Under the Volcano

I read the Picador Classics edition (1967) with an introduction by Stephen Spender. Unusually, I read the introduction first, then again after reading the novel, which I read in three sittings. I like Spender, and relate to his reading of the book.

Despite its dual reputations of being difficult and about alcoholism, it is neither. As for difficulty, it’s true that understanding Spanish would be helpful, but the saturated extratextual references to mythology, mysticism, history and so on can be taken as fragments of a disintegrating mind in a disintegrating world: the central theme is of stability versus instability, fragments against ruins, and from this erupts the permanent psychological divisions between desire’s positivity and its demonic twin of destruction. The characters are all one character, the places all one place, the times all one time, though an impossible time – that of a moment that is an ideal locus without nostalgia for past or future.

Alcohol is central of course because the character of the novel is alcoholic, and best read, therefore by an alcoholic – which is most people, for Firmin and his alternatives are merely further advanced into descent and ascent than most which makes his expression approach the ideal moment. The refusal to accept love is not a failure but an affirmation for love is part of the dreadful entanglement of contingent dual actions of affirmation and immediate denial, and it is this tangle (the novel is thick with imagery of entanglement) which is transcended by final descent into the (literal) abyss. Obviously for it could be no other, a novel of immense contradictions, impossible antipathies, and the realisation of being as antithetical to identity.

It is easy to read when one accepts its imagistic concentration. Films, stills, photographs, paintings, advertisements, thicken every paragraph to a flicker that has the paradoxical potential to, like a hollywood movie, enspectre a counterpart to diegesis – a clean, pure, fluid, immensely joyful….. illusion.

It’s a wonderful, exquisitely awful and painful novel of redemption.

By Night in Chile

A short review below of this book. I am going to enjoy, I think, reading more Bolano. He seems to be the sort of writer I was getting at in my Anti-writing post.

I do not like those communities of artistic people who are talk and tinkle. I believe the world needs action from good being. Literature is indeed a valid pleasure for its own sake. But there are conservative, reactionary, and, I would say, bad folk out there who put ‘Art’ above life and politics. Surely it can be as much a retreat and sanctuary as anything, but to suggest it as a self-sufficient entity that represents some sort of suprahuman state seems to me to be deeply dangerous.

My Review of the Book

I thought this very good. It’s my first encounter with this writer, and although I have seen reviews suggesting his ‘difficulty’, I have no hesitation in recommending this to anybody. (I thank Mike Puma for suggesting it as probably the most suitable introduction to the author).

It’s very rich and dense, with startling images and cross-cutting motifs; many extra-textual references too, but I hardly think they matter at this stage. Later, I will return to read the book again, as one will return to a film, looking forward to the total experience, reading differently, with more prepared resonance as a reader.

Here I’ll reveal what struck me immediately. The single paragraph of the novel (well, there’s two if you include the seven word paragraph at the end, important as it is) is the confessional of a Priest/Poet/Aesthete/Critic who believes he’s dying. He isn’t – except of course, he is, as we all are. He’s not a sympathetic character, what with his being a coward, a debauch, a hero worshipper, a solipsistic fool (just to begin the  catalogue). But he is sympathetic too for the poor man is just anyone. I’m not convinced that this is remotely a book about Chile, despite the confessor’s search for the very Christian, very Chilean,  I think a reader who goes in fangs bared knowing this Priest is  member of (fashionably, what else, negatively connoted) Opus Dei or intuiting that he was part of the establishment that crushed the brave Socialist experiment will miss much of what is actually in the text. That’s something ironic, something of the the world of the lovers of literature and the arts generally, that something being you don’t approach act and being as a political animal by chattering about representations. There are the precisely controlled traces, just enough, of the horrors of Chile – and, incidentally, Europe and the USA – to help embrace a certain readership into necessary active political studies of the nature of myths , narratives of gods, nations, good and evil, left and right, personal identity. Even Pinochet – who has a speaking part in this novel (during one of the Priest’s six stories) understands that to defeat a story you meed to understand it. Bolano, though, goes deeper, and suggests that if you scratch away at any story an utter boredom, acidie, ruination and decay are revealed. Again, here, the reader who knows knows about relating to personalities at a much more positive level (by contrast): the lecher priest who feels Pinochet’s hand upon his knee like a myriad desiring multitude of hands; the frightened priest who sees in a namesake baby with eyes and mouth closed himself against the world (while, in this moment also rushing with heterosexual desire) knows nothing of health: for him the world is in ruins, and broken and unstable as much of the imagery of the novel explores.

It’s useful to have priest-aesthete as narrator. For one thing, such an individual has the ideological permission to be above the mere world of the messily human, and Sebastian (the priest) assumes such permission (as many do do). His torpor (mere boredom) in Chile is followed by aesthetic excitatation springing from one part of Europe to another. In a hymn to his God he praises not the Lord’s justice or concern for the oppressed but his own being graced by encounter with “my happiness, passion regained, genuine devotion, my prayers rising up and up through the crowds to the realm of pure music, to what for want of a better name we call the choir of angels, a non-human space but undoubtedly the only imaginable space we humans can truly inhabit, an uninhabitable space but the only one worth inhabiting, a space in which we will cease to be but the only space in which we can be what we truly are…” My guess is that there are priest-aesthetes  spouting this all over the world in various forms. There may have been refined monsters in Auschwitz sharing sherries with their local clergy who hissed it too.

This particular failed poet longs for a more ‘cultured’ ‘Chile’. He immerses himself in Graeco-Roman ‘culture’ (clean as a sculpture, and neatly forgetting Aristotle’s – and later Aquinas’ – emphasis upon the political centrality of being); he longs for ‘his’ country to open itself to Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Hugo, Borges, Tolstoy (what a truly bizarre conglomerate!); he wilfully, proudly, separates himself from the universe of political events (the real people’s acting and being), and regularly joins the grotesque gatherings of third-rate literati, artists and such that chatter in comfortable soirees while beneath them in the basements of a house whose labyrinthine corridors are laid our ‘like a crossword puzzle’, victims of torture suffer and die. But he’s no more a coward than anyone who lives like that. Anywhere, any time.

The failure of aestheticism to complete and identity is the torment of this narrator. It is universal. He’s allowed limited reflection himself, for instance awareness of his own own poems’ division into apollonian and dionysian (such a division, of course, being about as creative, active, poetic as a crossword clue), Where the insistent filmic image of ‘zooming’ in through the petals of a flower, through the entrance to the Emperor’s room through door after door of antechambers, to the ‘tunnel of time, back into time’s great meat-grinder’ (the latter near the end) there’s a redemptive possibility, that the frightened story-maker and conservative adult will recognise the wizened youth within and eschew both.

Roberto Bolaño

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing.

Bomb 78/Winter 2002

Hugh MacDiarmid

After His Death

Norman MacCaig

for Hugh MacDiarmid


It turned out

that the bombs he had thrown

raised buildings:


that the acid he had sprayed

had painfully opened

the eyes of the blind.


Fishermen hauled

prizewinning fish

from the water he had polluted.


We sat with astonishment

enjoying the shade

of the vicious words he had planted.


The government decreed that

on the anniversary of his birth

the people should observe

two minutes pandemonium.


Norman MacCaig: The Many Days

I’d not want 2010 to end without remembering Norman MacCaig. This year has seen the centenary of his birth, and many tributes. There is a good one here

I was privileged to be his student for a time, although I am sure it was his misfortune to encounter yet another gushing sentimentalist with virtually no ear for poetry, and no inkling then of what his poetry would come to mean to me when I eventually grew up. Still, I remember his universally noted courtesy to everybody and even then greatly appreciated his acerbic wit.

I was given at Christmas the new selection of his poems, The Many Days edited by Roderick Watson, Emeritus Professor at Stirling now, and a colleague and friend of MacCaig for many years.  The book is in nine sections, each titled with the poem that begins it. As Watson notes in his introduction, the poems speak  “among themselves, to set up the best kind of creative dialogue, section to section, poem to poem.” So much has been written about MacCaig this year, I just have a few words to say about one aspect of three poems from the first section, Ineducable Me.

Although he described himself as a primary school teacher, was a classics scholar, and taught at universities, he had a view of ‘education’ that was as unadorned and ‘simple’ as his poems appear to be, as his empty desk and bare walls in his university room, uncluttered. The poem that begins the selection, Ineducable Me has the lines:

I learned words, I learned words; but half of them

died from lack of exercise. And the ones I use

often look at me

with a look that whispers, Liar.

The section beginning with Among Scholars is about his ‘real’ education with the people and landscape of Assynt and the Highlands. Fitting with his ice-perfect imagery, elegance of language, often astonishing gymnastics of metaphor and meaning is, I feel, a lightness of touch that’s delicate because for part of him there are things that have far more gravity, and there’s no contradiction here. He sometimes reminds me of Wallace Stevens’  return again and again to the impossibility of expressing, holding ‘the thing itself’ with those very tropes and near metaphysical weavings of language that do reveal an exceptional groundedness, an immanence within the world as it is, each startling and amazing detail unfiltered through orna mentation ‘unadded to’ – perhaps an ideal rather than a possible task of noticing, yet the poems bring the reader, if only negatively, to consider seeing what is rather than projecting any of the whole gamut of possible cognitive jiggery-pokeries that the human mind is capable of. Humorous it may be, but when he described himself as Zen Calvinist there’s a wisp of ludic truth to it.

It isn’t only the tension between experience and expression that is evident: there is  so often the man peeping through the poet. Many of MacCaig’s poems are ‘about’ identity, frequently through a linkage between place and mind, or obliquely through the imagery of travelling between. However, there is also a certain existential tension too (the phrase reflects my own inadequacy of expression rather than a wish to set him spinning with derision in the place he never believed in). There is the man in Private who (as an analogy to his poetry) is but partly “that comfortable MacCaig whose/ small predictions were predictable.” And the total man who may use words instead “in order to say what they mean/when they mean me”. Whatever such words would reveal, his friends, his outward relatings, “How they would wish back/ the clean white bandages/ That hid those ugly wounds.”

Whatever the wounds may be they  occupy the same disturbing opposition  as  in Journeys where there is the dark knowledge of and attraction to that other place:

There are bad journeys, to a bitter place

I can’t go to – yet, I lean towards it,

tugging to get there, and thank God

I’m clogged with the world. It grips me,

I hold it.

There is a tension between the clear, pure, certain apprehension of immanent ‘reality’ and the underlying threat of dispersal. Better to be ‘clogged’ and restricted than to go God knows where. The same idea comes in the poem On the Pier at Kinlochbervie which begins with a typically brilliant MacCaig image then moves towards “My mind is struggling with itself.” The poem ends:

I want an extreme of nearness.

I want boundaries on my mind.

I want to feel the world like a straitjacket.

Dermot Healy’s “Banished Misfortune”

I was put on to this by Alan Beard at the great goodreads community where I share and receive a  love of reading. Alan read it in his bath but he said “it’s all expanded and got dog eared. I kept it by the bath because I would read and re-read the dense, poetic, obscuring prose over and over because it seemed to me to want re-reading”. I observed the caution about reading it near water, and agree with the rest.

As it happens, I have just finished reading A Goat’s Song which is extremely watery, and there is something about water and Healy that seems inseparable. I couldn’t face having to finish Banished Misfortune so I’ve saved the last three stories to read later, taking the wonderful novel as a thick filling: I’ll review that later, but it was extraordinarily powerful reading it with the stories still pulsing in me.

I too will be re-reading the stories. On the book’s blurb the extract from the Irish Press review says “no two stories are alike in theme, or length, or structure, or style…” In an obvious way this is mainly the case, but I’d say the similarities are far greater than the differences. The ones I’ve read are all straight in and straight out leaving a fictional world contingent upon what came before and also what comes after the story: time and perception are both disturbed, disturbing, disorientated. The dislocation and lack of comforting ‘centre’ seem to me so far a hallmark of Healy, and they are congruent with the same attributes of personal identity.

There is a readerly intensity invited. Relatively quickly one gets used to the way a sentence can hold three separate discourses, for instance, three phrases separated by commas separating perhaps times or places or character perspective; one gets used to the intrusion of a single short sentence to state (recall) of a place or scene in winter, an image of it in summer (with no ‘plot’ relevance, but certainly germane to texturing the a collage). Fairly quickly too one handles the compression of ideas, metaphors and other images. Healy is fascinated by ideas and words, inexpressibility, fiction and ‘truth’, clarity and fog, feelings: he’s as likely to employ pathetic as unpathetic, echoing and contradictory, elements – say between character’s feeling state and landscape – in the same grasping for total impression. The very short Betrayal is excellent: very close to poetry, the sort of images and ‘symbols’ that have no existence in the literal world; too, a delightful intellectual exercise.

Related to the poetic, a great pleasure for a reader is desire frustrated. A text which tantalises, brings a world to life so real you feel you could walk in it, yet purposely (as a function of the writing) withholds itself. A major method of this is in the way only the merest suggestion of the world whence the moment of the story is given, so one has the startling clarity of that momentary world in stark contrast to the unattainable, vaporous trace of a world of which you know almost nothing, yet, paradoxically, because of the ‘reality’ of the story’s world, accept as equally real. And in this, the form matches perfectly with central themes: desire itself, memory, consciousness, and a kind of permanent vagueness about the past the only bulwark against being the construction of stories. This is psychological realism.

Umberto Eco in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods discusses time and memory,  with reference to narrative, verb tense, narrative time, discourse, plot and story; also he talks about ‘mistiness’ in relation to discourse, imagery which consists not of identifiable elements but something very intense and sensuous (I think dreamlike). Eco’s wonderful set of essays conscentrates on Labrunie’s  Sylvie, a novel that has provided with a fascination since his student days. I do believe that what Eco achieves by way of analysis would find good exemplary focus with Healy’s work. The ‘mistiness’ (often literal at the surface level of his landscape descriptions) is achieved primarily through disturbing the possibility of constancy of time (in duration, quality or any other attribute) or orienting spatial centre, with the barest hint sometimes of ‘story’ except that which coincides with ‘plot’ (the way the story is put together especially in its temporal sequencing).

Eco says of Sylvie, “although I have treated Sylvie with almost clinical rigor for years and years, the book has never lost its charm for me. Every time I reread it, it is as if my love affair with Sylvie I’m not sure whether I mean the book or the chaacter) were beginning for the first time. How can this be possible, since I know the grid, the secret of its strategy? Because the grid can be designed from outside the text, but when you return to the text, and -once within it – you cannot read in haste….as you slow down, as you accept its pace, you forget about and grid or Ariadne’s thread, and you get lost again in the woods…”

Wise words on many levels, talking of which Eco distinguisher between a ‘model reader’ who reads for a story so only needs to read texts once, and the second level reader who enjoys the pleasures of the fictional woods. In those woods or texts the various paths may be compared with a musical score. Says Eco, “It is like a melody, which the reader can enjoy first for the effects it elicits, and later by discovering how an unexpected series of interals can produce these effects. This score tells us how a tempo is imposed upon the reader by ‘shifting gears’ so to speak.”

For myself, by coincidence reading Eco straight after Healy, firstly Eco shines brilliantly! Then, inseparably, both he and Healy equally. Incidentally, Eco’s Serendipities is a great book. Eco generously allows for an ’empirical reader’ as well as a model reader (and, of course, neither exist in their pure state). The empirical reader is, in the fictional woods, very likely to read the paths using criteria drawn from their private life (that is, by projecting onto the text what I.A. Richards called’mnemonic irrelevancies’), adding ‘meaning’ to a text that isn’t supposed to be there. Healy welcomes such ‘intrusions’ not as distortions but to add to what is a created liquiity. (And Eco’s brilliant ‘grid’, as he reminds us, theory, template is no use at all when you submit to the pull of the actual text, its discourse, its music.)

I finished reading Banished Misfortune happily aware I would be revisiting. Some of the stories do work extremely well at the level of story (yes, I know it’s a very crude distinction) but all of them contain the refractions of a single discourse. The Tenant is geometrically apparent in its plot and story. The empirical reader could well enjoy Bad Day at Black Rock meets Dad’ Army, and why not? There are many stories of strangers coming into small towns, dreadful tension beneath the public order. Healy does it well, also replay in the motif that plays through much of his writing about identity, history and the instability of the present. Tension is achieved formally, but where Healy describes psychic states very thickly in thinly drawn characters  the tension of Northern Ireland’s ‘troubles’ are located at the personal level; history and the reality’ of life are put, not to much in counterpoint as counterpart.

Always,  this historical dimension, really a question of identity, memory, is begun with the individual, with feeling, with personal sense of being. Yet this is different from the cosy concept of fixed person, fixed mind: the mind itself is free floating, as the reader’s perceptions are tilted, misted, disoriented int ime, so too the person who is reading’s mind, being; so too the writer’s; so too the human. And though you can’t ever really know that much even about yourself, as your Dad might have told you, “In a foot of land there’s a square mile of learning.”


A few quotations:

I have lived with faith yet never found its expiation. If I have discovered anything it is that life is bare and vital, embroidered by language and laughter, and still so quick that no image can satisfy or symbol call up all the longings. I am at least free of association. Names have fallen away. The village people have become like shadows, like stains years old. Stains not of blood, for those are the city people walking the streets, alive and caricatured, but the village shadows are old friends, like decaying domestic matter.

(Note the above contrast between ‘real life’ city folk as caricatures and the shadowy, ‘decaying’, ‘stained’ humanity he feels at home in.)

No hint of flesh or hair could persuade me that I existed at twenty, nor companion at forty give evidence of my worth. Nor could I defend myself from reality, when, as some part of me chooses to consider the exciting and deepening possibilities of my life ahead, there for one terrifying moment remains only my life before. And from these unwilled insights, emerges myself, unwilled, judged, unreasonable, and from this flow the lives of other people.

And there is an important double meaning, I think to the phrase “from this flow the lives of other people”: our mutual humanity, and the nothingness from which the writer weaves a narrative.

I’ll be returning to this review. May buy an extra copy for the bath!

Dermot Healy: Sudden Times

I’ve been away from reading literature for a while apart from some poetry, Wallace Stevens and the like; I’ve been reading philosophy instead, and – as has happened in my life before – felt a distaste for literature and its accoutrements. My return was prompted by somebody slipping me a copy of this novel after having extolled Healy for a year. I read it in 24 hours and loved it. I’m certainly on my way to reading more of the Irishman, and want to retain some initial responses at this stage, and concentrate upon his formal elegance. I think too that a complete appraisal of the novel would require close attention to its narratives and hence retelling the story.

What may be said, however, is that there are two distinct narratives. You can think of all ‘flashbacks’ as being intertwined with the present but here there is something more complex going on. The book is ghosted from the protagonist’s mind wherein the narratives of self and identity shift and vaporise, where stability is unattainable, and memory is perception is memory. One is brought close into unease and it would be tempting for the overly sensitive reader to locate the instabilities within some secure classificatory scheme of pathologies such as paranoia, schizotypical or psychotic anxiety. A differently sensitive reader may share the prismatic dislocation of reality.

That ‘reality’ is of place, of relationships, of self incorporating all contingencies, and a removal of privileged perspective. At a naturalistic level the novel is largely set in shabby urban backroads, much on building sites, temporary structures, wastegrounds; signs predominate: shop signs, warning notices, advertisements; these sharply quotidian images are as fragmented as their counterparts in ‘mind’. The geography of the city becomes as a text or palimpsest, upon which the protagonist moves or reads for meaning, carrying his bare necessities, but carrying too the mazeways or palimpsests of the accidents and contingencies that  thicken to  weight the apprehension of some destiny beyond his control.

One is deeply sympathetic to this wanderer,  an innocent abroad enmeshed by circumstance. Loss is stark and brutal (there is some grotesque imagery in the novel, yet this too is seen refracted, not, as it were,  full on; certainly there is no appeal to sentimental or stock response techniques to evoke cheap horror) To some extent as the meshes and webs thicken and stick, response becomes numbed, muted, autistic, conventional. Relating to an other human being – full on – proves, after all, to be one of the most difficult tasks that face us.

Appropriately, there are several minor narrative discourses sliding over each other. In particular, a court room cross examination ironically represents transparent naturalism only to reveal itself in every sentence as an absurd distortion of the truth. On this last piece of theatre,  language is seen as crucial to the form of the novel. The shadows, fantasies, surreal elements of the protagonist’s encounter with the (imagined reality of) a ‘world out there’, have no words, no public, off the shelf, conventional containers of expression to shape feelings and perceptions. That there is no such thing as a private language is shown to be horribly true; in the outer theatre, it is the wrong word said at the wrong time which causes so much tragedy. Words are devestating. There is always the implication of a slippery disjunction between expressed language and what was thought, or what was nearly said, or what one wished one hadn’t said, or, most devestating of all,  between what was said as a mere necessity to say something while knowing that there were no words that could be said.

It would be good if we could read stories not in serial time but absorb them all at once, like a dream. What we can see taking this book as far as we are able as a whole is that it’s a powerful portrait, frozen like an image on the other side of a window,  of a mind, of a human being, whose past narrative and present narrative are not only related but are the same. This is a great novel,  possibly deserving to be called tragic.