Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner


I mentioned in my post about Optic Nerve that I was reading this book as well for the Meadows Museum’s new book club. I finished it weeks ago but I wanted to wait to talk about it until after the book club discussion, which took place two nights ago. The books were chosen by one of the two owners of an independent bookstore in Dallas called Wild Detectives. Both owners are from Spain and they created this space to be a hangout for book lovers with a cafe and lots of programming to keep people and keep them talking to one another. So, I’m sure that times are tough for the bookstore as they are for so many small businesses.

Ben Lerner is a poet, and this is his first novel. It is a slim 181 pages. A first-person narrator who is young(ish) poet who is in Madrid because he has received an important fellowship to live there for a year and complete a project he had proposed. (Ben Lerner was a Fulbright Scholar in Spain. Write what you know.) One of the questions we were asked was, “Do you like this character?” No was the general consensus because he is flawed, sometimes hilariously flawed, I thought. I was just about the only person to cut him some slack. I got frustrated about him telling lies when he got into tight spots. He hadn’t learned much Spanish before he arrived in Spain and that accounts for him getting into quite a few of those tight spots. I’ve never seen an author depict a character’s struggle to understand people speaking around him at speed. He surfs the nouns, catching a word like “sister” and then trying to figure out what is being said about this person’s sister: coming to visit, getting married, sick? This runs through the book and lessens as he picks up a lot of Spanish by being immersed in it.

Of course, how could I not cut a person who carries around John Ashbery’s collected poems some slack? There is a lovely quotation from an Ashbery poem and an analysis of his work that takes up two pages in this book. I marked that spot.

I thought my writer friends might be as interested as I was in this description of Adam’s poetic practice while he is in Spain:

“Then I’d walk a few blocks to El Retiro, the city’s central part, find a bench, take out my notebooks, the pocket dictionary, Lorca, and get high…On these days I worked on what I called translation. I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever world I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the arc of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo,” which became “Under the arc of the cello”). I then braided fragments of the prose I kept in my second notebook with the translations I had thus produced (“Under the arc of the cello / I open the Lorca at random,” and so on).”

I never would have found my way to this book but for the Wild Detectives. Oh, and it is set at the time of the 2004 Madrid train bombings and their aftermath. I had to look this up because I did not know about them. So, that’s something, too.

13 comments on “Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner”

  1. Thank you Wild Detectives for bringing this very cool book to Teri’s attention and now mine. I am going to head to the library to see if this is around. I love both the Ashbery ref and his process that you share in your post– I love learning about how people write. There is no end to Possibility!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Borkali, I read the library’s copy of this book but I have it on order from The Wild Detectives, along with the other two books we’ll discuss in November and December. I should have bought them there initially but my library habit runs deep. I’ve been planning to send it to you because I thought you’d like it.

      I had the weirdest experience with this book. I had started to read it, but the name of the author had not registered at all, and one day two ModPoers brought up the name of a poet I thought I hadn’t heard of: Ben Lerner. I intended to look him up but it slipped away. And then I picked the book up from my nightstand to continue reading and saw on the cover “Leaving the Atocha Station Ben Lerner.” I laughed out loud. What a world we live in.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. You are so kind ๐Ÿ™‚ I am excited to get to know Ben Lerner’s first novel – when I read your review the name felt familiar and you mention he’s a poet, but it’s even better when we are so immersed in reading and poetry we can’t remember what is on our nightstand. It reminds me of reading The Chicken Chronicles for too long before fully realizing (the) Alice Walker named her chicken Gertrude Stein!

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I don’t have a great explanation but for some reason this post brought me back to A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava – I read it in 2013, gave it away, and haven’t bumped into it again. I read it as part of my first 10 books in 10 weeks reading challenge that someone was hosting– it was that summer reading that inspired me to start this blog. To find the title of this book I actually found my first 10 books in 10 weeks list:

    1) Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
    2) Irma Voth, Miriam Toews
    3) Poor Folk, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    4) A Naked Singularity, Sergio De La Pava
    5) The Dead Emcee Scrolls, Saul Williams
    6) Gasoline, Gregory Corso
    7) Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a limpieza in Colombia, Michael Taussig
    ย 8)ย Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller
    9) In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck
    10) The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell

    Random Saturday fun! ๐Ÿ˜€

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Don’t you have the good records! Did you like Cloud Atlas, Borkali? Good to know the genesis of this that I value so much.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I did enjoy Cloud Atlas — it was far outside my comfort zone, a good friend had told me it was her favorite book, which gave me much motivation to see why ๐Ÿ™‚ Did you like it? I never saw the movie.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Placed my hold for this at the Woodland Public Library- 2/2 ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m position 16/19 for Humankind: A hopeful story — worth the wait ๐Ÿ˜€


  4. This is a gentle read, Teri – I picked up my copy over the weekend and am cruising through these sumptuous prose. Will be back once I’m all the way through…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad the library came through because I haven’t gotten on the stick to get the book in the mail to you. It’s in a box and I’ve made an address label…and I’ve had sender’s block. I have another book in the same status, too: The Weight of Ink. I borrowed it from a docent friend having no thought that a pandemic would keep me from returning it. So my plan is to mail it back to her, plan being the operative word.


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