, Bolaño's homeland. The narrator (a fictionalized Bolaño called by name in the final line of the episode) switches discursive modes to give a first-person account of Carlos Wieder, a.k.a. "Ramírez Hoffman, el infame." (Although it is not made explicit, it's reasonable to suppose that the narrator of "Ramírez Hoffman" is the same as the narrator of the foregoing encyclopedia.) Wieder is an avant-garde "poet" who writes his verses in the sky with a World War II-era German war plane—and also murders women, in particular two young poets whom the narrator knew as a teenager when they frequented the same salon in southern Chile.

Bolaño rewrites this final episode and expands it into a separate short novel, Estrella distante. Here he provides much more detail about the formative years of the poetic culture in Chile from which he, Carlos Wieder, the murdered poets, and many others emerged, devoting several chapters to profiles of a Russian-Jewish émigré saloniste, a gay Chilean poet in exile, and a French translator of indigenous descent. While La literatura nazi is a book about Latin America, extremely wide in scope, Estrella distante is less "about Chile" than about individual Chileans. Prescinded from the literary-historical pseudocontext of La literatura nazi, the narrative loses the force of its sharp contrast with parodic literary works that traffic fairly benignly in awful ideas, but the human sadness of the original episode's end is deepened by Bolaño's eulogies for a nation in which not only literature but writers themselves, as human beings, were violated and abused.

Both novels present two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of a literary tradition, of what can be found in books, and knowledge of a personal sort, both of which are presented mimetically at a formally fictional level, and which reinforce one another and undermine (through satire and straightforward denunciation) historical circumstances which occasioned very similar books and very similar personal experiences. The question of the narrator's identity, left somewhat vague in La literatura nazi, is explicitly addressed in a preface to Estrella distante: Bolaño (or an individual who refers to La literatura nazi as "mi novela") invents a conversation with "mi compatriota Arturo B, veterano de las guerras floridas y suicida en África" [my compatriot Arturo B., a veteran of Latin America's doomed revolutions and a suicide in Africa] who told him the story in the final chapter of La literatura nazi and with whom,

al dictado de sus sueños y pesadillas compusimos la novela que el lector tiene ahora ante sí. Mi función se redujo a preparar bebidas, consultar algunos libros, y discutir, con él y con el fantasma cada día más vivo de Pierre Menard, la validez de muchos párrafos repetidos. (ED 11)
according to the dictates of his dreams and nightmares, we composed the novel which the reader now has before him. My function was reduced to making drinks, consulting a few books, and discussing, with him and with the ghost, each day more alive, of Pierre Menard, the validity of many repeated paragraphs.
Pierre Menard is, of course, the titular "autor del Quijote" from Borges' famous meditation on authorship, who sets out to reproduce Cervantes' novel verbatim for a new era.

The ghost of Pierre Menard is, in fact, fairly animated throughout La literatura nazi. In Borges' story, the fictional re-author of the Quijote is presented by way of a curriculum vitae several pages long. Among other, diverse activities, Menard rewrites the magnum opus of his friend Paul Valéry, Le cimitiêre marin, in alexandrines, and collaborates with the Italian futurist Gabriele D'Annunzio in a tribute to an aristocratic patroness (48-50). Eventually he proposes a more radical, loftier goal: to rewrite don Quijote exactly as it was written, by Cervantes, three hundred thirty years earlier. This undertaking Borges refers to as "the other body of work: the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the unmatched," as opposed to the "visible" oeuvre of the CV (51): and this too is the conceit of the story, the relationship of literary works to their historical context, the readerly expectation that ideas enter into dialogue with other contemporary ideas.

Formally, the story assembles an intricate model of the literary work and its historical context. There are four levels of reality here, mediated by quotation: Cervantes is quoted by Menard, who is quoted by the narrator—who is quoted (in a different sense) by the author. But the narrator and Menard read books by other writers outside their acquaintance (like Cervantes), such as Quevedo and William James and Leibniz; and Menard at least is acquainted with other writers, Valéry and D'Annunzio, as real to him as the narrator is. For the author, Borges, however, every person in the story is either archival or fictional.1 For the reader (assuming he is not D'Annunzio's son-in-law), the same is true. What formally distinguishes La literatura nazi from a fiction like Pierre Menard is the final episode: to the active archival and fictional players in the narrative Bolaño adds a third category, the historical, in the form of Salvador Allende's government and the Chilean coup d'etat. Many of the fictional writers are contemporaries of Bolaño himself (some, in fact, inhabit the future), but it is only in the incorporation of the first-person narrative in the Ramírez Hoffman episode that the literal historical force, which otherwise is only metonymized by the term "Nazi," can be fully developed.

But in what way is Estrella distante the product of consultation with "the ghost, each day more alive, of Pierre Menard"? It is tempting to note the similarities between the Borges story and the "parent" text of La literatura nazi, but even within the fictional game set up in the preface, Estrella distante differs substantially from the antecedent chapter of La literatura nazi, whereas Menard is the celebrated fictional "author" of a verbatim (if fragmentary) rewriting of Don Quijote. The "lesson" in Borges' story is one of the indifference of the words on the page to their contextual meaning—compared with lexicon and poetic construction, context and intertextuality do far more work and exercise an overriding hermeneutic power.

While Bolaño pays tribute here to Borges' meditation on authorship, Sebald incorporates a different parable about textuality into his Ringe des Saturn: namely "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." Sebald reproduces portions of the story almost verbatim at the end of the third chapter of Die Ringe des Saturn.

Die Welt wird Tlön sein. Mich aber, so schließt der Erzähler, kümmert das nicht, ich feile in der stillen Muße meines Landhauses weiter an einer tastenden, an Quevedo geschulten Übertragung des Urn Burial von Thomas Browne (die ich nicht drucken zu lassen gedenke). (RS 91)
The world will be Tlön. But to me, so the narrator concludes, that matters little, I am further refining, in the leisurely quiet of my country house, a tentative translation, after Quevedo, of Urn Burial by Thomas Browne (which I do not intend to have published).
The primary context is Sebald's previous discussion of Sir Thomas Browne, which links the work of the English polymath with Rembrandt's painting of a dissection and localizes a certain dispassionate fascination with physical destruction. But the story is rather peculiarly introduced, without reference to the author: "Viele Jahre später las ich dann in der 1940 in Salto Oriental in Argentinien verfaßten Schrift Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius von der Rettung eines ganzen Amphitheaters durch ein paar Vogel" (87) [Many years later I read, in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, written in 1940 at Salto Oriental in Argentina, of the rescue of an entire amphitheatre by a few birds]. Although the text of the story is dated "1940, Salto Oriental," a "postscript" dated 1947 contradicts the authenticity of the composition date which Sebald's narrator cites as fact. The line about the birds and the amphiteatre reads merely: "A veces unos pájaros, un caballo, han salvado las ruinas de un anfiteatro" (30) [At times a few birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre]. There is little "how" to "read of" in this terse sentence, and the focus on this single disjointed line in a story so rich in information and detail is almost comic. And, soon thereafter:
Die Erinnerung an die damals verspürte Unsicherheit bringt mich wieder auf die im vorigen schon erwähnte argentinische Schrift, die in der Hauptsache befaßt ist mit unseren Versuchen zur Erfindung von Welten zweiten oder gar dritten Grades. (89)
The memory of the uncertainty I then felt brings me back to the aforementioned Argentinian tale, which is primarily concerned with our attempts to invent worlds to the second or even third degree.
In Sebald's redaction, the narrator relates his dinner with Bioy Casares and their discussion of an experimental novel, their disquieting encounter with the mirror, and the conversation with Bioy about Uqbar and the sources for information about this mysterious country—the "world to the second degree," perhaps, to which Sebald refers. He leaps across the narrative concerning Tlön into the postscript, "so merkt ein Nachtrag aus dem Jahr 1947 an" (RS 91) [added to the text in 1947]. Again, Sebald's narrator takes Borges' dates literally, to discuss the penetration of Tlön into the world. The final sentences of the redaction are almost direct translations of the end of the story.

El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, the collection from which "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is taken, was published in 1941, so the 1947 date for the postscript is fictitious. Adolfo Bioy Casares was an Argentinian writer and friend to Borges—although they surely dined together and discussed writing many times, the dinner and discussion in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is of course fictional. Sebald himself has always taken pains to stress that his own narrators are fictional, although they overlap considerably with his own biography and history. (The narrators are never named, although in several cases they allude to photographs included with the text—notably in Die Ringe des Saturn on page 313—which certainly look like photographs of the author, and most likely are.) For the Sebald-narrator to take at face value the dates given by the Borges-narrator of "Tlön," and to report the experiential elements of the narrative in place of the speculative, eliminating discussion of Tlön until it has become a part of the world of the Borges-narrator, is to take pains to place the two almost on the same quasi-fictional, quasi-historical plane, to align their positions in the intertextual hierarchy. Borges' narrator discusses his translation of Thomas Browne, the very author Sebald's narrator has just been reading and discussing—as the realm of recollection and observation on the latter's part drops away, like the absorption of the former in the nonexistent text about Tlön—so that for a moment, the two narrators are almost precisely superimposed in a drastically simplified image of a single reader studying a single text. But the consonance of the image is fleeting, and like Pierre Menard's Quijote, it cannot hold its integrity against the immense perturbation of history, other readings, and other contexts.

Andreas Huyssen compares Sebald's Luftkrieg und Literatur, a critical essay about the literature of the fire-bombings of German cities, with Sebald's second novel, Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants):

I would like to suggest that Sebald's Luftkrieg essay is itself a repetition, a rewriting of those earlier texts about the experience of strategic bombing ... closely related in its deep structure, its conceptual framework, and in its language (though not in its narrative complexity) to the narrative stance of Die Ausgewanderten itself. (Huyssen 82)
Although a full treatment of his discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, Huyssen does connect each of the texts examined in Luftkrieg with a particular moment in the German public debate about World War II and present-day German literature, arguing that Sebald's own treatment of the issue unwittingly continues the series and belongs to the post-1989 discourse of the first German generation without direct experience of the war. Both Luftkrieg and Die Ausgewanderten are sustained and concentrated examinations of the aftermath of the German war experience as seen through the eyes of individuals (in the case of Luftkrieg, writers whose approach to their subject matter and skill with language are meticulously dissected; in the case of Die Ausgewanderten, four biographical subjects are examined primarily through documentary evidence, although the first and last stories depend on a "personal interview")—but at a considerable narrative remove, framed within frames within frames. Die Ringe des Saturn is considerably more expansive: it establishes only a few tangential links to the Second World War in Germany, but the narrative style is monotonously consistent with the other texts. The framing of the episodes often refers to the narrator's frame of mind, however tersely. He does not surprise the reader by, for instance, revealing that he was once a circus performer or remarking that between his trip to Lucerne and his return to Norwich he traded bonds on the London exchange—the first-person statements in the narrative tend to be almost transparent. Superficially, the reproduced objects, texts and conversations are allowed an unusual degree of self-explanatory power; it is when one looks closer that one finds, as with the citation of dates in the quoted Borges story, small ruptures and inconsistencies in the documentary surface.

Indeed, the most striking difference in "narrative stance" between the Luftkrieg essay (and its companion piece, a critical essay on Alfred Andersch) and Sebald's novels is the harshly judgmental, almost savage tone of his literary criticism, which has no parallel in his fiction. The pseudoautobiographical narrator is melancholy almost to the point of caricature, confronted with a world he takes pains to reproduce without often acknowledging, or recognizing, how he alters it. As a critic, however, Sebald is unrestrained and prolix in his distaste—concluding a hatchet job on an early novel of wartime destruction, he writes:

It is not easy to sum up the quantities of lasciviousness and ultra-German racial kitsch Mendelssohn offers his readers (with, we must assume, the best of intentions), but in any case his wholesale fictionalization of the theme of the ruined city... plunges headlong into more than two hundred pages of trash. (NHD 56-7)
On wartime articles by Andersch, whom Sebald clearly finds morally abhorrent and to whom he directs quite a few ad hominem attacks,
This is not the place to dilate on the material that could be cited to this effect from almost every part of Andersch's articles; however, it may be said that linguistic corruption and an addiction to empty, spiraling pathos are only the outward symptoms of a warped state of mind which is also reflected in the content of his pieces. (NHD 125)
But, in Luftkrieg, he makes positive statements as well: commending the virtues of a medical report as against an overwrought, surrealistic passage by Arno Schmidt, he asserts that "[t]his medical account of the further destruction of a body already mummified by the firestorm shows a reality of which Schmidt's linguistic radicalism knows nothing. His elaborate style veils over the facts that stare straight at us in the language of those professionally involved in the horror," and pays tribute to "[t]he informative value of such authentic documents, before which all fiction pales..." (NHD 60, my emphasis) Still, although the restrained narrative form of the documentary novels serves almost as a negative to the positive, univocal register of the critic, Sebald the author does not disappear in his novels—he is, as a montage artist, a commanding presence.

Huyssen sets up his critique of Sebald as a dialogue between generations: "we clearly have three distinct generational moments: traumatization through experience with Nossack as adult and with Fichte and Kluge as children, transgenerational traumatization without the experience itself in the case of Sebald" (83). He earlier questions a literary-historical approach which "follows the orderly chronology of decades and generations, blocking from view the multiple rewritings and cross-textual relations" (73) with which postwar culture is saturated, but feels compelled to employ the fixed generational boundaries above even so. For Borges, writing before, during and after World War II, a certain aestheticism, and an affirmation of the autonomy of the artist, had not yet fallen widely out of favor.2 We see in the example of Tlön a sustained engagement with philosophical questions—which come to transform the world—which would seem out of place in any of the works above by Sebald and Bolaño, or indeed in most works of contemporary fiction. It is hard to imagine Sebald and Bolaño's haunted, peripatetic narrators allowing themselves the time for dinner with Bioy Casares and slow, steadfast work on a translation of Sir Thomas Browne in the face of cultural apocalpyse; it is easier to imagine them unsettled by the mirror. Both attempt to strike a balance between an authoritative narrative voice and a formally restrained, scholarly or journalistic position, but the balance is uneasy. The weight of the quoted subject matter exerts an immense pressure, against which the author, who has created the novels himself, must employ a variety of stabilizing tactics.

In 1973, the year of the coup in Chile and more than two decades before the composition of the above novels, the American literary critic Harold Bloom published The Anxiety of Influence, a study of the development of English poetry. He writes:

My concern, is only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself? (11)
He outlines a six-stage process of negotiating this anxiety which resembles a mythic quest, culminating in a "return from the dead." It is hard to imagine a conception of literature more alien to the works I have described above: Bloom's conception of a "strong poet" (and he treats the whole man, including as evidence not just verse but the poets' letters and journal entries [13]) is defined by the imagination: "strength" and "weakness," "wrestling... even to the death" are wholly psychological processes, bounded only by metaphoric language. The poet is not solely inferred from his writing: he is an idealized, heroic figure; his works have mythic resonance. One cannot easily imagine him at dinner with Bioy Casares either.

Both Bolaño and Sebald ably and poignantly illustrate the limitations of creative autonomy in the face of appalling historical crimes, as well as the limitations of full participation in literature as a reader as well as a writer, for analogous reasons. They continue Borges' work of demolishing the idea of the autonomy of the writer—but by the present day this work has been continued by a plethora of other writers, scholars, and artists in every media. So, at the same time, they confront the ambiguity of his position, a writer and reader in a world where, if the word is still king, the role is largely ceremonial. Yet that ceremony has its own power. Sebald concludes his Luftkrieg essay with a quotation, much as he did with the conclusion of Die Ringe des Saturn's third chapter, from Walter Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History—the famous passage about the angel of history. The words are familiar to any student of modern German literature; Huyssen even peremptorily calls it "the familiar long quote from Benjamin's thesis about the angel of history" (89), but Sebald permits no truncation or elision: he repeats the passage, until the last line—"This storm is what we call progress" (NHD 68)—at which point he and his readers, who have been pronouncing the lines in unison, both fall silent.

Notes

1 In his "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," this is not strictly true: Adolfo Bioy Casares, a friend to Borges in life, plays a significant role in the narrative, but for all intents and purposes he is a fictional character who shares the name of Borges' friend, like the fictional Borges-narrator.
2 See, for instance, Beret E. Strong's study of the vanguardia movement from which Borges derived early fame and notoriety, The Poetic Avant-Garde: The Groups of Borges, Auden, & Breton, in which a youthful Borges writes in favor of "la meta principal de toda poesía, esto es, a la transmutación de la realidad palpable del mundo en realidad interior y emocional (the principal goal of all poetry, which is the transmutation of the palpable reality of the world into inner emotional reality)" (Strong 87).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford
         UP, 1973.

Bolaño, Roberto. La literatura nazi en América. Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral,
         1996.

---. Estrella distante. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 1999.

---. Distant Star. Trans. Chris Andrews. New York: New Directions Publishing
        Corp., 2004.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1996.

Gabantxo, Amaia. "Murders on the Move." Times Literary Supplement 9 Sep.
        2005: 34.

Huyssen, Andreas. "On Rewritings and New Beginnings: W.G. Sebald and the
        Literature about the Luftkrieg." Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und
        Linguistik
124 (2001): 72-90.

Long, J. J. and Anne Whitehead, eds. W.G. Sebald—A Critical Companion. Seattle:
        U of Washington P, 2004.

Manzoni, Celina, ed. Roberto Bolaño: La escritura como tauromaquia. Buenos Aires:
        Ediciones Corregidor, 2002.

Sebald, W.G. Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt. Frankfurt am Main:
        Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1997.

---. The Rings of Saturn. Trans. Michael Hulse. New York: New Directions
        Publishing Corp., 1998.

---. On the Natural History of Destruction. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random
        House, 2003.

Strong, Beret E. The Poetic Avant-Garde: The Groups of Borges, Auden and Breton.
        Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1997.

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