The most important—and surprising—thing about this issue of The Paris Review: Roberto Bolaño’s lost novel.
This is very exciting for fans of the Chilean writer (I happen to be a somewhat obsessive one) and even more so because The Paris Review will be publishing this “lost” novel in its entirety over the course of four issues. Exciting because it’s Bolaño, but also because it’s the first serialized novel The Paris Review has published in forty years!
When a writer dies (as Bolaño did in 2003) not only do we mourn the loss of a great mind, but we mourn the loss of all the work that he would have produced had he lived. It’s so lucky that this manuscript, called The Third Reich, surfaced two years ago. (And unlike, say, The Pale King, it appears to have been complete.) Bolaño wrote it in 1989, and this issue of The Paris Review contains the first sixty-three pages.
According to the editors, “That the novel exists in typescript (and that Bolaño retyped the first sixty pages when he bought his first computer in 1995) suggests that he wished to see it published during his lifetime. Why he never did is anyone’s guess. From the first sentence, The Third Reich bears his hallmarks. The irony, the atmosphere of erotic anxiety, the dream logic shading into nightmare, the feckless, unreliable narrator: all prefigure his later work.”
This is a great description, and true; it does bear all of his hallmarks, and is one of the most compelling, and funniest, pieces I’ve ever read by Bolaño. In Part One of the novel, we meet the German narrator, Udo Berger, a war-game champion, and would-be writer, who is vacationing on the Spanish coast with his girlfriend Ingeborg. Udo and Ingeborg, partly out of boredom, partly out of curiosity, become involved with another German couple, also on vacation at a neighboring hotel. The relationship between Udo and the German couple is fascinating, but like most of Bolaño’s work, there is a deeper mystery simmering below the action, and as we near the end of this section, Udo strikes up an inexplicable sort of friendship with the enigmatic local boatman, El Quemado.
A hardcover of the entire translation will be published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux at the end of the year. But it’s so heartening to see The Paris Review putting this into the world in a serialized form. I feel nostalgic for the days when serializing was commonplace, a time I really can’t feel nostalgic for because I never actually lived through it. Maybe it’s just my own romanticized version of how it was back then, but it feels like a new generation will be able to understand the weird magic that comes from serialized novels. Strangely, it feels analogous to TV—as if I’ve just seen a really amazing season finale, and now I have to wait three months to see the next season. I look forward to the next bit of this novel, and I can’t think of a better place for The Third Reich to have found a home.
There are a couple other things of note in this issue. The interview with Ann Beattie is particularly good. (Again, I’m a huge Ann Beattie fan, so this issue speaks to my own bias in more ways than one.) But even those not familiar with Beattie’s work will get something out of this thoughtful interview.
When asked about non-sequitur moments in her fiction, she says, “Often I use a non sequitur or a stranger saying something out of the blue as a way to change the emotional register. My students make fun of me for saying. I’ve read this carefully now, and you’ve written it carefully—too carefully. The phone never rings, people get to talk for four pages without interruption. We’re used to daily life being the fire truck coming by with its deafening siren. To put the siren in fiction—and not at the convenient moment, but maybe a minute before the convenient moment, or way after the convenient moment—is a kind of acknowledgement to the reader that you’re aware there’s another life out there that’s out of control. As a writer, it’s an advantage to work within open-ended, messy moments.”
So much of Beattie’s work is about relationships, about marriage, and tragedy within families, it’s interesting to read about the possibility of happy relationships in her stories. Beattie says, “I do know of happy marriages, including mine. But why write about something like that? I can’t imagine writing, without irony, about people who are happy all the time.” In some sense, this feels like the number one rule of all good fiction. The interview is full of moments like this, insights into the process of writing, as well as Beattie’s own perspective on her work, especially her (somewhat arbitrary) classification as a minimalist.
The other remarkable thing in this issue—and I call it a thing because I don’t know how to classify it—is Édouard Levé’s, “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue.” Is it a story, an essay, a bit of memoir, a manifesto, a list? The Paris Review classifies it as a “document” which feels like far too clinical of a term, too cold for what is one of the most touching, beautiful things I’ve ever read. It’s a selection from Levé’s book, Autoportrait (2002), which the French artist wrote while he was traveling across America, taking photographs that became the book, Série Amérique, a collection of photos of small American cities named after cities in other countries (such as Paris, Texas).
It’s difficult to choose a quote because the entire thing is so incredible, but this is a fairly lengthy bit that is representative of the whole piece: “I would rather be bored alone than with someone else. I roam empty places and eat in deserted restaurants. I do not say “A is better than B” but “I prefer A to B.” I never stop comparing. When I am returning home from a trip, the best part is not going through the airport or getting home, but the taxi ride in between: you’re still traveling but not really. I sing badly, so I don’t sing. I had an idea for a Dream Museum. I do not believe the wisdom of the sages will be lost. I once tried to make a book-museum of vernacular writing, it reproduced handwritten messages from unknown people, classed by type: flyers about lost animals, justifications left on windshields for parking cops to avoid paying the meter, desperate pleas for witnesses, announcements of a change in management, office messages, home messages, messages to send oneself. I cannot sleep beside someone who moves around, snores, breathes heavily or steals the covers. I can sleep with my arms around someone who doesn’t move. I have attempted suicide once. I have been tempted four times to attempt it. The distant sound of a lawn mower in summer brings back happy childhood memories. I am bad at throwing.” And the selection goes on like this for seven pages.
Reading just these few pages of Levé’s work (a writer I wasn’t familiar with before) has made me feel like I just discovered my new favorite writer. Levé’s last book, Suicide (finished ten days before he committed suicide) was published in English last month. His book Self-Portrait will be published in English next year.
There’s more going on in this issue: a story by Joshua Cohen, an interview with nonfiction writer, Janet Malcolm, a slew of new poetry, an amazing collection of collage art, and an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I’ve never picked up a copy of The Paris Review and not found something worthwhile in its pages, but this is the first issue I’ve read since Lorin Stein took over as editor about a year ago. I’m not entirely sure why The Paris Review fell out of my regular reading pile, but it may have been because it never surprised me. It was always good. It was always smart, always interesting, but it was never surprising. It’s nice to encounter a literary magazine that carries a few surprises with it. After all, isn’t literature supposed to surprise us?